By Courtney Naliboff
On Christmas Day, Bill, Penrose, and I found ourselves swimming in a warm pool in a cold city.
Rather than visit family in San Diego, which we did last winter, or stay on island, which we’ve often done in the past, I thought it would be fun to go to a sparkling, wintry place imbued with Christmasy magic. Somewhere with the charm of a European village, but without the price tag and necessity of getting into a terrible sky tube.
So, Montreal it was. Six and a half hours driving north through beautiful Western Maine and northern New Hampshire, and we arrived in what might as well be France. We surprised Penrose with tickets to see The Nutcracker, explored neighborhoods, ate bagels, heard a boys’ choir, went ice skating, and of course spent time in the hotel pool.
That’s where we were when a young boy and his parents entered the room. Penrose’s eyes lit up. She loves spending time with her parents, but after a few days without her school friends she was craving the company of other kids. As he climbed into the pool, she quickly paddled over.
“Hello! My name is Penrose! What’s yours?”
He responded, prompted in French by his parents. Within minutes, they were playing an elaborate game with floating animal-shaped sponges and pool noodles.
Opportunities to meet new kids are few and far between on an island. Yes, we have summer residents coming and going, but before long they become familiar friends. And many of our kids don’t develop the skill set needed to go up to a new face and say “Hello! What’s your name?”
Travel, the kind of travel that involves interacting with people in communities, at cultural events, or even in a hotel, is a remedy for this. Whether with family or on a school exchange, entering a new place and speaking with people helps overcome the insular fear many of us islanders develop after years of easy interactions with known quantities. Taking public transportation, ordering food at a neighborhood restaurant, even asking for directions are all opportunities to practice making that first move. Sports and theater competitions provide similar opportunities for kids, if they choose to leave the comfort of their team or school group.
The simple act of introducing yourself to someone and initiating a social interaction can make all the difference to new families moving to these insular island communities. It can mean a successful experience for an exchange student or magnet students attempting to integrate into a group of kids who might have been together since preschool, or are even all related to each other. And of course, it’s beneficial to the kids who reach out as they make new connections and expand their circle of friends.
Pen and her new friend played in the water for an hour, as both sets of parents kept an eye out. We went our separate ways in late afternoon, and over dumplings in Montreal’s charming and bustling Quartiér Chinois she reflected on her experience.
“I miss my new friend,” she said. “I loved playing with him.”
For her, connecting with a peer was just as meaningful as any sight-seeing, museum, or ballet. We’ll keep giving her opportunities to practice saying hello and including a new friend in her life by taking her to new places and spending time among people.
Courtney Naliboff lives, writes, and teaches on North Haven.