On Departures

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I.

I travel as much as I can, which is just enough to teach me how little of the world I’ve seen, and to whet my appetite to travel more. And I’m always bemused when I come back from wherever I’ve been, and friends say, “you look so rested!” As much as I love to journey and explore, I don’t do it to rest. Travel challenges my (im)patience and timidity, my need to be with others (to cooperate, to lead, to follow); my ability to be alone, my compulsions to move, plan, and manage; my difficulty in being self-indulgent.

I can’t decide whether I prefer traveling alone or with others. I’m a natural introvert—I love and need people in my life, but—apparently—I can’t spend an unlimited amount of time with others. At a certain breaking-point, I will burst into tears and/or rudely shove my companions aside, desperate to seize a bit of solitude, a few hours, or moments, which can be completely mine, in order to pull my scattered, attenuated self back together again. I’ve discovered that, as someone who’s used to operating on her own schedule, at her own pace, with no-one’s idiosyncrasies and peccadilloes but her own to ever be a problem, it takes a lot of psychic energy to observe the behavior of others, accept it, and adapt to it (or occasionally bulldoze over it to keep everyone else moving along). The lessons of Sesame Street–sharing, cooperation–don’t come easily to me. But in my own defense, that’s not because I’m selfish and spoiled, but rather because I’m trying so hard not to be those things that I feel deeply, morally responsible for the happiness and comfort of everyone in the party. I also feel deeply, morally convinced that my vision for any given itinerary is the right one. Turns out, I’ve got the temperament of a border collie—nipping at everyone’s heels, racing from this member of the flock to the next to make sure none go astray, always vigilant, always on the move. My flock don’t necessarily want or need me to herd them, but herding is what I do, and let me tell you, it’s a lot of work. By the end of each day, both collie and flock are happy to retreat to their respective folds.

By contrast, when I travel on my own, I love the feeling of being self-sufficient and intrepid. There’s no-one to rely on (or fret over) but me. I generally have little patience for puzzles of all kinds—except for the giant puzzle of a new trip, which offers a series of tests and problems to solve, planning itineraries, getting from A to B, reading maps, conniving over how to get into the maximum number of attractions for free, strategizing to sight-see in one giant loop traversing half a city, with no back-tracking (one of my many obsessive-compulsive taboos). If I get lost, or do something dumb—like fall prey to some time-share huckster (Mexico), or wipe out on a rental bike before I even leave the hotel driveway (San Antonio), those defeats can remain secret, with no witnesses who will ever see me again. Far better, every discovery is completely mine—I haven’t been led to it by anyone’s curiosity but my own. I often organize my explorations according to obscure, personal landmarks, scenes from some childhood book, a half-remembered tv movie from the 80s, some arcane bit of grad school research, places that my friends don’t know anything about, that wouldn’t excite them the same way. When you travel alone, you have no one’s tastes, or interests, or needs to consult but your own.

But as much as I love being able to have my solo travel adventures, I don’t love having to travel solo. Left to my own devices and presbyterian conditioning, my habits become quite austere; and, if there’s no-one else handy for the collie to shepherd and drive, she’ll start obsessively herding herself. I might sit down for a total of one hour out of 12, haunting the streets, museums, and monuments like an unquiet spirit. When I travel with other people, I’m often taken aback by their need to rest, to eat, to browse things I wouldn’t bother with, to resort to the extravagance of a cab, or even the subway, (why?? when you could save £2 and burn calories by walking those 20 measly blocks back to the hotel! woo!! I know: down, girl.) There’s no question that I can cover more ground when I travel on my own. But that combination of austerity and restless, relentless movement has its costs: I tend not to stop to read a book at a cafe, or even just pick up a coffee; I talk myself out of buying shoes and sweaters that I later wish I had. I tend not to try special restaurants, or pay an extra £3.80 for a glass of wine with dinner. Some force keeps nipping at my heels, pushing me to get up and going.

So I experience a species of fatigue peculiar to traveling on my own, even to a place that’s beloved and familiar (maybe for those very reasons), You’re on holiday and yet you’ve paid a lot to be wherever you are, while also being penitentially penurious in your choice of hotel (because it’s self-indulgent to splash out on a hotel room just for yourself). You don’t want to waste time, or money; the tv channels available at the hotel are sad and thin. So you go out, and you feel like since you’ve come all this way, you need to SEE things—so you walk, and explore, and go to museums, and exhibits, and shops; you wander the neighborhoods, you look at the buildings and the landscape, the light, the sky; you see, hear, and smell; you observe people, dogs, odd signs, venerable achievements of human culture—and you end up feeling a bit tired, a bit jaded, a bit lonely, because it’s all amazing, and sensory-saturating, and you have no-one with whom to talk about what you’re seeing, no-one with whom to process your observations and theories, no-one with whom to share the feeling of being the foreigner who’s 1) doing this or that wrong because you can have no way of knowing what the right way is; and 2) obviously got a better way of doing things that these poor people haven’t figured out yet. When you travel with someone you can talk one another into taking those breaks, buying those little indulgences; you can share the stress of planning what to do next You can delegate, or surrender, in a way you can’t when you’re on your own. Alone, to whom can you say, “I don’t know where to go next—you decide! I don’t know how to fix this problem—please help!”? You can share the defeats, the triumphs, the experience.

When I travel alone, I see EVERYTHING—but it’s a kind of endurance trial which leaves me a little drained, physically and emotionally at the end. What’s best, I think, is to alternate journeys, solo, and with others whose company gives me the excuse I can’t give myself to occasionally slow down, or even just sit still, to be in a place rather than to always be doing something to it: traversing, touring, circumambulating, conquering.

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