There are some things I have learnt to expect when traveling through European hostels. The wifi will likely be spotty in the upstairs rooms. One of the hostel bedmates will inevitably snore. A group of rowdy Australians will probably appear in the communal living room when least expected. And if traveling alone, long wait times and daunting groups of people can sometimes mean that there are hours and hours stretching ahead where you must keep your own company.
Traveling alone is one of those practices that exposes just how jarring it is to truly isolate yourself from the presence of others. I am not the first or last woman to try this out. People’s brushes with traveling in solo have particularly resonated with a modernized, global youth that sees planet earth as its next playground. My personal favorite is Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild”, which follows her experience hiking 1,100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail. Yet no matter how many have done it before, the experience of traveling alone is so inherently personal that you cannot help but feel as if you are the very first person to ever experience true solitude. Undoubtedly, this belief is naïve and little self-serving, but it is also a facet of how novel the sensation of being separated from all our familiar relationships is. We are alone so little these days.
We do not live in a world where being alone is encouraged. Quite the opposite: the apparent universal truth in entertainment, nowadays, is that the path to happiness is paved with good friends, lovers and an acappella concert where people sing in perfect harmony to modern-day hits. This combination might well be the path to achieving true happiness. Nevertheless, we are told again and again that our self-worth derives from our connections to other people. There is the impression that to be alone is to be lonely, and those who are devoid of friends or partners are to be regarded as alien. We wonder if the lone wolves of the world are unwanted, or just tortured, angsty figures. We shudder at the prospect of dying alone. Imagine that, we whisper. How terrible.
Yet there is an important distinction here that should be clarified: to be alone is not the same as to be lonely. Loneliness is sense of loss; an abiding emotion that suggests a desire for connections that are missing. Alone, however, is simply a state of being by yourself. Of course, being alone and loneliness often go hand-in-hand, but that is not always the case. It is possible to be surrounded by a group of beloved people, and still feel lonely. Therefore, it is not being alone we fear, but loneliness itself.
There is nothing wrong with finding joy and comfort in each other’s company. The urge to be with people is the urge to become part of something bigger than simply ourselves. It makes the menial meaningful, and provides a source of emotional support. It is only when our relationships with people become the foundation on which we build our identity, that this becomes dangerous. People, in their very natures, are fallible and to trust full-heartedly in the fallible is a frightening way to live. This is how I used to be. And every time I was in transit, waiting in ticketing lines or dragging bags along cobblestoned paths, I was often lonely. I would watch people walking in and out of train stations, on their way to and from their lives, and wish I could go with them. At first, to temper the loneliness, I would start conversations with these people, and I would learn about their lives. They were mechanics, teachers, parents who were having bad days because Steve at home was teething. All these conversations were pleasant. Many revealed to me perspectives I had never considered before. Yet they were too fleeting to be satisfying. I had assumed that by substituting my solitude with whoever was passing by, the strange aching in my heart would dissipate. How wrong I was.
It was only when I stopped resisting my imposed solitude, that I realized it was very possible to hang out with yourself. Time without people is time for reflection, a vital part of learning and self-improvement that often gets lost in the urgency of life. To my surprise, I began to hear the emergence of an authentic voice that I had forgotten existed. After all, when all the shots were mine to call, I had to see them all laid out. It was a curious to discover things that did not gel with the self-image I had cultivated for years in my head. Some were nice discoveries. I was a braver traveler than I thought I could be - walking in the dark, trusting strangers, caching greasy bus after bus in the middle of the night. More painful to discover were the glossed-over flaws. I found I was often impatient, unkind to those that did not deserve it. I judged people and found them wanting for petty reasons. Being alone gave me the opportunity to see myself in the same harsh, flourescent light I saw others. And in strengthening my identity, I was uncovering in myself a real human companion. I was alone, but not lonely.
On my last day in Prague, I met another solo traveler, a large, bearded Canadian man, whose size belied his age – just twenty-three He was the quietest person at the hostel, and I like him for this. We made plans to climb to Prague Castle together; a huge gothic structure that stretches above the city, a monolith of its own being. We don’t say much on the way up. As we climbed higher, we swapped little anecdotes from our lives.
“I’m actually saving up for a ring so I can finally get married,” my companion confided. Somewhere below, dusk fell on the city. “Except, you know, I don’t know that I want to get married.” He furrowed his brow. “I don’t know that I want to at all.”
The way he said it was so surprised. I didn’t say anything back, but I didn’t really have to. The way he said it, I understood.