What You'll Learn from Being Lonely While Traveling
Because sometimes you'll stare out a train window all melancholy. And that's not bad.
When I bought my ticket to Europe, I had this itch between my shoulder blades that told me it was time for a change. I've been stuck in this repetitive loop in Chicago that almost felt Bill Murray-esque. I was in my own personal Groundhog Day — just instead of stepping in the same puddle day after day and dodging a certain insurance salesman, I had a humdrum routine all of my own.
I drank the same cup of coffee out of the same mug every morning, and I went out with friends and shyly eyed beards in cardigans from behind martini glasses every evening. I went to new neighborhoods and hung out in cool places, but always ended up in front of the same donut take-out window at the end of the night. I talked about the same topics, laughed about the same things, bought the same takeout, and walked the same way to my train station. It was day after day, and I could practically hear the alarm clock going off with “I Got You Babe” blaring.
Which is why when I bought my ticket, I had this idea of shaking things up. I was gong to break the loop, and my trip away would be like an epic Pinterest quote. I'd wake up to find new people in my hostel room, sleepy eyed and ready to talk about what roads brought them to the bunk above me. I'd eat dinners with people passing through from Argentina and Holland, and we'd become lifelong friends in the time it took a candle on the restaurant table to melt to its wick. I'd walk into Christmas-decorated bars without nervous butterflies, and talk to man buns with Irish accents because I'd have words in Europe that I didn't have in Chicago. I'd be able to smile at people waiting with me at bus stops, and nod hello to strangers as I shopped in markets for cheese and bread. Because buying a ticket somehow would change me.
It does...but it also doesn't. Traveling alone is some lonely stuff, and not always as free-spirited as Pinterest quotes would have you believe. Messy-haired and dusty-boot girls facing mountains while pretty cursive sprawls in the sky above them talking about suitcases and wandering but not being lost is all well and good, until that same chick is sitting alone in the pub with her bangers and mash, strategically thinking of ways to put “h” and “i” together so she doesn't have to read her book for the second time as a pretense.
Yea. That's the real version of travelling.
But being lonely isn't all bad. It teaches you things that you were too comfortable to realize before. Below are five things being lonely while traveling will teach you.
1. Just Because You're Not Talking Doesn't Mean You're Not Interesting
I used to have this feeling where — if I was sitting somewhere outside of the vicinity of my couch — I had to become an example of charm and charisma or else I'd have points taken away from me. While leaning against a bar or waiting for a train, I had to dig deep and transform my homegrown, Midwest-bred Norma Jean personality — slick it with a line of red lipstick, toss its hair over its shoulder — and turn into Marilyn Monroe.
But that was so exhausting. And gotten over quickly.
When you're in week eight of dinners alone and coffees enjoyed solo, you'll be over the idea that you need to find someone to tell your stories to in order to be interesting. What you have inside you doesn't expire. You don't need to give it away in order to beat the sell-by date. You can have a perfectly lovely evening of dinner at the bar, working your way through a plate of pasta and going through the memories of the day in your own head, shuffling through them like a stack of papers that soon will be scrap-booked. No one there needs to know about them. No one there needs to enjoy them but you.
2. If Someone Wants To Talk To You, It'll Be Stupid Easy
I firmly believe in the fact that there are certain people out there that are meant to be your friends. You know them when you meet them: When you say hi, there's an unexplained excitement in the way you both run through the usual script of get-to-know-you crosstalk. You find yourself skipping the small talk and going right into the good stuff of how that one time you sat on the rice paddies of Vietnam and wanted to eat the scene with a spoon and how your first dog's name was Sparky, and the person across from you nods their head in understanding and suggests you get lunch like right now so they can tell you about how they like pineapples in their sandwiches and how they grew up with their grandma. And it'll feel right and it'll feel normal, and it was as easy as asking “Do you know what time it is?” to start this amazing friendship.
Because one thing you'll learn while being lonely and looking for friends is that if someone wants to talk to you, it'll be stupid easy to get the ball rolling.
3. Sometimes People-Watching Is Comfort Enough
I've always had this idea that while traveling, my worldliness would give me this big personality. I'd be that person in the room that can go over by the chip dip and strike up a charismatic conversation with the unsuspecting party-goer that just wanted to add some tonic to his drink, and instead he'd get his socks charmed off. I'd know how to nudge the person sitting at the bar next to me and get their life story, and connecting with a person would be just as easy as saying hello. If I wasn't clicking with someone, then I was somehow losing personality points.
But that's exhausting. And it's not like getting a new stamp in my passport turns me into Cary Grant, so relax.
Instead, get outside of your head and enjoy where you are. People watch. I had day after day, week after week of walking into bars and holing myself up into corner booths and just sitting there and enjoying the din around me. When I was in Ireland, I took out a book and listened to how the group of old men in tweed jackets spoke about their wives in a brogue that sounded like a ballad and not like a complaint (which 80 percent of it cheekily was.)
In Paris I stared out the window and watched beautiful women with wiry grey hair and knotted handkerchiefs, and imagined the clouds of pink perfume trailing after them as I buttered my bread. In India I watched the curious-eyed, crooked-grin kids that ran barefoot around the street, asking people for chocolate or trying to sell you their mother's street food. These small moments show you what it's like to live where you are. It's authentic, not seen through the lens of a camera or through the recommendation of a tourist map. These will be the moments you'll remember when you forget the names of the squares you saw and how the inside of the buildings you visited looked. Ditch the worldly persona you're trying to grow into by being a traveler, and instead enjoy being that traveler.
4. No One's Staring At You. No One Thinks You're Weird
The first time you go into a restaurant alone and ask for the corner table, you're going to think everyone, as a whole, has turned around in their stools to stare at you.
And pity you. Poor lamb has no friends. Poor lamb is a loser.
No one's looking at you. Hell, chances are only three people noticed you. And hanging out alone isn't a weird thing. Having to constantly pad yourself with people is a weird thing. Enjoy the time you have alone and get to know yourself over a glass of wine. You never know what you'll learn.
5. The More You Like Your Own Company, The More Others Will Like It, Too
If you can't seem to spend an evening alone with your own thoughts and your own stories, how do you think the poor person you suckered into having drinks will feel? If you don't find yourself interesting, if you can't go through your own stories and smile, if you can't think about your plans and feel curious, if you can't lean back in the booth and feel content spending a comfortable silence with your own thoughts, you'll be hard pressed to find a person who will.
Loneliness can be a boring thing, or loneliness can be an education. There will be times where you'll desperately try to make friends while trying to figure out the way the tram works or how to make correct change out of your weird new coins, but if you're patient enough you'll also learn something new about yourself. It's up to you to decide how it goes.