A week or two into moving to DC for the second time, knowing only three people, the loneliness of going off on my own inevitably set in. I reached out to all the corners of my real-life social network, hitting up people I’d met once or twice to try to stretch out my friendships and break up my days of constant work. Each weekend, I’d meet new friends and make small talk consisting of “what school did you go to?” and “what do you do?” – which (contrary to what some argue) are perfectly fine things to discuss when starting from a first handshake.
The small talk was exhausting. Sometimes I felt lonelier being around others than I did by myself. I felt like I was having the same conversation for weeks on end. I’d miss my friends from before, but I’d remind myself that it was work to create a new life. It took work to make the friends I had, and it would take work to make new ones.
Of course this changed when I got closer to people whom I’d met, and the lonely months are an unavoidable part of living on your own, and small talk is the first step in ridding yourself of said loneliness. It’s the litmus test of friendships, and eventually, with some, you remove the barriers that these basic questions mask and delve into something more. But the reason I’m saying all of this is that I’m over here traveling alone and meeting people I more than likely really will never meet again, and I haven’t felt lonely once.
It’s almost impossible not to make friends in a hostel. In fact, I’ve found it difficult to do really anything on my own. I walked into my room in Dublin on Sunday to put my things up before grabbing a bite to eat, and immediately I befriended an Australian girl named Simone who invited me to drinks with her and some Finnish girls she had met before. As a rule, I say yes to pretty much everyone (spontaneity is the foundation for all good things when traveling – never plan too much ahead), so I left with the girls for drinks, knowing I could eventually find food somewhere even if I hadn’t eaten in nine hours.
Small talk dissolves quite quickly when traveling. The few basic questions quickly turn into broader ones – ones regarding culture, previous travels, whether its acceptable in ones’ home country to cross the street without a walking sign (Ireland – yes, Denmark – no, Norway – yes, Finland – never). You can’t ask someone about his or her studies without learning how the university system works in her country; you can’t ask about their drinking laws without learning about their drinking culture. With the threat of time moving fast (Simone was leaving the next day, the girls were going on a tour) and the looseness that comes with a few pints of Guinness, you ask about relationships and family, and without the threat of judgment (you can always hang out with new people if you’re not getting on), you tell the truth.
It’s beautiful. Barriers that I (and all people) usually put up during introductions cease to exist in the world of solo travel. I feel connected to the people I meet. Our friendships seem to exist in a vacuum where we don’t have to worry about how we present ourselves, where we want to learn everything about each other as fast as we can.
I went on a pub-crawl with my hostel in Dublin on my second day. I had bought a ticket for another one, but decided to go on the one with my hostel because the people looked nice and it was right there and again spontaneity is key (I managed to sell my other ticket – phew). There I met Charley from Brooklyn and Brian from Arizona, who would become my companions the next day. I met a number of girls from Australia and England who we would spend the following night with. The English girls were just on a quick trip together and were taken aback by American accents really existing in full, not just on television or overheard at a train station. We drank a lot, we laughed even more. Charley and I bonded over Beyoncé.
Sometimes I get nervous about coming out to these people. I usually feel like I need to so that the girls know I’m just friendly and not hitting on them. Some guys asked me about girls, and I cheekily responded that I wouldn’t know because I was gay. Laughter again. I’m always reminded that there’s nothing to be nervous about. No one cares about these things here, and if they did people would think it was strange. People who travel are open – the ones who aren’t are probably holed up in an all-inclusive hotel somewhere doing the most boring museums and paying for the most overpriced, touristy meals.
After a day at Kilmainham Gaol with Brian, Charley and I befriended two Germans, Britta and Niels, who would be going on the same tour of the Cliffs of Moher as us the next day. We spent a relaxing day together on the tour, most of which consisted of a long but beautiful bus ride broken up by a couple hours at the Cliffs, where I nervously sat out on the edge of the world and let my feet feel the too-cool winds of the coast. Don’t lean up against the fence if you go there – it’s electric (I learned the hard way – ouch).
Britta had broken her shoulder, so the girls waited down at the edge of a rocky shore we stopped at while Niels and I climbed up a rock face to get a view from up high. We sat together in a quaint town called Galway and had a late lunch. We talked about our studies, former travels, our hometowns.
We decided we would grab a couple of drinks when we got back in Dublin at 8 that night. We found a pub with live music, grabbed a pint and sat in a quiet(ish) table in the back and swapped stories. We left for a livelier pub, where we talked and drank even more. A pint of Guinness turned into two turned into four turned into we can’t afford any more so let’s just grab the ones people abandon on the tables.
We danced together, with strangers, with an elderly man and later a homeless woman who were both as joyful and happy as we were. We took photos with a bronze statue of a man; I put my Northwestern sweater on him. We climbed on things – a lamp pole, an electric box – on the street. We stayed out until Niels and Britta’s taxi picked them up for the airport at 4:15 in the morning.
I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much in my life. I can’t even post most of the pictures on Facebook because you’d think I’d gone mad, though I’ve given you a few…
One of the greatest nights of my life was spent with people I’d known for a day, people whose lives existed so far apart from mine that the chances of us ever meeting were near zero. There were no boundaries between us, no feelings of embarrassment to have fun or to let ourselves go. The night and our time together may have existed in a vacuum, but the memories (though hazy) and the sheer joy towards others I felt that night will be carried with me.
Maybe one day, like my friend Sisi in Copenhagen, we will all meet again somewhere else.
The joy of traveling alone is never being alone. The joy of meeting strangers is never letting them be a stranger. The joy of small talk is never letting it be small.