Oh! Sweet Nuthin’: Claustrophobia

Opinion by Roseann Cima
Aug. 5, 2010, 7:55 a.m.

Oh! Sweet Nuthin': ClaustrophobiaThree stories, intended to provoke awe:

The first is borrowed. One Lucas Hoewner comes to Stanford from Germany during winter quarter to visit friends. He stays for more than a month, ends up bonding fairly well with quite a few people and has a small farewell party before going home. Bill Rowan ‘11, one of Hoewner’s new friends, leaves for Stanford in Berlin weeks later, and reports back, via Skype, that he’s run into Hoewner there.

The second is mine. I spent a month in Mexico the summer before my freshman year. I stayed at a relatively remote bed and breakfast in a college town that I hadn’t heard of before planning the trip. There are about eight boarders, and we and the family formed a kind of clique for my brief stay in town. We friend on Facebook, and I lose contact. Two years later, I make a new Stanford friend. He plays slide guitar, he took a gap year and kept bees in Hawaii. Of the six Facebook friends we share, one of them, one of his closest friends from high school, lived with me in Guanajuato.

The third is the best and was downright stolen. Sebastian Anctil ’10 (not his real name) Eurotrips the summer before his senior year. He starts in Barcelona and at some point in time ends up couchsurfing in Germany. It is there, in a co-op, that he first hears of the Drunken American that has been taking advantage of cooperative communities across the German countryside. Eventually, Anctil meets him. Or rather, he bursts into a co-op that had thrown him out, picks Anctil out as an American, and, in a dry, raspy voice, demands to know where Anctil is from and what he does. Anctil says he’s a student. He is asked where and forced to drop the Stanford bomb.

First the response sounds like unusual, though not unheard-of posturing. “Stanford, huh? I went to Stanford.” Then the Drunken American smirks and asks, “Do you know Chi Theta Chi?”

I no longer walk away from this kind of story thinking there must be kind of cosmic plan to it all. But I do usually laugh, shout, “What?! No!” and wonder at the odds. No matter what, I’m impressed. What follows is an explanation of why I shouldn’t be. At least, not as much as I am.

Starting with the easiest: the Stanford friends Hoewner was visiting he had met, originally, through the Sprach Partner program when they were studying in Berlin. Stanford students are paired with German undergraduates to practice oral conversation in German and in English. Rowan encountered Hoewner his first day of school, when they were both milling about looking for their new Sprach Partners. It would’ve been more remarkable if they hadn’t seen one another.

Mine can also be explained, though not quite so easily. The housemate was from Ann Arbor, the daughter of a professor, and it made a lot of sense that she’d have at least one close friend going to Stanford. That I’d eventually meet him was also pretty predictable, too. Guanajuato’s a city where the cutest boys have dreadlocks and the bar of choice is decorated with art made out of trash. Our bed and breakfast was advertised as “vegetarian friendly.” Of course her Bay-Area-bound high school friend was a co-op-er, just like me. And when you think about it, the world of academic world-traveling American West hippies is relatively small.

Finally, I’ll attempt Anctil’s. There are only so many ways to get through Germany on little to no money. But dropouts, particularly former Theta Chis, are likely to want to travel. They are also likely to have little to no money to spend. Germany, known for beer and electronica, is probably a pretty popular destination. Anctil was interested in cooperative communities and had been staying in a lot of these places. That he eventually came crashing into one of the less-savory satellites somewhere in Europe was almost inevitable. They probably saw the same post on couchsurfing.org.

These are all cases of abroad being much narrower than it seems and home being much bigger. Your social network might feel like a small village, in the scope of the world, but if you’ve met about 700 people (my number of Facebook friends), and on average each of them has met 500 unique individuals–there will, of course, be some overlap–the number of people who know people you know is about 350,000. That’s no village. That’s Anaheim, Calif. If you extend this to include people who know the institutions you consider yourself a part of, the number grows even more. If Stanford is a village, it’s one that rotates in thousands of new residents every year.

There are also only so many things these people do. Only so many professions, so many travel destinations. They watch the same YouTube videos, read the same articles, visit the same websites. We live in a world in which connections are easier to establish and to maintain at a distance, and for better or worse it’s becoming harder and harder to find what a person from your “village” might consider virgin territory. The world really is getting smaller. At least, it is for us.

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