Lessons in Loneliness

I’m lonely tonight.

I’m lonely, so I went out for a walk and had a look at all the normal people doing normal, non-lonely things, like shopping for groceries together and having coffee together and dragging their screaming children around together. It made me feel lonelier.

I’m not usually lonely. When I’m in Ottawa, I like to be alone a lot of the time, which makes it hard to get lonely. I guess I take it for granted that there, I have not aloneness at arm’s reach, plans to be accepted or brushed off.

The thing about a vacation, even if it’s just to go back to the place where you grew up and stay in your parents’ house and see your friends from high school, is that everyone around you is living real life. They have important things to do, they have plans and responsibilities, and you’re just…floating. I feel unanchored.

I had an attack of homesickness in the Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence, about a week before  coming home (so after about six weeks of travelling). It had been coming on gradually all day, quietly hiccupping inside of me. It was sort of an unscripted day, because my trusty travelling partner Danielle had decided to go on a vespa adventure in the countryside while I went to the Uffizi Gallery. (Our main points of tension on the trip were that she almost never wanted to go to galleries, and that I absolutely always took too long to get ready – anyone who knows me is not surprised.) By the time I’d finished at the gallery, I still had a hot, empty afternoon ahead of me. I decided to climb up to the piazzale because the guide book said that it had an amazing view, which it did. And then I don’t really know what happened, other than that the small, disquieting loneliness that had been schlepping around with me all day became a roaring, pressing feeling that there was no one who loved me in reach, no one who cared about my thoughts, insipid or profound, no one who could put a pause to the million small fears and insecurities that were rattling around my brain like demented hamster wheels after a full day with no one’s company but my own. So I sat down on a pretty stone bench in front of the replica of Michelangelo’s David statue, and cried for about five minutes, which helped. **

There are a lot of stupid things you can get up to in a foreign country, with the liberation and confidence of being an intrepid world traveller goading you onwards.  One of Danielle’s favourite things to say on the trip was “No one knows me here!”, and it was true – no one knew us. The perceived embarrassment level of anything we did was severely reduced. (Not to mention that being in a new country every four days, you lose track of what the laws even are… “Do you know if we’re allowed to drink on the street here?”) It’s not as if I don’t get up to my fair share of silliness anyways at home, but I took full advantage of the no one knows me here excuse. Even so, the Piazzale Michelangelo, sober and in broad daylight, was the low point of my seven weeks in Europe.

People like to come home from long vacations announcing that they are forever changed, often sporting fresh tattoos of the outlines of continents. I wouldn’t say that my trip really changed me fundamentally (and don’t worry, Mom, I didn’t get a tattoo). What it did do was open my eyes to the discrepancy between the way I see myself and the way I actually am, which I guess is in itself a big change. I’ve always liked to think of myself as being very independent, liked to believe that I didn’t much need other people. The truth is: I NEED OTHER PEOPLE SO MUCH. How did I never realize this about myself? It’s not just an emotional thing, either; I rely on everyone in my life in a very practical sense. There’s no chance that I would have stayed alive through those seven weeks without Danielle looking out for me, and knowing that, I can see how much the people around me help me make it through day to day life. My friends are constantly helping me make logical decisions, accommodating for my disastrous sense of personal organization, and putting their arms out to stop me from walking into traffic. Even though I do like to spend time by myself, I’ve always had people who were willing to show up whenever, talk me through my problems, go along with my crazy ideas, pay attention to me and make me feel safe and cared for. So, in a way, having an attack of loneliness in Italy was a really eye opening experience.

Here, back in Vancouver, with all the normal, non-vacationing people living their normal, real lives around me, I am learning how to deal with loneliness. I am learning how to decide to do something and then do it, without waiting for approval or urging. I am learning how to spend a day with only my own thoughts and not have them spiral into doom and misery. It’s easy to get lonely here, because I don’t have a list of things that need to be done and people who I need to see, nor a list of places to visit and the distraction of new sights and smells and tastes. No projects, no expectations. No real life. It’s a strange limbo between vacation and home. I’m adjusting to it. Just as it’s coming to an end, I’m beginning to see it as an opportunity. Like crying in Florence, it might make me a better person.

**Addendum: Because I haven’t posted anything about Europe yet, I want to clarify that it was an amazingly, wonderfully fun trip. This was just a not so great day, and I’m only writing about it due to the current level of self-pity I’m experiencing.

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