I’ve just done a pile of travelling for work. New Zealand to the USA; then on to Ireland; then back to Australia and finally home. Two and a half weeks, ten different airplane flights, six countries, circumnavigated the globe and participated in two work events. Partway through the journey from Los Angeles to Dublin, it struck me that although I’d travelled domestically and between Australia and New Zealand by myself, I’d never done such a big trip all on my lonesome. I’ve travelled to the United Kingdom half a dozen times, but have always had a friend, boyfriend or husband with me. Last year I was in the US with my husband and one daughter.
For a brief moment, I felt lonely. Then the person sitting next to me struck up a conversation, and I thought “actually, I’m not alone”. I am a person who enjoys my solitude. For me, a classic introvert, the prospect of so much travelling by myself holds no terrors. But people do seem to attract people. There was the person sitting beside me on the Sydney to Los Angeles leg, who had done lots of travelling but very little by herself and was a bit nervous. Then there was the lovely Australian couple who sat behind me on the same leg and with whom I spent a couple of hours at LAX when we were all waiting for our connecting flights. On first glance, they seemed like any elderly couple travelling – sensible flat shoes; he in shorts, she in comfortable sweats; backpacks; passport and boarding cards poking out of his shirt pocket; checking the departure boards regularly and leaving half an hour earlier than necessary to clear customs quickly. On closer acquaintance, it turned out that they have travelled all over the world. Cruises in Alaska, many visits to the US and Europe, and most of these trips to visit girls, now grown-up and many with children of their own, who had been exchange students and stayed with them over the years. They were fabulously interesting, well-informed, sharing travel stories and favourite international spots with me.
On the short flight from LA to Sacramento, there was a salesman who was going to a trade show. He’d attended every year and loved the fact that in September, the trade show was always outside under ezi-up tent gazebos; everyone in shorts and sandals rather than suits and dress shoes. He was from Louisiana and loved the dry heat instead of the humidity he was accustomed to.
In Singapore airport, I sat next to a Kiwi woman who’d been at an insurance conference and visiting her sister. She was great fun and we spent some time with our puffy feet companionably perched on our cabin bags, chatting about home and families.
On the way home from Singapore to Sydney, I sat next to a man who’d been living in Wales for twenty-five years. He was flying home to Australia to bury his mum. He was born in New Zealand but had been adopted into an Australian family when he was a year old, and talking to him about the adoption and his feelings, his tracing of his birth parents, and what he was going to say in his eulogy for his mother whiled away several hours.
So I did talk to a lot of people. And I heard lots of fascinating snippets of people’s lives. Sitting in a flying tin can for hours on end enforces a certain kind of intimacy. But then again…
On other flights, I was immersed in my e-reader or watching movies, and exchanged little more than a “please can I get past you to go to the toilet” with my seat mates. I sat at airports totally by myself, in a bubble of aloneness (interestingly this was especially true at Heathrow, even though it was the most populated airport I visited). I people watched and was amazed by the sheer number of books, e-readers, iPods and phones which occupied people, and how few people were actually talking to each other. I was in this great multitude and loved the feeling of utter solitude.
So are we ever truly alone? I certainly felt alone when I was reading, with the iPod plugged in and no-one making eye contact (including me!). Was it solitude in the same way being the only person walking along a windswept beach would be? Or sitting at home listening to music by myself? I think it was a different kind of solitude, akin to the being alone at home but plugged into technology – Facebook, emails, the internet. So yes, I do think it is possible to be truly alone, but nowadays, there are lots of opportunities for us to remain connected. Our challenge should be to find actual solitude from time to time. Disconnect ourselves from the world at large, and try focussing on the world up close. Let’s see if we can still cope with truly being alone.