One of my favorite travel bloggers, Wandering Earl, wrote this article about traveling alone. Earl basically says that even if you travel somewhere on your own, it’s so easy to meet people when you get there that you’ll never really be alone, and so there’s no reason to worry if you have no one to go with you. My own travel experiences so far have confirmed this, and so I wasn’t at all concerned about going to Barcelona by myself for ten days and not knowing anyone there. I knew that I would know people there.
There’s something about traveling that makes it not only very easy to meet people, but very easy to bond with people as well. When you’re in an unfamiliar environment, outside your usual routine, unbound by deadlines and the obligations of work, and away from the well-known cues that tell you how to behave, emotions seem to become more raw and intense than usual. Maybe the uncertainty of it all makes us feel like we need people more than usual, so we cling to whoever we can find some semblance of a connection with. Or maybe the fleeting nature of it all, the knowledge that in a few days we’ll go back to our normal lives and probably never be in these places with these people again, makes us want to live every moment to the fullest. Even if it’s stupid, it doesn’t matter. You have to let it all out, because somehow you can’t help it. Because you will never be here again, and that fact is more evident to you now than ever.
I’ll never forget the time I got lost in Taroko National Park in Taiwan and was rescued by a Taiwanese couple on a scooter. They were complete strangers, but they noticed me walking around, were concerned and gave me a ride to the entrance of the park. They didn’t speak a word of English and my Mandarin was mediocre at best, but somehow I felt a strong connection to these people. A couple of days later, by pure coincidence, I ran into them again at a water park and ended up spending the whole day with them. I couldn’t explain it, but it seemed like these people were my family, like I had known them my entire life. They invited me to meet up with them somewhere the next day, but unfortunately there was a misunderstanding about the place and I ended up missing them. I felt terrible, but I couldn’t get a hold of them because I’d left their phone number in my hotel room. By the time I got back to the hotel and managed to contact them, it was already almost time to get on the train for the next leg of my trip around Taiwan. I thought I would never see them again, and the thought made me so sad that I wanted to cry. I mean, I had only known them for a few days, but I felt closer to them than most people I’d known for years– and you don’t find friendships like that every day. But as soon as they’d gotten my phone call, they immediately came to meet me at the train station, bought me something to drink, and insisted on inviting me to spend a night with them in their hometown to make up for the trouble. I was so moved by their hospitality that I did cry. They looked at me, smiled with incredible kindness and exclaimed, “You’re such an emotional person!” But the funny thing is, “emotional” is not a word people typically use to describe me. I’ve been more often told that I’m too serious, or even that I seem cold and aloof. But something about traveling –especially solo traveling– changes that. Something about traveling strips away all the layers of poisedness, and feigned maturity, and fake smiles, and practicality. It strips away the mask and leaves nothing but pure humanity in all its puffy-eyed, gap-toothed imperfection. Maybe that’s why people go traveling to “find themselves”. Because traveling has a way of making the real you come out, whether you want it to or not.
When you stay put, it’s easier to close yourself off. The Argentinian woman I stayed with in Barcelona, Beatriz, seemed to be very nice, but I found it hard to connect with her because she didn’t seem to want to talk about herself very much. In an attempt to make conversation, I asked her why she had decided to host foreign students in her home. She said it was because she didn’t work, and I asked why not. She said something like, “Well, it’s very difficult and complicated,” and something in her expression and the tone of her voice told me not to pursue the subject any further. She asked me questions about myself, what I was doing in Barcelona and things like that, but whenever I tried to ask her about herself she kind of withdrew. For the last few days we ended up mostly just watching TV during dinner and not talking much. I was still determined to practice my Spanish, but I took to asking questions about what was happening on TV rather than anything more personal. When I left her apartment at the end of my stay, the atmosphere was kind of awkward. Maybe I could have done something to make things go more smoothly with her, but I’m not sure what. I still have a lot to learn about human relationships, that’s for sure.
So the people I connected with in Barcelona were mostly other travelers, or people who were there just temporarily. And somehow, most of them ended up being male. It seems like I should be used to dealing with people of the opposite sex, considering I grew up with two brothers and all… But the truth is that I’ve never had many guy friends, and with the few I have had things have always ended up getting complicated– and unfortunately, it has always ended badly. In recent years I’ve taken to downright avoiding befriending guys, because I just don’t want to take the chance of having to deal with emotional complications I don’t feel at all ready for. Frankly, emotions scare me. They’re too unpredictable, too uncontrollable, too volatile, too powerful. I’ve finally gotten to the point that I feel really happy with my life, and I’ve gotten here as a single person. All the times when I’ve had a significant other in the past have been times when I felt a lot more miserable overall than I do now. They’ve been periods of my life when I’ve completely lost control, hopelessly catapulted along on a rollercoaster of emotions. Why would I want to take the chance of going back there again? Why would I want to risk ruining what I have?
