IT WAS NEW YEAR’S DAY in Quebec City, and everything was closed. Most people were recovering from the night before. My friends and I didn’t want to do nothing, but we also had no clue where to go, and it had already snowed 4 inches with no sign of stopping. Four of us stood on the doorstep of our hostel studying our GPS’, trying to find anything that might resemble a good time.
Actually, Joe from Hoboken, a hot-headed former frat bro specializing in fabricated stories from his glory days, was busy swiping on Tinder. “Hey, got one already!” he said. A girl named Cecile, 6 miles away. We couldn’t fathom how Tinder would get us anywhere that night, but Joe was two steps ahead. We were supposed to meet the girl at a bus stop nearby so she could “show us to her favorite restaurant”, and already we groaned that it was a waste of time, that she wouldn’t show up, that the whole thing was a stupid idea.
Cecile, a local Quebecois, met us at the bus stop. Wasting no time with awkward small-talk, she immediately led us through the slippery, cobblestone streets, toward a bar she knew would be open. Joe did his best to smooth-talk her, but she took her role as tour guide seriously, stopping at old buildings and explaining that they had been military strongholds, or nightclubs that had burned down, or telling other real stories about the real neighborhoods we were in. One of the buildings (which apparently had been a brothel till recently) was our destination. It looked more like an old train depot than a bar.
It wasn’t busy—there were maybe six or seven locals drinking there—but we were just happy to be out of the cold. Cecile’s friends were recovering from their New Year’s festivities and she wanted some excitement, even if that excitement came in the form of playing guide to four American tourists. She recommended a Quebecois beer called Fin du Monde, which quickly became one of our favorites; we learned about the Quebec-Ontario rivalry; she gave us recommendations for the following night; and after a few beers we parted ways, to Joe’s disappointment.
When I look back on that trip, it’s not partying on New Year’s Eve that leaps to the foreground; it’s walking through the snow with Cecile. It’s sitting in a dead bar with a girl we knew nothing about, and who knew nothing about us. Since then, I’ve viewed Tinder as another layer of travel —- as a resource to be used not only as an alternative to meeting girls at bars, but to finding your way around a strange city, getting recommendations from knowledgeable locals, and having unpredictable experiences.
My most stand-out Tinder encounter happened two years later, in Bulgaria. It was 10pm. My friend and I had just arrived in Sofia on a 13-hour flight from Boston, and were planning to wake up early to start a road trip west through the Balkans. But we had just come halfway around the world and couldn’t even think of sleeping. We made a Tinder Social group—a new feature where you can swipe as a group, and look for other groups—and soon we had matched with two girls. I jokingly suggested they pick us up at our hotel and drive us into the city, and to my utter shock, the response was, “Are you ready now? You are on our way, more or less.”
We were a little suspicious. I had never been to Eastern Europe before, but I’d heard some stories about con artists and thieves. My friend and I looked at each other as if to say, “Is this a horrible idea?” We had thought we would be asleep two hours ago, yet now we were debating whether to get in a car with random Bulgarian girls at midnight. In the end, we chose the girls.
Like with Cecile, meeting Ivana and Tsveta wasn’t nearly as awkward as expected. They were both 24-year-old doctors who spoke perfect English, and chauffeuring a couple of Americans in the middle of the night seemed to feel natural to them. First, we stopped at an old building next to an abandoned park to pick up a classmate of theirs. The only sounds came from an apartment where couples argued in Bulgarian, and from the static-heavy radio. A guy named Grigor crammed in the back seat with us and immediately lit up a cigarette.
As we finally crossed into the city, our new Bulgarian friends gave us their thoughts, suggestions, and biases on the various countries we were visiting on our trip.
“Serbians are cockroaches,” Ivana said firmly.
Grigor nodded. “Not as bad as Macedonians—crazy bastards.”
Tsveta was quiet, but when she heard we would be passing through Albania, she muttered something about corruption and the mob. (Of course, people in those countries were no kinder when I asked them about Bulgarians. And consider Manhattanites’ views on the American Heartland, and vice versa.)
When we arrived in the center of Sofia, they pointed out the nearest ATM, the best pizza (a priority for me), and what bars we should check out when we returned the following week. We went to an outdoor venue called The Cocktail Bar, met more of their classmates, and were kindly driven home a few hours later at 3 a.m. Six hours before, we’d still been in the airport, looking forward to a good night’s sleep.
Will you meet some weirdos on Tinder? Sure. Will you find a Taiwanese guy who wants to bring you home to his entire extended family (as happened to a friend of mine)? Of course. And you should always exercise caution. But if you take a chance, a journey through a Quebec blizzard, or midnight drive through Bulgaria, are just a swipe away.