In the middle of October, I took a nine-day trip through four cities in Spain — by myself.
On the one hand, travelling alone is brilliant. With no one else dictating what to see, I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. In Barcelona, I walked an average of 10 miles a day, strutting from tourist site to tourist site, exactly at the pace I wanted.
I had time alone to think about my life, which was fairly terrifying but also soothing in a way. I took a break from technology. Well, mostly, except for when I got hopelessly lost and panicked or had to reassure my parents that I was still alive. And when I had to post an Instagram. And respond to messages on Facebook. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t that much of a break.
On the other hand, I acutely felt the challenge of having to make every decision to fill up the hours of the day. I worried constantly about where to go next and whether I was making the most of the experience and whether I was sufficiently enjoying myself. Of course, I’m the kind of person that would stress myself out … on a vacation.
I also got so sick and tired of my inner monologue to the point where I think I started talking to myself out loud, which also created a slight problem in that everyone I passed thought I was crazy.
So, as you’d expect, there were advantages (freedom!) and drawbacks (insanity!) to travelling alone. But while nine concentrated days of solitude is certainly an extreme, I think it’s surprisingly not too far from my time abroad overall — or even my experience at Georgetown.
I am no longer just an arm’s length away from my friends or just a short two-minute walk from my classroom in ICC. It takes me a generous 30 minutes to take the metro to school every day, so there isn’t the same constant interaction around classes that I’ve grown used to. While that would be bizarre in itself, it’s stranger still in a country where I still don’t have solid tethers. Where, two months in, I’m honestly still figuring out how everything works. And while I thought it might just be my introversion, chance conversations with other people in my program suggest that it’s not too uncommon a feeling.
What I find stranger still, however, is that solitude is such an integrated part of being an adult. Take college, a place with 6,400 other people in a five-block radius, as an example. I have different schedules from all my friends, so I sometimes eat alone at Leo’s (gasp!), or occasionally need alone time on Friday night.
I find it difficult to reconcile the integral role solitude plays in college or studying abroad, with its general social stigma. Especially because overstimulation is the purported norm. But I imagine the trend toward spending more time alone doesn’t stop after leaving: getting older and moving to new cities with demanding job schedules can only reinforce the necessity of learning to appreciate solitude.
No one really broadcasts that aspect of being an adult, which makes sense. Spending too much time alone becomes quickly frustrating, and a good conversation with someone else beats my neurotic stream of consciousness any time. I do love other people. Don’t look so shocked.
But, as with everything, there’s a balance there, an incredibly difficult harmony to achieve between treasuring other people and embracing time spent in solitude. I obviously haven’t figured it out, one of the many reasons why I don’t really feel like an adult yet. But being abroad has led me to confront the balance more directly than before — and led to glimpses of moments where the two sides of the seesaw hung together in a delicate relationship.
At the end of nine days of intense sightseeing and incessant walking, I just sat in a square in Madrid: no expectations, no appointments. The night was still young, maybe 9 p.m., and people were walking quickly and purposefully through the bustling square on their way to restaurants and operas and bars and soccer games. The sound of a flute floated through the air. In the midst of the crowd, I sat on a bench on one side of the square; the flutist squatted on the ground at the opposite end.
After a week of embracing solitude while resisting loneliness, during which I often felt a bit like a spare piece forgotten in the corner of a puzzle box, the solemn but resolute notes of the flute and the joyous faces of everyone walking through the square created a sense of solidarity and belonging.
Kshithij Shrinath is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. LETTERS FROM ABROAD appears every other Friday.