Solo Traveling in the United Kingdom

IMG_3822.JPG

Writing this now in a little hostel somewhere in London. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a city this big, so full of people and noise and the energy of too many cars, lights, taxis and different languages crisscrossing over one another in the streets: French and English, Spanish and Russian, West African languages mixed alongside Arabic and Chinese. Northern Ireland, even Belfast, is a world away from all this.

But even here, in one of the largest, busiest cities in the world, there are little places and moments of peace. Like stumbling through the city blocks to come across a path by the river that snakes through the Camden neighborhood, as the sun sets the clouds alight over the city, and watching the bikers and families and young people smoking cheap cigarettes move by as the light fades away from the fall evening. Sitting there, your duffle back beside you by the river that has carried you through this last week, and thinking that entire novels could be written about the people that pass by this one little stretch of city. A better writer, perhaps, than you — but still, there’s that itching feeling in your fingers that creeps in thinking of it, a feeling that hasn’t been felt for a long, long time.

“And it all becomes clear for a moment or two. And I’m driven by these moments of discovery, where coldness and cynicism melt away”

IMG_3846

Glasgow, Edinburgh, and now, London — a lot for a week, and a lot of time to stay stuck in your head and thoughts while traveling alone. Hostels, and drowning out the snores of bunkmates with the drone of a white noise app on your phone. Getting stuck in the rain and ducking into a coffee shop to revive your spirits over a cup of disappointingly bitter, poorly brewed Americano. Coming back out on the street, and feeling entirely, totally, absolutely done with Glasgow until the sun suddenly lifts its head and shines light on the beautiful, stone-bricked, tree-lined neighborhood just down the block that the rain had hidden from sight just minutes before.

The difficult part is doing that all alone. The misery of rainy days, the little moments of joy and discovery, the quiet walks, the rows of art galleries and the long, stretched-out mornings in coffee shops. In each of those moments, there is a feeling of loneliness, of lowness, that can seep into everything when least expected. Of turning to one side to make a comment, a joke, even an exasperated sigh — and finding no one there beside you to turn towards.

It is those times that are the hardest; not the rain nor the crowded, noisy hostel rooms nor the ache in your feet from a long day’s walk. It’s the feeling of being alone, alone in a foreign country, in cities you don’t know, with no one there to share in the difficult and beautiful moments of each day with. I’ve rarely had to face that before, and it’s been a hard thing to wrestle with over this week travel.

IMG_3802
Glasgow, Scotland

But despite the loneliness, there has also been space and time to rediscover things that have been unconsciously pushed to the side lately. Writing, again, even if ever paragraph seems a struggle, every sentence a battle for words that refuse to come easy. Long afternoons in coffee shops to sit in quiet, and journal and write and listen to languages float across the room, trying to catch the bits of Spanish, Arabic, and French that I can understand. Letting myself wander through an art museum for hours at a time, pausing before a Monet or a Rembrant and only leaving again when I’ve taken all I can from the picture. Reading Hemingway, Hosseini, Adiche in a bookstore on the street corner by the British Museum in London. Drinking cheap beers in the corner of a pub and listening to the Scottish singer-songwriter at the end of the bar serenade a beautiful, dark-haired Spanish girl as she watches him with her face cupped in her hands.

In all of these little moments, I have felt something like a stranger, quietly observing others but standing apart from the lives going on around me as I move from city to city in the United Kingdom. In Bosnia and Serbia and Northern Ireland and Jordan, there was a purpose to my traveling, to work or study or learn a language, in a way that made me feel connected to the country and people. Here, in Scotland and London, I feel in so many ways like a drifter, wandering from museum to museum, landmark to landmark, another tourist in the crowd yet still standing apart from the throngs taking photos of Buckingham Palace, a stranger even from the backpack-carrying, bearded travelers drinking and socializing in the hostels I spend my nights in.

IMG_3882
New Town, Edinburgh
Image-1-1
Calton Hill
IMG_3867
Edinburgh Castle
IMG_3812.JPG
Glasgow

But in these long, quiet days, I’ve also begun to discover a deep, quiet, intense and solitary part of myself that has emerged only when I’m alone.  It’s a part that  needs, desperately, to write for the sake of writing itself — to create, and to fill blank pages without the desire or need for recognition. It’s a part that wants to travel and see more of the world, not just the beautiful and peaceful parts, but those that have experienced fracture and violence, and somehow find out how to be a part of healing this crazy, chaotic, sometimes unbearable world in whatever way that I can. To keep learning, always, whether that be in politics, the social sciences, literature, or in the languages I want to be fluent in: Arabic, Spanish, French.

And, for now, to go on to the next stage beyond Boston, whether that be graduate school or work or simply taking a year to travel and volunteer. To, finally, move from this life and start fresh, with all the successes and failures a new life might bring.

I’m grateful, if anything, for the time to rediscover all of that.  And though I’d rather not again — not like this, not without friends or family or someone to turn to when things get heavy or seem so unbelievably joyful that its unbearable not to share with someone else — I can still be grateful for the little moments of peace and happiness that can filter through the course of the day, these little moments of self discovery that come only from being alone with yourself.

IMG_3934
Westminster Palace
IMG_3937
On the Thames
IMG_3938
Russel Square, London

About a month, now, until I leave the United Kingdom and Ireland to return home. This has been a long, heavy year, in so many ways. Relationships, politics back home, finding myself again in a foreign country that I know next to nothing of. When I decided to come to Northern Ireland, I imagined this as a nice, easy place to come between my time in Balkans last year and future internships to take place year from now. Instead, this has become a place of forced self-discovery, of wrestling with doubt, of healing and reevaluating how to move forward as some things fall apart. Of finding news joys and community and friendships in all of that.

I’m ready, I think, to move on from these past three, going on four years at Northeastern. They have been unbelievably good to me — full of trips to the Balkans and the Middle East, to spending summer days in the south of France, to calling Boston home and finding a community and a spirit of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. But it’s time to go, and with that leaving of things, to put an end to this blog as well.

This blog changed over the years. In what began as a series of political essays on Bosnia during my first trip abroad has evolved into a place for more intimate thoughts, for putting a lot of this insecurities and difficulties out into the world for the rest of you to read. The politics and international relations are still there, but I feel freer in being able to write about myself in addition to the countries I find myself traveling in.

I’d like to believe that it has become better for it, as Thoughts and Travels reaches its fourth and final year.

Thank you, as always, for reading. 

IMG_3869