On traveling alone

As I sat in the car crossing the English Channel with complete strangers, the conversation turned to our weekend plans. I was tired and nodded idly when asked if I was meeting up with friends, not wanting to explain my situation or my motives — of which I wasn’t even really sure myself — for traveling to London.

I didn’t want to explain how I had missed my flight to Morocco for spring break that morning, or how I had, after hours of deliberation and juggling the ways I could save the second leg of my flight, settled on London as a destination. And I especially didn’t want to bring up the fact that I would be in London for three days completely alone.

I arrived in the city past midnight with nowhere to stay. My phone was dying and I was hungry. I bid my fellow carpoolers farewell, reassuring them that I was meeting up with someone who would take me in for the night. The first hostel I happened upon wouldn’t, but two hours and three miles from Old Street later I was tucked in with Wi-Fi and a flurry of Facebook messages.

“How’s Morocco?”

“Where are you? We’re in Marrakech!”

“I was thinking we could go to Essaouira on Monday!”

Even though I had made a conscious effort to pack light, I was exhausted from lugging around the few belongings I bothered to bring and closed the messages without responding. Status updates were already popping up announcing where many of my friends had gone for the week, often coupled with smiley faces or superfluous exclamation points. I was embarrassed, sad and jealous; I had completely ruined my travel plans and now found myself in a city I had no idea how to navigate with no plans, little cash and no one to contact. The hostel was booked for the next night and I knew I would once again be on the prowl for a place to stay the next day. I logged off of Facebook without posting anything.

By the next day, I had found another hostel out in Wimbledon after hobbling around all morning with my bag. I was still disappointed about my situation, but I realized that I would have to become comfortable with the idea of exploring the city alone.

It wasn’t difficult. London was beautiful, and despite its belittling exchange rate, offered an incredible amount of free entertainment. I got lost in the British Museum wading through history, I ate fish and chips by the Thames and realized I had more trouble than I expected understanding London English. And it was strangely exciting.

When I got back to the hostel that night, I logged onto Facebook before bed. Photos from all around Europe and beyond sprinkled my feed as friends provided visual evidence of their own spring break adventures. Groups smiling at the camera, some doused in the North African sun I had missed by minutes, others posing before the facades of monoliths and architectural wonders built centuries ago. Some mounted monuments, others feigned while holding them, others even desecrated them. It was all in good fun, I figured. I once again had nothing to post and logged off.

The next two days were eye-opening, as I visited free museum after free museum (London is really great for these) and wandered the city’s sprawling parks and galleries. I listened to crazy people get up on stools and preach nationalism at Speakers’ Corner while others berated them. I watched Arsenal lose to their biggest rival in North London and complained belligerently with other diehard fans. I strolled around the posh houses of Earl’s Court at night aimlessly — and I enjoyed it.

I wasn’t held back by anyone; I could do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I didn’t have to wait for anyone and no one had to wait for me. I spent hours walking from Baker Street to the stunning Regent’s Park all the way through to Abbey Road, but I didn’t feel the need to take a cliche picture that would likely look ridiculous alone anyway. I ate very little, I took the Tube a lot and enjoyed watching people live their everyday lives in a city I was just discovering. My feet hurt frequently.

And at the end of the day, I would log back onto Facebook before bed, seeing the same thing again. Instagram thumbnails with double-digit amounts of hashtags. Location check-ins with double-digit amounts of people. Tagged pictures with double-digit amounts of drinks.

It didn’t bother me at all, nor was I jealous or embarrassed anymore. But I wondered if some of the posting I had done in the past had in any way contributed to my experiences besides proving to others that I had been somewhere with someone. I felt more fulfilled with all the time I had to think alone in London than I had ever felt posting a picture with a friend. I didn’t need a status update for myself to know that. It all seemed a little foolish, even though I knew I would probably resume posting at some point in the near future. Still, I couldn’t help but notice that social networking does less to advance us as individuals than it does to coddle our image for the people around us.

My image had become worthless. I was in a city of millions alone, just a face in the crowd and I loved it. I didn’t have to impress anyone or feel sorry for myself. I could make decisions on a complete whim. I felt less lonely than I had in months.

The freedom that comes with being alone can be powerful. Much is often made of the jump from high school to college — that is, the jump from living pampered by parents to living “alone,” surrounded by thousands of other students of roughly the same age in similar situations. But perhaps what has worried me more, as I have shifted into the last third of my four years, is the jump from college to post-graduation. Friends will move, goals will change, and it is possible that at some point, I will find myself alone.

In the age of social media, loneliness is a scary thought. But being alone doesn’t equate with loneliness. With college life and Facebook getting us spuriously comfortable with constant social interaction, a step away from the need to socially validate myself reassured me that being alone can, in fact, be a beautiful thing — and definitely not one to be spurned or to feel embarrassed about.

At the hostel I was staying at, I met a woman who had seemingly been there for weeks, if not months. She told me she grew up used to small town life in the north of England, where everyone knew each other. After losing her job, she came to London ready to find work anywhere in Europe and to take on a new city alone.

“All of my things, they’re in this one locker,” she said, motioning to a 2-by-4 foot grey door. “The fact that I can go anywhere in the world with just that — it’s very liberating.”