Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for.
I was talking with my therapist a few months ago - rather, I was talking to my therapist because it appears that I pay someone $175/hour to stare at me while I speak. To shroud the uncomfortable, almost freaky silence between me and him at the beginning of each session, I desperately search for words to blurt out because I essentially have nothing to say. But as I begin to talk about absolutely nothing, something always comes out. Therapy is good that way – the uncomfortable silence begs you (or rather me) to speak and blabber about anything. The meaningless, empty chatter coming out of my mouth slowly but surely somehow turns into verbal vomit of the more profound kind. I don’t know how, but my blabber seems to seamlessly transition into something more revealing of my inner psyche, as if searching for something to say like, “I went to the movies last weekend” or "everyone annoys me" is somehow able to dig deep into my desires, fears, and doubts.
Although it seems like I am essentially speaking to a wall, this wall leads me to, well, honesty and a certain sense of self-discovery, even to a point when I notice my therapist is trying desperately to suppress a yawn: one nostril flares up, his chin quivers, and one eye squints ever so subtly as if trying to prevent a sneeze or unwanted gas. The annoying thing about what I like to call the caché yawn is that there is nothing caché about it! Everyone knows when someone is holding back a yawn! Everyone!
After finishing my ramblings, I finally thought of something to really talk about! I was telling him I read somewhere that when you think of the best memories in your life, they are always with someone else. I thought about it for a bit and didn’t really agree. Some of the best memories I have are memories of me being with myself, particularly while traveling somewhere for the first time.
I was thinking of the time I was in Milan one summer because I received funding from my university to go to the Istituto Marangoni, a big fashion and style institute to study the connection between style and nation-building. How I got funding for this, I have no idea, but I got it, and I was taking it. But I had arrived in Milan a few days early to explore the city. It was the first day of my arrival and I was excited to explore, all alone, Italy’s center of fashion, a city I’ve never been to and knew nothing about. I thought, I get to explore Milan without the encumbrance of being with a partner, a friend, or a lover (ugh, creepy word, "lover") I’ve done this before in other European cities and it always provided a chance for me to discover not only the city, but myself. I like the idea of being the “solo traveler” exploring a place on my own time, anticipating that sense of self-discovery while befriending locals and tourists, since it’s often easier to meet new people when you don’t have a piece of home attached to your hip.
When I reflect on traveling solo, what I enjoyed the least and remember the most was my sense of loneliness even more than simply being alone; that sense of despair when you soak into your new surroundings, let your eyes dance and ears sing with the beauty around you, and then suddenly realize there is nobody to share it with - that sadness you feel when you have fallen in love with a place, and the realization that that love is unrequited. You have to overcome this loneliness, but before that you have to accept it, engage with it, and have fun with it!
Some ways to engage? Observe and Explore! From the excitement of delving into a new world to the feeling of being dejected from it, here’s a small list of how I engaged with loneliness in Milan:
1. Take the opportunity to be a tourist. Of course, no one wants to burrow him/herself into one tourist trap after another. “Living like a local” is always ideal, but it’s important to remember that you are a foreigner – so, languish in walking like one, eating like one, seeing like one, and taking the time to explore like one (I prefer "experience like a local" - if you wanted to live like a local then stay home). Bathe yourself in the confusion and wonderment of not knowing anything about your surroundings and appreciate your semi-invisibility (unless you have a fanny-pack, or wear white socks, or carry a bottle of water everywhere you go). Maybe even, don’t have a plan. After all, what’s the point of discovering a new city when you’ve done all the research and know everything about it! Mary Morris wrote a good article on this!
2. Introduce yourself to your surroundings. Think, Under the Tuscan Sun. Walk, walk, walk, and after that, walk some more. Get a feel for the sidewalks, streets, signs, Vespas, cafés, ristorantes, shops, and markets. Randomly walk up to an exhibit at a museum even if you discover it is closed the day you decide you want to go in (Alanis Morrissette would have appreciated that). Mistakenly eat somewhere unappetizing (although this is almost impossible in Italy).
3. Embrace not knowing the language. Sit at a crowded café, preferably outside, and squeeze yourself into a spot sitting next to tourists looking at their guide books, couples not speaking to each other, or Italian girls chatting loudly and laughing. Just as you are appreciating all the commotion around you, accept the fact that the Italian girls are still gabbing loudly in a language you don’t understand, laughing louder than before, and let the feeling sink in that they are probably laughing at you.
4. Watch the passers-by. Gawk at the chic fashionistas, the not-so-chic fashionistas, the impeccably dressed Italian businessmen sporting well-tailored, azure blue suits that seem to never crease even as they get on and off their Vespa, or even the Italian boy doused from head to toe in a D&G turtleneck and cream-colored, impossibly narrow pants despite the 35° C weather. And don’t miss the overly fake-and-baked Italiana emitting more carbon in the air than China's factories (to be fair, China is becoming quite the eco-friendly powerhouse).
5. Walk on a busy street at night (try busy, not dangerous). Before experiencing the loneliness of eating alone, you must go through the loneliness of searching for a place to eat. Remember your friends and family back home when you see couples on dates and friends gathering for a drink preparing for a long night ahead of them.
6. Get frustrated with the mundane. Wait in line for an ATM machine or a gelato shop to get a taste of la dolce vita in cream form only to have a 4’2” Italian grandmother cut in front of you to order herself a double bacio gelato on a waffle cone. As you try to process this injustice, watch a nun do the same thing right after her.
7. Let the loneliness sink in...
My point? We need to feel the shock of not knowing, of getting lost, of misunderstanding or not understanding at all when traveling to a new place alone. Some may call this culture shock, but what is culture shock but a spoonful of pure loneliness? Some may also call this solitude. I feel solitude, however, is more intentional, more meditative and doesn't capture that tinge of melancholy one needs upon reflecting on one's life.
But remember, don’t hibernate in this state of alienation. Let loneliness be a harbinger of good things to come and a reason to discover worlds and peoples you never imagined you would encounter. I admit, this is easier said than done, especially as one gets older; but try and use that sensation of being detached to motivate you to explore sites deeper and engage with people more profoundly because falling in love with Milan, or any place, is never a substitute for the love you receive from friends, partners, and even…lovers.
Part business owner, part cultural anthropologist, and full Europhile living in Los Angeles, California.