It had been a while. I mean it had been too long, really. Ten years ago, after taking my first international solo trip abroad to Spain, I swore I’d return to that country -- soon, I said. But there were jobs and boyfriends and other trips and life just kept on happening -- sans a trip back.
Over the course of my adult life, I've become an intrepid solo traveler. I appreciate long stretches of not speaking, punctuated by intense human-to-human relations -- platonic, bizarre, romantic, and otherwise...the kind that can only happen when strangers meet outside the tedium of everyday life. And I’m not alone in this -- according to the 2015 Visa Global Travel Intentions Study, nearly a quarter of those who traveled for pleasure in 2015 did so alone, and it’s a figure that’s on the rise.
The Best Laid Plans...
So on September 30, 2015, I booked a ticket back to Spain, traveling alone once more. As the departure date approached, though, I began to question my typical self-assurance. You see, for nearly six years I had a traveling companion, someone to wrap my arm around on a beach at sunset, our camera held out as we pleaded, “Can you?” -- hoping a passerby would take our picture before the perfect light had changed.
There I was, though, bags in hand and recently single, feeling like the loneliest man on earth and with the sneaking suspicion that it was about to get worse.
Because Feeling Lonely Sucks
Being alone and feeling lonely are two different things (although they can happen simultaneously), and the latter can have quite the negative effects on your mood. Here is what “The New York Times” has to say about loneliness;
- On May 13, 2013, Jane E. Brody wrote, “Even without indulging in unwholesome behavior...loneliness can impair health by raising levels of stress hormones and increasing inflammation. The damage can be widespread, affecting every bodily system and brain function.”
- On March 16, 2015, Tara Parker-Pope wrote, “Researchers analyzed data collected from 70 studies and more than 3.4 million people from 1980 to 2014. The studies showed that people who were socially isolated, lonely, or living alone had about a 30 percent higher chance of dying during a given study period than those who had regular social contact.”
- On December 10, 2015, Gretchen Reynolds wrote, “The lonelier you are, the more your attention is drawn toward negative social information, says one of the researchers...Lonely people seemed inadvertently hypervigilant to social threats.”
It’s possible that all of these calamities were coursing through my head as I boarded the plane. Yes, in fact, I’m sure they were. As a counterpoint, I sifted through memories of previous solo trips: Trail running down the side of a Himalayan mountain on my 33rd birthday; that photographer I fell hard for in Buenos Aires; taking notes for a sure-to-be-brilliant travelogue at a cafe in Barcelona; watching an un-subtitled French movie in Montreal without any knowledge of French; meeting a high Tibetan lama because I was lost and looking for a waterfall.
As the memories came and went in that moment full of “what ifs,” it was hard to ignore the truth. In between all of those solo-travel high points were moments of near paralysis, of wanting to beat a fast retreat home. In Buenos Aires, I would sit on my hotel bed for an hour every morning, wracked with indecision about what, exactly, I should do with myself. There I was phoning my mother from a sweltering, fly-ridden internet cafe in Delhi, sick as a dog and certain I should abandon my months-long journey.
The truth wasn't neat and pretty and inspiring. Time had whitewashed each journey into a vibrant thing, suffused with energy and motion and chance -- a trip through London when I hadn't slept on a 12-hour layover; aged Hindu men patting my crotch in a crowded holy city while admonishing me for not having kids; a fling or two that went deeper than a fling.
There’s this movie called “Shirley Valentine.” The story revolves around a middle-aged British housewife -- Shirley -- who joins her friend on an impromptu Greek island holiday. She’s never traveled abroad, with or without company, and upon landing she’s promptly abandoned by her friend and finds herself unsuspectingly on her own.
The moment I’m thinking of takes place the first time we see Shirley eating by herself at her hotel. Shirley strolls through the carousing crowd, sits down, and begins to contentedly sip her retsina on the terrace -- does she sigh once or twice? She might. In any case, our heroine is at least a little uncomfortable as she surveys the terrace full of no one else sitting all alone. I wondered if this would soon be me.
Dealing with the Reality of Solo Travel
Fortunately, I spent my first day in Madrid happily wandering. The sun was bright and clear, the apartment I rented was better than expected, I’d flirted with a waiter, and scribbled notes for an essay while sipping a coffee on some cobblestone street. The next day I would visit the Prado -- I was ticking every box off of my itinerary with ease. Then the sun went down and Friday night began.
I strolled through the streets of Malasaña, dodging merry packs of amigos, smoking their cigarettes and slowly strolling three, five, sometimes seven abreast. Through the narrow streets of this aggressively social city, I stared into windows where these same laughing hordes improbably wedged themselves into tapas bars. I walked in and out of one restaurant after another, breaking into nervous sweats as I asked if there was a table for one without luck. It made no sense: Many New Yorkers eat alone frequently, on any given night of the week, without feeling a drop of shame -- myself included. On the other side of the ocean, though, my attention was “drawn toward negative social information” and I was “inadvertently hypervigilant to social threats.” In other words, my game was off.
