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Other books I finished reading in May

They say never judge a book by its cover, but I have to disagree.

Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers edited by Don George

Much of the time, I’m oblivious as to why I travel. I know when I’m exploring a new place, being introduced to someone new and then having that incredible conversation where they open up and surprise you with their insight, I get a kick. I also know that I’m drawn to the sea, the mountains, forests and early morning sunrises across distant horizons which make the worship of the sun seem common sense. Sometimes, when I’m alone especially, the world feels like it’s trying to show me something more than my little human brain can comprehend.

“And I’ve begun to understand the purpose of travel; a few days of seeing the world in a different way gives us the confidence to face whatever waits for us at home. Even Mountains.”

Aliya Whiteley, An Alpine Escape

And yet travel is a lonely business. It’s often a quest to find that supposed ‘self-love’, happiness to be oneself and take comfort within that identity. Sometimes it’s a quest to define oneself, by comparing oneself to what one is not. Whatever the quest, it’s a quest that in the urgency of routine seems impossible. It requires a fresh perspective.

“Looking back, I think my trip to India was in part an attempt to cleanse myself of the need for her, to find an alternative route to peace or else a definitive reason to give up the search. This was a tall order, and it didn’t work, thank God – that woman is now my wife.”

Stephen Kelman, Mumbai: Before the Monsoon

The magic of travelling perhaps is a mixture of recognising oneself, the sacredness of the world, and what it means to belong.

And in those quiet moments of sunshine on park benches, reading how other people tackle the same mental agility course as I do is somewhat therapeutic. Hearing their stories of the wondrous and the exotic reminds me of the value of my own.

Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by John T. Cacioppo

Reading this book lead to a fascinating conversation with a couple of fellow nomads about the difficulties in balancing the need for connection with the traveller’s urge for novelty.

“When we feel socially connected, as most of us feel most of the time, we tend to attribute success to our own actions and failures to luck. When we feel socially isolated and depressed, we tend to reverse this useful illusion and turn even small errors into catastrophes – at least in own minds.”

Perhaps everyone struggles with loneliness, but perhaps with travellers, it’s an expected condition. The isolation of being the only person like you, who knows you, who has felt for you, is one that a traveller should expect. You’re an alien walking amongst a tribe. You do not fit. You are a novelty. You do not belong. You are special and wondrous, but you cannot be understood.

And the more I think about it, the more I feel that the antidote to loneliness is being seen. Many conversations through instant messengers, or cheerful exchanges amongst strangers can’t do more that act as a distraction. Sometimes you need to be seen as you are. You need someone to be willing to look.

Sometimes, with travelling, you find the odd stranger who does look. I had coffee with a young man in Poland who used the silence between sentences to listen and see. He let there be space, a crack that allowed the light to get in.* Then there was a conversation I had with a woman who saw my fingers twiddling with my necklace, leant forward and asked what it meant to me. I hadn’t known the answer until I told her. In these moments, there’s a real connection.

But it can never compare to the level of connection that comes from someone who really knows you, knows you at your very best and at your very worst, accepts them both and is willing to know more. And that’s precious.

*The Leonard Cohen obsession continues.

How friendships and traveling really works

Lidl, where one buys apple strudel

When you give up your home, haul your suitcase through the self-opening airport doors, repack on the check-in counter because you’ve brought too many home comforts, and pray your way through the security scanners, you’re making a choice that your life is going to change.

You’re not going to be free to meet at the local pub for a few drinks on a Friday night. You’re not going to be able to maintain that gym membership or running routine. You’re going to miss the support that holds you accountable to others, the teasing and encouragement before a community run or a job interview or the soft smile that comes with someone recognizing that your day requires slipping a frozen apple strudel into the oven while you collapse on the sofa and drink tea. You’re not there. You can’t pop round for the evening and share a bottle of wine while cursing evil heartbreakers or evil bosses. You appear to all as busy because you are absent. Gone.

Except, in some ways, you’re more available than before. In England my phone lives in my handbag, or on the bedside table. It can be forgotten when I go out for a walk or as I bake a cake, but abroad everything is different. My phone is the anchor that remains, the only link I have to the people who would scrape me off the road and tuck me into bed. When a close friend sends me a message, or my grandma emails me, it’s appreciated all the more because I know how easy it is to forget those who are out of sight.

There are few comforts to fall back to, croissants and fancy cakes, sunshine (until it burns you), the calm of reading a book, alcohol if you’re that way inclined.

Eventually it becomes not if, but how often are you willing to smile and strike up a conversation with a stranger. Throwing out your wacky ideas to see if they’re caught by the wind starts to seem less crazy. You aren’t as bad a companion as you thought you’d be. When you’re all you’ve got, you have to appreciate your own sense of humour and generate your own kindness. Listening to your own exhaustion matters more. If you crash, you crash. You have nobody to prop up your depleted energy levels. And when you find yourself spiralling into low-self-esteem, frantically worrying and planning for the worse, you can’t offload to someone else. Fear is your buddy now.

It can be lonely when you know nobody. Your Friday night isn’t a comfortable pint with people who don’t mind you whinging about the same topic as the previous weeks and months. It’s spent alone and you’d better be happy with that because you made the choice to leave.

Saying hello and introducing yourself is hard. You have to recognize that someone else, who has their own plans, friends and dreams might be grateful to have coffee with you, despite them knowing nothing about you. It takes a dose of self-belief.

Then, gradually, friends start appearing, or at least people who are also so alone that like friends they don’t mind your oddities. You meet people who, like you, worry about balancing connection and comfort with their innate curiosity. Often they might seem confused as to who they are and what they will do with their lives. They’re explorers who need someone to thrash it all out with.

You discuss food, visas and the strength of the coffee. You find out that there are countries that don’t have a minimum wage and that the idea that a woman would give up her own surname is considered, by some, crazy and unfair.

These strangers, the people willing to tell you about their broken hearts and failed dreams don’t mind when you say you don’t want to go out with them and drink on a Saturday night, you aren’t theirs, and they don’t have any expectations of you. No explanations are owed. There’s no guilt that you upset them, or shame that you’re a poor friend who’s let them down.

It gives you room to experiment. There are fewer requirements to belong to a group because the membership is in constant flux. It’s necessary to have people to meet up with to discuss the day’s traumas, but everyone knows both the person talking and the listener are there on a temporary assignment. There’s little need to bend to the group’s norms, in fact it’s damaging as what people are often looking for is a challenge to their own individuality. Differences are celebrated and assumptions put to the test. Comparisons are made, but they’re not about you as the individual, they’re about your whole culture, they’re about everything that has made you who you are.

In this land of far, far away, I often I hear stories that play along the lines of ‘I’ve screwed up and failed and my life is a mess and I’m not sure what I’m going to do next month, let alone in 5 years’ time’. They make me smile for anyone who talks openly about their uncertainties and their battles with the ‘shoulds’ of their perfect scenario gets respect from me. Admitting life is crazy scary is hard, and it’s tough saying I wanted to do this, but I failed the entrance exam, or I was with this guy, but he broke my heart and now I don’t know how to trust again, or I wish I could give up smoking, or I dropped out of college, and now I don’t know what to do, or I’ve worked for ten years in finance and I couldn’t bear another moment trapped behind that desk. It’s a powerful message.

Sometimes all you can do is keep moving forward.