I was in Utrecht, outside Amsterdam, in a cold bright February. I took a walk through the wet woods, the tree branches black against the white sky, and stamped my feet and felt the sharp painful pleasure of the cold air in my lungs. I had been lucky – there was no wind and no rain, the skies for the past week had been an iceberg blue. My blood sang and my skin tingled and I was very happy, but as I returned to the hotel with the glow of its welcoming yellow windows and the thin blue smudge of wood smoke rising from a chimney, I was suddenly struck by a deep melancholy.
Why was I here, seeing these things and feeling these things, all on my own? What was the point of a memory if it lived only in my head? For the rest of my life, if I wanted to share this moment I would have to laboriously describe it to people who at best would be listening politely. I would never be able to say, ‘Hey, remember that time?’
I had a good hot shower and dressed and went down to the restaurant with my book. I’d eaten there the night before, but now something was different. Why were the lights so low? Why were there suddenly candles on the tables? And why was it so full? All around were couples bent over their menus, smiling at each other, saying things in low voices and nodding at things the other person said. It couldn’t be, could it? I checked the date.
It was. It was Valentine’s Day.
Ordinarily I scoff at Valentine’s Day but there was something at first cruel and then quite lovely about sitting alone at the edge of a cold forest in Europe, watching people all around me go through the rituals of togetherness. My heart broke, but gently.
I fall in love easily when I’m alone overseas. I can sit for hours at a roadside table obsessing about a face I glimpsed earlier in a crowd. I imagine how we’d overcome the language barrier and communicate with our hearts and how our lives would unspool together in kindness and warmth. Travelling alone enables me to stop thinking only about myself. Loneliness teaches me about intimacy.
The next morning I checked out. A cab was waiting to take me to the station for the train to Amsterdam. There was another week ahead, walking alone beside grey canals, falling in love with faces passing on bicycles, their long coats whipping, their lips red with cold. ‘It’s a nice day,’ said the lady at the checkout. ‘I hope you have nice weather in Amsterdam.’
‘Oh, don’t worry,’ I said absent-mindedly. ‘Everywhere I go, I always take the weather with me.’
I don’t know why I said that.
I hadn’t heard that song in years. I said goodbye and climbed into the cab. The radio was playing, not loudly, and only after a few minutes did I register the song. ‘Everywhere you go,’ sang Crowded House, ‘always take the weather with you.’ There was nothing mystical about it, it was only a coincidence, but I realised how often these coincidences happen when you’re travelling and alone enough to notice them, not talking or fretting or quarrelling with the person beside you. You notice things more, you make connections, you feel more deeply, you recognise more moments worth sharing. Everyone gets lonely while travelling alone. It’s one of the reasons to do it.
Getaway – 26 May 2016