Solo travel is supposed to unleash the self. It boosts confidence and expands ones cultural sensibilities; it empowers and relaxes. Do a quick Google search and hundreds of self-professed travel bloggers with social media-ready quotes fill the screen -- so do some newspapers of record. According to Kathleen Doheny in the “Los Angeles Times,” “Mental health experts agree...there definitely are benefits when it comes to relaxation, stress reduction and getting away from it all” when it comes to traveling alone. That afternoon I’d felt all of those things settling into my bones and now, confronted with the convivial lives of everyone around me, the shine was wearing off quickly.
Eventually I decided on a restaurant called "Nanai." The bar had plenty of space for a single man to sit and eat; it had the right bespoke look; there was more than one vegetarian item on the menu. I walked in and asked the bartender if I could have dinner, gesturing at his bar. He retreated to the back of the restaurant, and emerged with the host. My stomach sank. I gestured at the bar again -- "Para uno?" -- but was told to follow the host. We entered the dining room where couples were tucked in between tables full of four, five, and six people. Smiling, the host showed me a round table set for four, painted a lovely shade of turquoise and distressed just so, a candle flickering at its center.
There I sat, with my notebook and my novel and my telephone, one man at a large table for four, looking out at a dining room full of happy friends throwing back carafes of wine. I reminded myself that I’d chosen to come all this way. This is exactly what I’d wanted.
Except that it wasn’t. I had this idea that I’d sidle up next to some handsome man, some fun-loving girl, or a duo of fellow travelers and unleash a series of perfect string of serendipity. Instead, I felt conspicuous, unveiled, and so obviously American. I nervously logged into the restaurant's Wi-Fi and refreshed my social media feeds every 30 seconds. I sent texts to friends back home. I opened and closed my book countless times. I twirled my pen and avoided looking up. I flinched when the small glass holding the tea light on my table shattered from the heat of the flame, causing what I'm sure was the entire room to turn, aghast at this odd man with his books and his constant fidgeting.
I ate the rest of my meal quickly and fled the restaurant, snapping a few pictures of graffiti along my way back to the apartment.
The plan was failing.
On Second Thought...
I slept hard that night. The following morning I showered and got dressed. I kept expecting a sigh, kept expecting to want to sit down on the couch and not move, but none of that happened. Instead, I walked downstairs and started the day in the way I had always told myself that I wanted to start my day -- with coffee, a newspaper, and some sort of pastry. I realized that I was alone and I was somewhere new and that I was allowed to feel lonely and out of place. In fact, every seemingly chance encounter I’ve ever had on a solo trip abroad was the result of just such a sensation. I met the man in Buenos Aires because I had been fleeing an American couple trying to get me drunk enough to have a threesome. I met the high Tibetan lama only because I spent an afternoon wandering by myself in a Himalayan town, trying and failing to find a waterfall on my own.
Permit me this cliche: It was as if everything lifted off of me. The crushing sense of being alone in New York City -- the product of recent heartbreak and unstable living situations and so on and so on -- was the primer. I had no one to answer to; I had no plan and no rules. I could enjoy the melancholy rush of seeing Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Child” for the first time and having no one to tell about it; I could drink as many coffees as I wanted and not worry about tossing and turning next to someone in bed all night; I could meet someone else; I could cry or I could laugh or I could do all those things at the same time.
There is a moment that arrives -- maybe as a person sits at the edge of a busy Sunday market, bocadillo de tortilla in hand, no known souls nearby -- when the mind wakes up to everything, when the solo traveler "feels alive," to use another cliche. But really, it's just a sandwich and this is just a flea market and you are still alone -- so why the sudden invigorating freedom? Why the rush of novelty?
Maybe it's this: In one's everyday life -- the life defined by work, and friendships, and relationships, and home -- loneliness and solitude can easily become markers of undesirability or failure or abandonment. Indeed, Ms. Parker-Reynolds is noting exactly this in her "New York Times" piece when she refers to a lonely person's attention being drawn "toward negative social information." The self-perception of loneliness is the killer, precisely because the person on their own is fixated on what the world is telling them about their status. As a foreigner abroad on one's own, though, the expectation is that one will be alone, at least for a few days. One is permitted their alone-ness; one is, in fact, forced into a state of alone-ness. In that quieter state, inhibitions retreat, awkwardness is embraced, the mind can pause or rush as it sees fit -- people cross one's path without the weight of permanence, embarrassing things happen but they don't matter, trains are missed or hotels are overbooked and one finds a way to work around these hiccups. It's these sensations that the bloggers and columnists are talking about when they wax poetic on the miracle of solo travel.
So you can kindly add me to the chorus as well.