This post has been sitting in my blog’s Drafts folder since July 2013, when I first met Guillaume. At the time I was a broke freelancer, desiring to travel the world but too scared to leave California. The year after meeting him, I left for South America. It is rough and incomplete, but I decided to just get it out there and share a bit about this world traveler who had such an effect on my own decision to travel.
. . .
It begins where most great friendships do: online.
“Can you give me some tips on visiting Silicon Valley?” he asks me on Twitter.
I have no idea who he is, what he looks like, or even what his real name is. His Twitter name is “Geek World Tour,” and his profile photo shows a cartoon bunny with a Mario Brothers-style mustache.
I ask a few more questions and find out his name is Guillaume, and he’s a French traveler who quit his job to journey across the world in search of the geekiest places. He found me through my blog.
I’m sold. I have to meet him.
. . .
It seems like the perfect place for a self-proclaimed geek to be: the San Francisco Tech Carnival. Well, that and I knew there’d be plenty of people around, so I figured this would be a safe place to meet a complete stranger. So I asked Guillaume to meet me here. I don’t know what I was expecting; I was simply curious.
Guillaume texted me saying he was wearing a black jacket and had a camera. I trust that, somehow, I will know him when I see him.
We both spot each other at the same time and walk toward each other. He’s in his thirties, with dark hair, a beard, and deep green eyes. A DSLR camera is slung across his body, along with a backpack with a Yoshi keychain.
He introduces himself to me and my friend, Krissa.
“Your English is perfect!” I blurt, which is very American of me.
“We learn English in school in France,” he replies.
. . .
Guillaume doesn’t have any plans, so he tags along with us. The Tech Carnival has dozens of games and company booths giving away free stuff.
“This is our goal,” I declare to Krissa. “Get as MANY free things as possible!”
I hungrily grab whatever is in sight—free pens, koozies, stickers, snacks.
When we spot free sunglasses, Krissa grabs three—one for her, one for me, and one for Guillaume. I am giddy over the attainment of yet another free thing.
Guillaume looks at his pair of sunglasses. “I cannot keep this,” he says.
I stare at him in shock. “Why NOT?” I ask.
“I travel with only one backpack. I can’t keep collecting things.”
He goes on to tell me he has just four days’ worth of clothes on him. Before traveling, he gave away about 40% of his clothes, and the rest he packed away in storage in France.
Guillaume places the sunglasses back on the table, much to the confusion of the woman in charge of giving them away.
“No,” she tells him. “They’re free.”
. . .
What strikes me about Guillaume is his easygoing attitude, his carefree spirit. Whenever I ask him what he wants, he simply shrugs and smiles as if to say, “I could literally be happy doing anything right now.”
And he is always smiling, a muted, close-lipped smile, as if he cannot believe his dumb luck, that he, a simple Frenchman, should be standing here right now on this foreign soil, free of any drudgery or commitments.
Since I can’t get him to say what he wants, I insist we get food at Hiyaaa!, a popular Asian food truck in San Francisco.
“It’s supposed to be the SO GOOD!” I tell him and Krissa.
It is the longest line out of all the food trucks, so of course, it has to be the best. And if everyone else wants it, well, then I want it too.
Thirty minutes later, the line has hardly moved. “This is ridiculous!” I shout.
Guillaume just smiles and waits quietly.
I then remember that it was my idea to wait in this line.
Twenty minutes later, we’re still standing in line when I hear Guillaume chuckle.
“What?” I ask him.
He holds up his iPhone with its cracked screen. “Congratulations!” it reads. Guillaume has just won a drawing for free gift cards—the same drawing that both Krissa and I entered. Lucky guy.
. . .
Guillaume relies almost completely on the kindness of strangers.
Just before reaching California, he stopped at the Grand Canyon. He had no place to stay for the night and was planning to sleep in his car, when he came across a young Filipino woman who invited him to stay at her place instead. Here in San Francisco, he’s staying at the house of a French blogger he met and befriended online. He told her about his trip, and she invited him to stay with her and her husband in Burlingame. Even the car he’s using for his cross country trip is borrowed.
It takes a certain amount of trust to live as he does. He has no trouble approaching people and asking for help. When he spots a Google employee (easily identified by his Google T-Shirt), Guillaume walks right up to him and strikes up a conversation. He then asks him if he could get a tour of Google Headquarters in Mountain View. The Googler happily obliges, and gives him his contact info.
Next, Guillaume approaches a Yahoo employee, who also promises to try to help him get a tour of her tech company.
. . .
It is nighttime now, and the Carnival is dying down. Guillaume, Krissa, and I take our food and find seats in the empty Candlestick Park stadium. The mood turns somber as I press Guillaume with more difficult questions.
“Where will you go next?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Not sure. The original plan was Seattle then Baltimore. But I don’t want to rush.” He shrugs again. “We’ll see.”
“Where do you eventually want to live?”
“I don’t know.” He thinks some more. “I have no reason to go back to France. I have no job. My friends from back home do not try to contact me.”
“Your friends don’t try to keep in touch with you?”
He shakes his head and just looks down at his food. I decide to drop the subject.
As we say goodbye in the parking lot, he hands his business card to Krissa and me. I chuckle at the colorful, wild font and the now-familiar bunny with a mustache. Krissa notices a series of numbers beneath the name.
“What do these numbers mean?” she asks him.
“It’s an enigma,” he says with a sly smile. “I’ll let you figure it out.”
. . .
A few days later, Guillaume and I meet again at a burger joint on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. As he sits next to me, I again try to get his story straight. He tells me he is borrowing a car from the mother of an American friend he met while traveling in Slovakia. The mom has never even met him.
“Why on earth would she let you borrow her car when she doesn’t even know you?”
He smiles. “Sometimes, you just have to ask.”
“Won’t you run out of money?” I ask, worried.
“Yes, I will eventually run out of money.”
“And then what will you do?”
He shrugs. “Go back to France. Find work.”
I am visibly distressed.
“What are you so worried about?” he asks me. “What’s the worst that can happen?”
My mind runs wild with horror stories; I don’t even know where to start. “Y-you could get killed!” I stammer. “Or robbed!”
He just laughs.
“Don’t you get lonely?” I ask him later.
“Never,” he replies.
My friends bombard Guillaume with questions the way I did, and I can tell they’re all more than just a little amused. But for me, it is more than just a passing fascination—it’s much deeper than that. I feel as though I’ve been shaken awake from a comfortable slumber. What am I doing staying in one place? Why would I stay here when there is so much world to see?
So what was at the bottom of all these questions?
Looking back on it, I was trying to root out the truth. No, I wasn’t trying to root out the truth; I was trying to validate my false assumptions about Guillaume. I was trying to place him in a box, a box labeled: “lonely guy trying to escape something hurtful or wrong in his past.” But he didn’t fit in that box at all. He’s not lonely; he’s not trying to escape.
. . .
On the day Guillaume leaves San Francisco, I use Google Translate to text him this message:
“Adieu, mon ami. J’espère vous revoir quelque part dans le monde. Bon voyage!”
In English: “Farewell, my friend. I hope to see you again somewhere in the world. Safe travels!”
He replies, “Adieu=we will never see each other again. A bit extreme. Au revoir is much better. :)”
Au revoir means something like “until we meet again.” But what are the chances I will see this globetrotting Frenchman a third time? His travels are bringing him to Central America next. His home country is France. I will probably never see him again.
. . .