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Right now, I’m sitting by myself in a café in Prague. I don’t know what the café is called, nor do I know what I ordered, except that the waiter nodded enthusiastically when I pointed to something halfway down the menu. I have no concrete plans for the rest of the day, or, really, the week, except the vague possibility of having coffee with an acquaintance from college who teaches English here. I am here all by myself. I’m lonely.
And, I’m also happy.
The art (and it really is an art) of traveling solo is complicated. Everyone always asks, "Don’t you want to go with someone?" And, yes, I absolutely do. But, it has to be the right kind of someone. Not the high-maintenance friend who freaks out if the hotel Wi-Fi cuts out. Not the know-it-all who acts like an amateur tour guide. Not the man you’re not in love with. For me, it's far better to be alone than to be with one of those types.
Sure, when I’m traveling by myself, I do occasionally feel sadness slice through my stomach when I see a couple engaged in a picture-perfect kiss in the middle of a bridge. I do wish I had someone to laugh with when I spot an enthusiastic-looking golden retriever lapping up muddy water from a puddle between the cobblestones. But, I also know that being alone right now doesn’t mean I'm going to be alone forever. And, for me, those pangs of loneliness serve as reminders of my priorities — and that the people I want in my life are ones who notice weird-looking dogs. While I’m content with my own company, I don’t want to be single forever.
Click ahead for the rest of Anna's empowering story.
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Designed by Ly Ngo.
In everyday life, loneliness occurs sporadically. There’s very little room for it between writing assignments and family obligations and spin class and Tinder dates and after-work drinks. But, when you're traveling, it’s front and center. It morphs from a slight ache to a purple-black bruise that’s tender to the touch. And, being able to see it and feel it makes me realize three things: First, I can survive being lonely. I will never be the type of person to settle into a relationship primarily because I don’t want to be by myself. Second, even though I can do it, the world is better and brighter when you’re surrounded by people you love. Third? When you anticipate and accept loneliness as a temporary inevitability, you can actually enjoy it.
The first time I traveled extensively by myself was a few summers ago, when I was heading to a wedding in Spain. I tacked a week onto the trip, starting in Paris and working my way into Northern Spain, stopping in San Sebastián, Bilbao, and Guernica. In my mind, I imagined a cinematic version of the trip: I’d write a novel in cafés by day, and spend my nights warding off the attention of sophisticated foreign suitors. So, the trip started frenetically, with me determined to pack as much as possible into each day.
After a whirlwind day of sightseeing in Paris, I ended the evening at a restaurant across the street from the hotel. There, I drank red wine and quickly struck up a conversation at the bar with a Parisian man next to me. We talked, we drank, we ended up kissing, and then, somehow, we ended the night arguing. I don’t remember what the contentious topic of conversation was — it might have been politics — but I do remember that I started to cry. I left the bar and retreated to my hotel, alone and exhausted. It was as if I’d had a relationship on speed, with a meeting and break up all taking place in one evening. And, suddenly, I felt lonelier than ever.
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So, with that experience behind me, the next time I went on a solo trip to Paris, I relaxed. One of my favorite days involved a Bikram class and then ambling home, sweat-soaked and exhausted. I sat on a park bench, drinking water and watching young families walking through the park. I meandered past the Seine, weaving my way through hand-holding couples as the sun set. I picked my way through club-hopping crowds near the Bastille. And, finally, I ended up at the apartment I’d rented, where I fell asleep to laughter wafting up from the bar on the street below. I hadn’t spoken to anyone the entire day, but I didn’t feel sad. Instead, I felt privileged to be able to observe the world around me — going on without me — and being able to totally lose myself in myself. I was able to do what I wanted, when I wanted. I was lonely, yes, but I was also happy.
To be honest, I don’t know what will happen in the next 10 days I’m in Europe. Maybe I’ll fall in love. Maybe I’ll make new friends. Maybe I’ll end up crying by myself in a bar, only to strike up conversation with the friendly and sympathetic couple next to me (which happened last spring in Amsterdam). I know I’ll definitely feel lonely.
And, I know that’s alright.