Book #95: The Comfort of Strangers

I read and loved Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and I found his Enduring Love really captivating and creepy, but I don’t know what to make of The Comfort of Strangers.

I read it in a day and when I was finished I set it aside and muttered, “Well, that was. . . something.”

Unmarried lovers Colin and Mary go on vacation to an ancient, unnamed city by the seaside (read: Venice. It has canals and winding passageways and a huge square with a round-domed cathedral and a tall clock tower. It’s definitely Venice). They meet and befriend some *interesting* locals and a little bit of not-so-good things ensue.

If you have a fear of traveling and harbor any anxiety about ever leaving home and having to interact with strangers, you probably shouldn’t read this book. Just like Enduring Love made me really nervous about making eye contact with strangers who might later be able to learn my name, The Comfort of Strangers made me feel like maybe I should never ever talk to anybody, ever.

I definitely was not enjoying how much Colin and Mary seemed unable to get around Venice – sorry, WHATEVER UNNAMED CITY they were in – by themselves. There’s much talk of maps and being hopelessly lost and confused. Venice is a tad confusing, but I kept thinking, come on, guys, there’s no way you could POSSIBLY be that useless. I guess their general ineptitude at being abroad and being able to function in any way made them vulnerable to a friendship with locals who had less-than-innocent motives, but I still feel like any one with any sort of a brain would realize the danger well before they did. It was kind of like those horror movies where you’re like, “Clearly you shouldn’t go into that basement to investigate the noise,” but they do anyway. Every time.

What struck me most about this story is how little, during my travels, I ever worried about the people I met. I’ve traveled abroad my myself a couple times. I’ve always met interesting people and even made friends just by talking with people in hostels or on the train. Granted, I’ve only ever met and hung out with strangers in public, and I have pretty good “wow, you’re a creep, look at that I have a train to catch and it leaves SO SOON, I have to run, bye!” instincts. I do know people who have gone abroad and wound up couchsurfing with strangers, though. Of course, like I said, this is always after meeting them in public first. It’s a tough balance, because locals know the coolest places to go, and it’s kind of fun to discover the “real” city and go to local hangouts instead of overpriced tourist traps where you only meet other tourists.

I do have one “comfort of strangers”-esque story that obviously worked out since I’m still here. Mom, Dad, if you’re reading this, stop.

The summer I spent in Germany, my friend Heidi and I went to Munich. We went to Catholic mass on Sunday morning before our train left. During Mass, a man sat next to us and started talking. I whispered that we didn’t speak German, and he immediately got excited and switched to English. “I was saying, his Bavarian accent is so bad. I can hardly understand him and I grew up here.”

We had a few hours to kill before our train left, and he insisted on taking us to the only open cafe in the neighborhood for coffee. He was so excited to meet and talk with Americans. The dude turned out to be pretty weird. First he started talking about the time he snuck onto a boat and smuggled Bibles into the Soviet Union in the 70s, and then he switched to talking about how 9/11 was a CIA conspiracy. Soon he was regaling us with the secret plot about how the Turkish people were taking over Germany and soon they’d have political control. Heidi and I were so torn between politeness, confusion, and general thoughts of “WHAT in the heck?!” that we kind of just sat there.

At the time, she seemed completely at ease, but I was nervous and constantly watching the time, hoping that soon we could escape with the excuse that we had to get to the Ubahn and we wanted to be early to the train station. I’ve since learned that she was just as nervous about the situation as I was, but was taking her “everything’s cool, this is fine” cues from me. I don’t know why we didn’t leave, but one thing led to another and he offered us a ride to the train station and we got in his car.

So there we were, in a car with this dude we’d met like two hours before, in a city we didn’t know very well, going who knows where. I sat in the front with one hand on the door handle, ready to bail out and say, “Peace, hope you can escape” to Heidi and run the hell away from there. The whole time our friend was happily chattering about how we had to return to Munich someday and let him know, he could drive us into the Alps to beautiful places that hardly anyone visited.

We both sat holding our breaths and hoping we were going in the direction of the train station. Fortunately, he let us out at the station just fine and presented us with two books he’d written – one about his Bible-smuggling activities and one about the “truth” behind 9/11. I still have the 9/11 one somewhere.

To this day Heidi and I can’t believe we got into a car with him. It was such a dumb thing to do. Though I’ve met plenty more interesting characters while traveling, I have never since done anything as stupid as that.

Rating: **
Up Next:
 The War of the Worlds


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