Stalin is Not a Good Conversation Starter

A lot of men talk to me in bars. If it sounds like I’m bragging, let me assure you that I’m not because the vast majority of them are twice my age and only half as interesting as whatever book I was reading before they barged in. When they find out I’m a writer, many suggest that I write a book about them and then proceed to tell me a series of mind-numbing personal stories, each of which they end with the line, “And you can quote me on it!”

Such was the case when I crossed paths last week with Casey, a lawyer from Pittsburg who started our conversation by asking, “What are you reading… a romance novel?”

“No,” I answered. “It’s a book about the American Revolution.”

“Well I don’t mean to spoil it for you,” he said. “But the British lost.” Had that joke not been sandwiched between what was — an insult about my reading material — and what was to come — a comment about my having “quite the handshake!” — I might have found that line charming. But I didn’t. Because if there’s one thing I hate more than the insinuation that women read trash, it’s that we’re too delicate to properly shake hands or, worse yet, never had a reason to learn in the first place.

“Well,” I said wryly. “These hands do work.”

And then I looked Casey up and down and saw him for what he was: 800 words of a blog post about all the things men say to young, single women, but would probably never dare utter to another man.

And I’m going to quote him.

“Did you see the Oscars?” Casey asked. “Could you believe that mix up?”

“I didn’t see them,” I answered. “But I heard about the mistake. I can’t believe it! It’s like no one is competent anymore.”

“Coming from a ‘writer’,” he laughed, using air quotes. “Do you even have a job?”

“I do,” I said.

“A paying one?” he asked.

This was the point in the conversation where a wiser, more self-assured woman might have picked up her drink in one hand and her non-fiction in the other and moved to a different table. Or, even better, suggested that he should leave.

Sadly, I’m not yet that woman. I’m still the kind who thinks that walking away from an insult is the same as admitting defeat. It’s not, by the way, but it feels that way, which is why I often find myself answering questions that never should have been asked from people who have no business posing them.

“I don’t want to talk about politics,” is how people like Casey often begin conversations about politics.

“I don’t like Trump,” he continued. “But you know what I do like about him?”

“What?” I asked.

“He’s not Hillary Clinton.”

I laughed. I’ve heard some version of that logic enough times to just accept that HRC is undeniably polarizing — so much so that she makes a man who began his new job with a speech about “American carnage” look appealing. In fact, I could probably guess why Casey hated her so much, why bother? It would be so much more fun to ask.

“How come?” I said.

“Well I’m sick of her face,” he began. “And she’s shrill. And she’s a crook. And she’s so… ambitious.”

“That’s it?” I asked.

“That’s enough!” he said. “I just can’t stand her! I hope she goes into the woods and stays there for the next thirty years. If we’re lucky maybe a hunter will take care of her and we’ll never have to see her again.”

I raised my eyebrows. I’ve heard plenty of nasty things said about Hillary before, but this surprised me. I don’t expect this type of vitriol to come from someone who was both highly educated and well-traveled. Just how, exactly has this person gotten through customs, let alone law school?

“Why?” he asked. “I can’t imagine you’re a fan of hers.”

“I’m not, really,” I admitted. “And I could have gotten behind you if you said you something about national security or Benghazi.”

“Well that too!” he said

“But you didn’t say that,” I argued. “You said you’re sick of her face and you hate her voice. And that you think she’s too ambitious. By the way, when was the last time you said that about a man?”

“I’ve said it about a man,” he answered.

“Who?” I challenged.

He thought for a few seconds. “Stalin.”

I scoffed. “Now you’re just being ridiculous. No matter how much you hate her face, you can’t compare Hillary Clinton and Josef Stalin.”

“Why not?” he asked.

“Because one was a dictator!” I answered. “Who starved his own people. And cut Europe in half. And the other just fucked up her emails.”

“Well most of the country agrees with me,” Casey insisted.

“No, ‘most’ does not,” I corrected, pulling out the air quotes. “She won the popular vote. Don’t forget that.”

“Well it doesn’t matter,” he said.

“It does though,” I said. “If you’re talking about what ‘most’ people think.”

“Well our system doesn’t work that way,” he argued. “Unless you want to change the Constitution.”

“Well they changed it once to let me vote,” I said. “They can change it again to make sure my vote counts the same if I’m in New York or Florida.”

Here’s the only upside to having the same tired argument with a washed up guy in a bar at least once week: You get pretty good at it. And they don’t expect you to be. Because they thought you entered the conversation simply for the romance of it.

“Let’s change the subject,” Casey announced. “How many countries have you been to?”

“Ever?” I asked. “Forty. Or twenty-seven if you meant the number since I started traveling.”

Twenty-seven?!” he shrieked. “In a year? That’s it?!”

I had to hand it to Casey, barely twenty minutes had passed and already he insulted my hobby, my voting history, my career and lifestyle. At least he was efficient.

“Well I like to spend a few weeks in each place,” I said. “And since I work, it takes me a little longer to do all the things on my list.”

“You’re spending a few weeks in Copenhagen?” he asked incredulously. “I did all of Scandinavia in one.”

“Oh wow,” I said. “That’s something.”

“Thanks” he said. “Ever been to Sweden? That’s your next logical stop.”

“Actually, my next logical stop would be Helsinki,” I answered with a smirk. “Because I already paid for it with my lady dollars. But go on, tell me about Sweden.”

“You’d love it,” he said as though that would settle it.

“Well, I was actually thinking about going to Sweden for the day on Friday,” I offered. “I didn’t realize you can get there in 30 minutes by train.”

For the first time in the entire conversation, I was actually being serious. When I left the Copenhagen airport, there were two choices on the train platform: 15 minutes in one direction took you to the city; 15 minutes in the other and you were in Malmo, a city on Sweden’s southern coast.

“Malmo?” he asked. “Don’t bother. I’ve been and it’s not worth it.”

I know this is going to come as a shock, but I didn’t trust Casey’s judgment. So I decided then and there to do the opposite. Malmo here I come.

I’m being facetious when I say that I decided to go to Sweden to spite some old man in a bar. That would be ridiculous. I went so that I could check the Swedish box and bump my number up to 28, which, as it turns out, is probably even more ridiculous because I have no doubt I’ll find my way to that country for a proper visit at some point.

That isn’t how I usually operate. Since I started traveling, I’ve prioritized the quality of my experience over the quantity of countries. I much prefer to spend two or three weeks working through a single city as opposed to blowing through the Balkan countries like a line of coke. But every now and then I look at a map and I say to myself, “Well that’s closer than I thought.” And sometimes that day coincides with one where yet another person sends me a link to the story about the American lady who traveled to all 196 countries in 18 months. And then I officially rethink my position on quantity — namely that I should have more of it.

But I always regret taking the side trips that are motivated more by convenience than actual interest. Because whenever I go somewhere purely for the sake of being able to say that I did, I never get much out of the trip in the present. All I earned during my day in Malmo is a future talking point, and not a particularly interesting one at that.

But here’s the thing: I don’t begrudge anyone who travels to check the box. There are people who will enjoy blasting through “all of Scandinavia” in seven days just as there are people who will prefer to quietly sink a few weeks in Copenhagen. There are those who loathe organized tours and others who wouldn’t leave their own country but for the comfort and safety of a group. Some who like to watch the scenery roll from a bus window and those who get impatient if they beat their suitcase to baggage claim. To each his own.

That’s the beauty about traveling… there’s a million ways to go and no wrong way to do it.

And you can quote me on it.