My father traveled a lot for work during my formative years. I'd eagerly await the small trinkets and souvenirs he'd bring back from faraway places - clogs from Amsterdam, intricate South Korean key chains, foreign currencies. I didn't quite know what engineers did; In my mind, dad was probably having the time of his life making friends and going on crazy Indiana Jones-esque adventures. As an adult, I would come to find that my rosy view of work travel was wholly inaccurate. Turns out, business trips are kind of a drag. Gray or beige conference rooms, bland box lunches, and hours of endless meetings followed by nights of silence are the norm for many an employee.
But not this one.
I've gotten into the habit of requesting later return flights for business trips. As long as you cover the lodging costs for your off-work time, most human resources folks don't care when you come back. If your extra days happen to fall on a weekend, you don't even have to deal with taking extra vacation days. And if you already have a pug-sitter lined up? It's all gravy, baby.
And so it was with Austin, Texas. I attended the Environmental Protection Agency's National Air Quality Conference and spent three days surrounded with engineers, air dispersion modelers, meteorologists, policy wonks, and communications strategists like myself. The charge? Figure out a way to make people care about air quality and the connection between air pollution and public health. Having spent years working with engineers, I didn't exactly expect a knee-slapping good time. But I was pleasantly surprised. I met some truly talented minds and came away with a renewed energy to communicate tough science in better ways. I was also reminded that it's total nonsense when people say they can't have a racially and ethnically diverse staff because there aren't qualified people of color in STEM. (There are. I saw them. Fight me.)
Still, three days of uninterrupted air talk left me itching to cut loose. Once the conference concluded, I left my swanky hotel and moved across town to a hostel on The Drag.
Now is a good time to mention that I am an extreme introvert. I may also be some kind of masochist, for why else would I voluntarily stay somewhere with shared bedrooms, bathrooms, and common spaces? To be sure, the constant activity took some getting used to.
I spent the first half of my free weekend wandering Austin alone, listening to my most recent read: Company Man, by John Rizzo. I also picked up a copy of Helen Oyeyemi's What is Not Yours is Not Yours at Book People, a local Texas bookstore. I even had an impromptu group brunch at a neighborhood cafe with four perfect strangers. Texans are friendly, y'all!
By day two, I was even braver. I chatted up the French dude who was sleeping in my room, Laurèns, and connected with some of the other hostel residents. This singular moment of courage quickly led to an hours-long whirlwind adventure with my new tribe, exploring the bustling Dirty Sixth Street (I drank! I danced - in public!) and weaving through the city to the laid-back Rainey Street (I drank more! I coolly bobbed my head!)
My new friends and I regaled one another with stories from our homes - Perth, Australia, Brooklyn, NY, Fort Wirth, TX, Kansas City, KS, Miami, FL - and Minnesotan Me. We connected over our love for Swedish power metal band Sabaton (I saw them live in 2016!), Tim Horton's, and of course, pugs.
We laughed. Ran. Drank. Posed. Jumped. Hugged. Ate. And a mere 12 hours after meeting, we said goodbye forever.
(Just kidding! Since it isn't 1978, we dutifully followed one another on Instagram and Snapchat)
Business trips shouldn't mean entrapment in beige prison cells with a succession of terrible PowerPoints and overpriced stale muffins bearing down on one's tired soul. They can be so much more. I'm happy to have had a small part in keeping Austin weird.