Last month, I went to Spain. After more than a year of Spanish classes and countless hours of language tandem, I wanted to experience the country from the lesson books with my own eyes. I wanted to read the papers and the signs, make a fool out of myself at restaurants, spend inordinate amounts of time in bookshops and talk to strangers in shared rides.
The idea was to throw myself and my Spanish into real-life conditions, to see if we sank or swam. It was a very personal enterprise, a project if you will, and since most everyone I knew was working and I had some time off, I went on my own.
This wasn’t the first journey I had ever taken by myself, but the first one to a place where I hardly knew anyone and where I was going to spend most of the time by myself.
Last year, my friend Max hat taken a train through Scandinavia and later written about the incredulous reactions his solo traveling provoked: People had actually been impressed by his ability to be alone so long, to travel without company. And they wouldn’t have wanted to do it themselves, someone remarked, for the fear of being stigmatized or (worse!) being alone with their thoughts.
Max didn’t mind. In fact, he later told me he enjoyed precisely what other people dreaded: Having time to think whilst staring out of train windows and the freedom of determining his travel schedule and activities without outside interference. “There’s no one to take into account but yourself. That can be nice sometimes.” He had a point.
Traveling by yourself means that the possibilities are virtually limitless. I could have gotten up at the crack of dawn to watch the sunrise over Valencia, or stayed in my hostel bed all day, as a surprising amount of tourists seemed to like doing. But I mainly walked, more than twenty kilometers each day, effectively completing a marathon every 48 hours.
Perhaps I kept myself busy to avoid being alone with my thoughts, but I mainly wanted to discover things and take pictures, provoke chance encounters. Sometimes, when I found a particularly sunny spot, I would take out my book and just read for a while, knowing that I wasn’t going to hold anyone up.
On my second night in Madrid, I walked to the movie theatre and bought a ticket for myself. It was a Spanish murder mystery, and I understood everything but the plot twist, sat there in the dark, eyes glued to the screen. I was lost in the last ten minutes but otherwise feeling accomplished.
It struck me back then that going to the movies by yourself is another one of those activities many people dread. It is an activity we commonly do with friends, even though it consists of silently sitting in a row, watching something being projected on a screen in front of you. Regardless of that, I have always felt a tad weird to go by myself, to be doing something communal without company.
Perhaps that is a lesson of the trip: that I am much more attuned to societal expectations than I would previously have admitted. But traveling by myself ultimately didn’t feel as liberating as I wanted it to, but more like an extended trip to the movies by myself.
Something definitely enjoyable, insightful even, but also a tad uncomfortable. The reason we go to movies together is not because we enjoy silently sitting in dark rooms, but because we can later talk about the film, how the story went or how it was shot, whether it moved us or not.
They say that traveling teaches you equally much about yourself as it does about the place you visit. In my case, it was that the experience becomes much more vivid if shared with someone else, someone talk about all there is to see, be it on the screen or in real life.