The story of the troll in the men’s room in Vienna is a good example of one of those experiences that occur between traveling companions that last long beyond your trip. These shared experiences become shorthand or secret code between those that were there.
Often you try to explain the experience to others. In the best cases, your listeners will nod, maybe laugh appropriately and possibly get some sense of what happened and why it mattered to you. They become insiders to your story.
At other times, they will hear your words but stare dully as if listening to a lecture on horticultural policy in the EU and the implications on the European debt crisis. Conversely, they may look at you, eyebrows up almost to their widow’s peak and mouth agape as if you had just said that you were dating Kim Kardashian and that was a good thing.
In reality, it doesn’t matter.
Sometimes inside jokes – for that’s essentially what these are – apply only to you or those on the inside. Other times, even those on the outside can appreciate them even if they weren’t there and in a small way become insiders to your story.
Take the urban legend that led to Travelocity’s mascot, the traveling gnome. The way I heard the story years ago, a woman looks out her front window one morning and discovers that one her Snow White and the Seven Dwarves lawn ornaments is missing. I believe the victim was Grumpy, which only seems appropriate. She assumes vandals, neighborhood kids or a gardener with a grudge have taken the painted, flat, metal little guy and left her with only the happy dwarves.
But she’s wrong.
A year later – a full year, mind you – Grumpy is back in his regular spot in the lineup only now he has an envelope taped to his hand. Inside the envelope are photographs of Grumpy all over the place – in front of London Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, the Roman Coliseum, etc. She never learns the identity of the dwarfnappers.
When I first heard the story, I pictured the scene from the perspective of the homeowner. But now I think about it from the vantage of those who packed Grumpy along with them and set him up for shots all over the world.
I suspect their little inside joke got better and better as they went along. I also suspect they still laugh about it today. I know I do, and I’m on the outside of it.
So a few weeks ago when my wife and I took a long weekend trip down to Portland, OR, I had to laugh myself when I came across the scene in the photos. Here, on a busy commercial street was a little toy horse tied up to the old hitching post still embedded in the curb.
Did the perpetrator do it for his or her own sake? Did they do it alone or with friends? Were they one of the nearby shop owners who could peer out and see if anyone noticed their little horse? Or did someone do it and walk away never to know the surprise and delight this little scene would provide to a passerby like me?
I’ll likely never know.
I’m just glad that someone out there recognized the value of shared humor, even for a stranger like me that stands on the outside of their inside joke. I may not have instigated it, but I can still participate in my own way, make it part of my own story and for that moment, feel just a little bit like an insider.