But I’ve come to realize that this is probably not a healthy attitude. I avoid having guy friends because I’m afraid things will get complicated, so when I do end up befriending a guy in spite of myself (which is bound to happen), things do indeed end up getting complicated, probably in part because I expect them to. Then I have no idea how to deal with the situation, because I have so little experience with this sort of thing and I’m so freaked out that it’s happening, which doesn’t exactly help me to act rationally. Now, if such a complication happens in the context of travel, when I’m more impulsive and emotionally vulnerable than normal, then it just gets dangerous.
I’ve fallen in love (or at least thought I’d fallen in love) with people before, and most of them have drifted in and out of my life without anything coming of it. Some of them just showed up in the wrong place at the wrong time, like the English guy who came to work at my school in Japan a month before I had to leave. But with most of them, I just never had the guts to tell them how I felt about them. I couldn’t let those kinds of emotions out, because they made me feel too vulnerable.
So why was it different this time? Why did I have to say it? Why?
Was it the warm Barcelona air? Was it the sound of the music in the streets? Or maybe it was that tortilla I ate that made me sick, so I ended up spending the night throwing up and hardly eating anything for the next few days. (Actually, I really think that must have been it. The lack of nutrition must have made me delusional.)
He could have been anyone– really, he could have been anyone. But this poor guy just happened to be there, in the wrong place at the wrong time. He happened to be nice, we happened to have just enough in common that he was easy to talk to, and he happened to have a cute smile. And now I’m sure he thinks I’m insane, because I just had to say to him, “Look, I know this is crazy because we hardly know each other, but I think I’m in love with you!” (Okay, I didn’t actually say it– I wrote it in a Facebook message. Cowardly, I know.)
I still don’t know why, but for some reason I felt like I was going to lose my mind if I didn’t get that feeling out of me at that moment. I was in sunny Barcelona where there was so much to see and do, and yet I was sitting in a dark room, my empty stomach churning, my mind swimming and my eyes streaming with tears. I hardly even knew what I was feeling anymore and I didn’t even know why, but I was just feeling, feeling way too much. Everything else had been stripped away, and there was nothing left but feeling. There was nothing left but emotions, and they had taken over. I knew it was irrational, but I couldn’t think about anything else but this person who had given me an all-too-brief glimpse of something I suddenly felt I wanted, even needed to have. I was leaving in a couple of days, and it was ridiculous, but for some reason I had to say it. It was completely selfish, but I had to say it.
So I wrote that Facebook message. I sent it. Then I shut my laptop, made myself get up, and escaped to this place:
I’m sure being in a place like this helped, but despite my actions that morning I soon found myself feeling surprisingly calm. It was a lazy weekday afternoon and there weren’t many people around. I climbed up a trail, found an isolated place on a step, sat there staring down Montserrat’s jagged peaks, and just observed my thoughts for a while.
When I got back to my room that evening and finally opened my laptop again, there was no reply to my message. I realized it had been pretty selfish of me to put this person in an awkward situation just because I wanted to get something off my chest. So I sent another message saying, “I’m sorry for writing something like that. I guess it must be awkward for you, but I just had to get it out. Anyway, I’m not expecting anything, and I’m going back to Paris tomorrow anyway, so I’ll be happy if you’ll just be my friend.”
And I did mean that. But I couldn’t stay there in that room trapped with my emotions. So I went to the Sagrada Familia, which was just a train stop away from where I was staying, because I had been told it was worth seeing at nighttime.
As I was standing on the sidewalk gazing at the marvelous sight, an old man came up to me and said in Spanish, “You’re more beautiful than the Sagrada Familia! But your boyfriend must tell you that all the time, right?” I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or a little creeped out, so I just kind of pretended like I didn’t understand and he walked away. It seemed rather ironic, though, that I was getting this kind of attention from a random old guy at a time like this.
I went back to my room again, and finally I had a response to my message. It was something like, “Well, I don’t really know what to say, but thank you. Let’s keep being friends!” Yeah… I guess I wouldn’t know what to say either, if some random person I’d just met a week ago suddenly told me they were in love with me.
And then, of course, I felt really embarrassed. All I wanted then was to get out of there, back to Paris, back to picking up the kids from school and making dinner and going to piano lessons and Russian language exchange meetings, back to my routine that kept me within the confines of sanity. I wished the musicians in Barcelona’s metro stations would stop playing, I wished the sun of its blue sky would stop shining on my face, I wished it would stop, stop, stop intoxicating me…
Then the next day I got on the plane, and a couple of hours later I was back. I welcomed the nip of the still-cold Paris air, and the people who cared about fashion and who spoke with controlled, poised voices. I came back to the house still empty of my host family who had gone skiing, and I devoured a dinner of Chinese takeout and raspberry yogurt, and suddenly it felt like everything was right again. I felt home. At least for now, this is home.
I’m going to write one more post in this series, mostly just because I have a lot more cool pictures from Barcelona that I’d like to show you! So the next post will be Losing My Mind in Barcelona, Part 3: Places. After that, I think I’ll have had enough of this craziness– for a while, anyway.