Recently, a friend of mine who lived in New York City left because of the pandemic. She said that if she couldn’t enjoy the nightlife, restaurants, concerts, and all of the other indoor things we all love about New York City, then there was no point in staying. It’s true that New York City in the winter isn’t exactly paradise, especially if you can’t enjoy anything inside of a building. Even I miss getting cozy in a warm bar under the glow of Christmas lights these days. The problem was, however, that after she left, she missed New York City and wanted to come back. I suspect though, that she didn’t leave because she didn’t like the city anymore, but rather because these times forced her to be alone with herself and that, to many people, can be terrifying.
Traveling has always been something I love doing, but when there were few people willing to come with me to certain exotic destinations for prolonged periods of time, I taught myself to go alone. Through long flights, bus rides, and dinners alone I learned to enjoy spending some time with myself. In fact, I began to relish it. Few people today have learned the joy of sitting in a restaurant alone with time to eat and think, look around, order another drink, and maybe even read. The hardest part is getting over that feeling that we have to be doing something else. With no one to move you along you are free to do what you want, once you get over certain anxieties.
Much of what I have learned about spending time alone comes from the German lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In one of his letters to Franz Xaver Kappus, which is collected in the book Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke tries to comfort Kappus at a time in his life filled with deep feelings of loneliness. Rilke tells him about the “great inner solitude.” He goes on to explain: “Going into oneself and for hours meeting no one — this one must be able to attain. To be solitary, the way one was solitary as a child, when the grownups went around involved with things that seemed important and big because they themselves looked so busy and because one comprehended nothing of their doings.” So much can be learned about a place simply by letting the locals, the “grownups” go about their business, leaving it all undisturbed.
I once found myself with a twelve-hour layover in Frankfurt. Deciding to spend the day in the city rather than the airport, I walked around the city with nothing to do and no appointment to keep — except of course for my connecting flight. It was very early when I arrived in the city and jet lagged and exhausted as I was, I saw the city open up and come alive like a meadow in spring. The quiet stillness of the morning slowly became disturbed by people going to work, opening up shops and restaurants, rushing onto buses and taking cigarette breaks. Everything big and important opened itself to me and was in its own way, beautiful.
Rilke furthermore reminded Kappus that there are things to be enjoyed apart from people. Enjoying these things is essential to the solitary traveler. A cool breeze, cold mist, a dry heat, the sound of a particular river, these can all be as memorable about a trip as the things we’ve done while we are there. And as these things cannot be caught on camera, they must be observed, enjoyed, and even absorbed when they happen.
“There are the nights still and the winds that go through the trees and across many lands” Rilke explains, “among things and with the animals everything is still full of happening, in which you may participate.” Travel alone and you will participate in things that you wouldn’t normally if you were with others. In fact, if you travel alone you will certainly not be alone for long. On every trip I have taken by myself I have become friends with either other travelers, locals, or both. Sit by yourself long enough and someone will sit with you and strike up a conversation. Who doesn’t love to learn about someone new? The world will reach out to you and you will not be distracted by your travel partners to reach back.
Now is a good time for those of us stuck at home to work on something that I have worked on through so many solo trips. Rilke tells Kappus to, “think … of the world you carry within you” and to “only be attentive to that which rises up in you and set it above everything that you observe about you. What goes on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love.” This is where I think many people struggle while they quarantine or travel alone. With packed schedules and social media, we no longer look into ourselves for a source of beauty, but as Rilke points out, there is a world inside of us worthy of being explored just as there are cities, forests, and museums.
A few years ago, I went to a wedding in Portugal. I met up with some old high school friends and for the extended weekend we caught up and laughed. Exploring Lisbon with them was fantastic. After they left, however, I had one more day by myself, and as happy as I was to be with them, I was glad to be alone for a day to explore the city on my own because I knew that I would now see it differently, that it would open itself up to me. I ate my breakfast in a small outdoor café and watched the city awaken, as I did that day in Frankfurt. I wandered down small streets and into small shops. At one point I sat near an old statue and quickly joined a group of skaters, taking pictures of them as they grinded along the statue’s base. We exchanged emails so that I could send them the pictures and we laughed at the ones of them falling.
The day ended perfectly: I found myself perched over the city in the Castelo São Jorge. I took some pictures of the sun as it set over Lisbon and I watched as the street lights came on. One of the locals in the group nearest me came over and offered me a free glass of wine. We raised a glass to each other and to the city. I was by myself, sure, but I was not alone. I was solitary and about me were the big busy and important “grownups,” gliding around the city. The sun was setting and the city was full of happening, and sitting on that old fortress wall with my glass of wine I participated in it. For once in a very long time, I was able to just sit and be. I was by myself but in that moment, I was so deeply connected with my environment. I held still and I was “scarcely to be distinguished from all that surrounded” me.