You arrive in a new city, deposit your bags, and head downstairs to the hostel lounge to figure out what to do next. Unsurprisingly, the lobby is filled with young travelers looking to do exactly the same things you are: explore the city, experience the culture, get drunk.
You join up with a few of them heading out soon, all from a motley selection of countries with exciting accents. You hear about their itineraries, offer tips to those going the direction you came from, make fun of national stereotypes, and generally revel in meeting new people who line up with your current goals yet are different in so many tiny ways.
You get lost together, take pictures together, drink together, and stumble back to the hostel in the wee hours of the night, comfortable with your new friends in an unfamiliar country.
The next morning you bid goodbye, or happily board the same bus or flight to do it all over again in the next town. After you part ways, you exchange contact information and promise to host one another in your respective cities.
But to be honest, you’re probably never going to see each other again.
“But I saved up my money all last year and visited my best friend from camp at his flat in Sweden this summer!” you protest. Great, but what about your old counselor from Ireland, the Belgian buddy you met in Texas, that exchange student from Germany? Even itineraries scheduled around friendly couches won’t cover all your foreign friends — the world is too big and time always too short. Plus, you’ll encounter the happy paradox of making new friends every time you go visit your old ones.
No, except for those few special people you meet on the road who are true friends who just happen to be from another country (rather than the token foreigner befriended for novelty), you won’t see most of your new buddies ever again. Which is odd, because you’ve spent some of the highlights of your life with these people.
Together, you’ve watched the sun set at Cafe Del Mar in Ibiza, hiked ‘the World’s Most Dangerous Walkway’ near Malaga, and endured soul-crushingly long bumpy bus rides winding through minefield-covered Balkan mountains. Shared hardship and elation such as these forge the strongest memories and the strongest friendships, which is why you thought your impromptu road trip partner with the unpronounceable last name was a shoe-in for best man at your wedding. Except you haven’t talked to him once since you got home.
This is partly due to insurmountable geography, but mostly it’s because he wasn’t really your friend in the first place. You didn’t drive each other crazy, but let’s face it, it was more the fact that you were at the same place at the same time trying to do the same thing than it was mutual affection. Your shared emotions drove you closer, but there was no foundation of true camaraderie to build on — the bulk of your interactions revolved around figuring out the correct way to hail a cab in Kazakhstan. He was a friend of convenience.
There’s nothing wrong with this kind of friendship, mind, as long as you don’t mistake it for the real thing. Go ahead and take them up on their promise to host you in the homeland — I think you’ll find they’re not willing to give you more than a few hours of the day when there’s daily life to attend to. It’s easy to explore the town together when that’s what you came to do, but back at home, thousands of half-obligations make the scruffy couch guest an intrusion rather than a pleasure.
There’s a saying: “Both fish and in-laws start to smell after three days.” In-laws have a lot in common with hostel friends — you were thrown together by chance, not choice. True friends remain a pleasure even after you’ve put up with their smelly socks for 48 hours.
All this comes off as overly harsh; don’t let it dissuade you from chatting up your bunk and bus mates. You’ll still have a great time making fun of each other’s differences and learning about the world with them. Great times are great times, no matter the company. Plus, you’ll also encounter those special someones who share more in common with you than the plan for the evening. I met one of my best friends in the middle of the night, both of us miserably kept awake by the restless sleeper above us in a USSR-manufactured creaky hostel bunk.
Friends like these are one in many — just make sure you know who’s who before you make that 4am phone call on which true friendship is tested. Oh, and you should probably check what continent they’re on.