Saturday, August 9, 2014

“I am Not Afraid of Loneliness”

“And where is the group you travel with?” Camile, the Slovakian wine maker I’ve been chatting with for the last hour asks me. We’ve been swapping stories about wine regions, tastes and favorite places in the world. I was just relaying (for the one hundredth time this week) where I’ve been and where I will be going next.

“I’m alone! Not with a group.” I laugh, sipping again at the very sweet white wine he has poured for me.

“Alone!? Wow, this is crazy!” he shakes his head. “You must be a very interesting woman to travel so far alone.”
I’m always proud of myself (cautiously, in a don’t-get-ahead-of-yourself Minnesotan way) when I receive this response for traveling the world alone, because I do feel interesting and courageous. It’s a little unbelievable to people that I’m actually on my own, and I kind of love it.

And I’m not just alone because I couldn’t find a friend who could come the whole way with me. I’m really really loving traveling on my own. Don’t get me wrong, it was wonderful to spend a week with my dear friend Jezelle in Prague and Vienna: we travel well together, want most of the same things from a trip and feel like going to bed or heading to a bar usually around the same time. When the group we were hanging out with after our walking tour of Vienna began to bug us, we both knew at the same time and slipped out to do our own thing.

But there is something about being on my own right now that feels so right. I feel like I am selfish in a very healthy and undeniably right way at this time in my life. There are moments – when I got off the bus in Bratislava at the wrong stop – that I feel a wave of worry. But never have I wished someone was with me to help me deal with the problem. I just shifted my backpack on my hips, found a coffee shop nearby with internet and got walking directions on Google Maps (ah, smart phones). Turns out I was closer to the hostel than I would have been at the main bus station.

When I left Los Angeles I felt emotionally stalled and distant from the fact that I was leaving my wonderful, exciting, friend and security-filled life. This is not typical for me – I’m pretty damn emotionally aware and typically brimming over with my feelings about things. Probably this was partly a defense mechanism so that I could actually physically leave the life and people I love so much. I know I acted rather cold as I rushed off, halfheartedly kissed everyone goodbye and waved from the car, looking consistently northeast.

I even had the opportunity for love, just weeks before I left. Grand, unbelievably romantic, potentially life-sweeping love. Things I have always dreamt of.

But I walked away from it all, with purpose and clarity in my need to be alone right now: a deep, deep desire and, somehow, physical necessity. I felt in my last months in Los Angeles like a bird in a cage, flapping and crashing against barriers and people. I needed this time and space, as well as all the quietness, all of the days wandering, trying to figure out which restaurant could possibly be the right choice. I am so happy for it, delight and relish in going to bed right when I feel like it, of sitting down anywhere I want and reading.

I don’t know why I need this space so desperately. I don’t feel like I’m on any particular quest for myself or my truth. All I can trust is my gut, and it’s telling me to keep digging my fingers in and enjoying all of this. I’ll keep you updated if I find any epiphanies any time soon.

In Bratislava, Slovakia. Bratislava Castle in the background.
Of course though, I’m not really alone at all, even if I’m getting myself from place to physical place on my own. As a friend said to me before I left, with her great wisdom of things beyond our physical world: this trip is about relationships.

Before I left Minnesota, I emailed all of my contacts in Europe to see where they were living and if they wanted to grab a cup of coffee (also maybe they’d offer a couch, you know?). Greg in Germany drove me from Amberg to Prague, Petar from Serbia gave me advice on which cities to stop in besides Belgrade, and my friend Magda happened to have just moved to Budapest for her PhD when I was arriving. “Come!” She said, “We’ll be tourists and discover Budapest together!”

This is one of the most beautiful examples of how much I love the world. Magda and I worked together in the summer of 2008 at Canyon Village Dining Room in Yellowstone National Park. She is from Romania and came to the US for the summer, I didn’t want to move back to Two Harbors and work at Betty’s Pies for four more months. We got along really well – loved working together. Became friends on Facebook and exchanged a message every year or so, catching up. I kept telling her – I’m coming! I’ll be coming to Europe! People don’t seem to believe me so well when I tell them this, but a word to the wise: If I say I’m coming, I will eventually be coming!

And here I am at the international bus station in Budapest, hurriedly looking at facebook for a recent picture of her.

She sees me first – and admits she just did the same thing at home. We hug as tightly as Jezelle, one of my best friends, and I did when we met in the Prague airport after not seeing each other for just more than a month. We gawk for a minute at being together again, across the world, from my country to her continent, six years later. Then we don’t stop talking until we’re yawning after a few glasses of red wine at 10:30 that night.

Since we last saw each other, Magda has lived all over Europe – Rome, The Netherlands, Nuremberg, Bucharest. She studies labor policy and migrant workers. She’s gotten her Master’s in Public Policy, worked for think tanks, even briefly at the UN and is now just beginning her PhD in Hungary. Her kindness to me is humbling: the many meals she cooks, her offer for me to sleep one more night than planned when I say I think I’ll get a hostel and stay in the city a day more because I’m so inspired here, the fact that she waited to do her Free Walking Tour of Budapest until I got here. We both say it’s like we’ve found a kindred spirit: we’re both enchanted by the storm ripping across the city, swinging and lashing rain around us at the top of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, we both love history and natural beauty, both of us like to go to bed early and rise early.

Magda and I are talking one night about the process of traveling, moving, finding friends in new places and she says one of the most impressive things I’ve ever heard a woman say, “I am not afraid of loneliness.” Not, “I’m not in any rush to find a boyfriend/husband/partner.” Not, “I’m independent and like being on my own right now.”

I am not afraid of loneliness.

Even as I feel pride and joy and awesome sexy female power traveling the world alone, I still reject and fear loneliness. That knot in my gut when I see a couple kissing goodbye longingly at the bus station, the desire to grab someone’s hand or loop my arm through a friend’s as I wander in a new and exciting place, wishing I had someone to talk to at the café other than my notebook or Kindle. These things are real to me here, even with all my desires and needs to be alone right now.

And then when I look out towards my larger life, the one where I live in Minneapolis, I certainly daydream of my own apartment, a little garden out back, some time and space for just me. I anticipate and prepare for the transition, the time when you know no one and feel a little lost and uncertain about the new place you are in. But after a year, even a few months? Certainly having very good friends, as well as a life partner is incredibly important to me. And thinking that there is a possibility this could not come is terrifying.

I’m working hard at being willing to embrace loneliness, to anticipate it and lean into it when it comes, to find the gift that this emotion gives. I prepared myself for a lot of loneliness before this trip as well. I know from experience that not every moment abroad is interesting or transcendent. But opening your heart to loneliness and not fearing it feel different to me.

I don’t have a beautiful conclusion, no greater sense of where this train of thought is leading. I know I’m doing the right thing: choosing to be alone right now. I feel a greater sense of self, freedom and ease than I have in a long time. I’m inspired and coming into myself as an artist. I’m not yet lonely, but I can’t say that I don’t look at the possibility of that experience with an amount of trepidation.

I am proud and impressed and amazed by Magda, lucky to be her friend and to reconnect with her in Budapest after all these years. This seems as good a conclusion as any. 

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