I grew up in a house that was never silent. My parents, two brothers, big sister and I squished together between its walls as we played musical bedrooms, trying to accommodate the constantly changing problems of four children of different ages and genders sharing rooms as we charged headfirst into our various, turbulent developmental stages. “Alone” was not a word I used with much frequency, aside from expressing my desire for peace and quiet. There was no small amount of fighting, and here and there we shed tears and the occasional bit of blood, but we loved one another and we made the chaos work. Needless to say, I moved out as soon as I was of age. I spent a few years hopping between apartments and boyfriends until I found myself living in a particularly gross and crowded series of houses with a particularly bad boyfriend and his largely awful group of friends, of which there were many. It was not until I got to be 24 that I finally moved into this small, clean, sweet-smelling little apartment with my best friend. We have separate bedrooms, separate schedules, and she has a boyfriend and I do not. All of this is new to me, and for the first time in my life I sometimes come home to an empty house.
When we first moved in, I thought I knew what lonely felt like. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I really found the definition. Lonely is sitting on top of my suitcase at a train station in London, five thousand miles away from home, hungry, tired and without a tuppence to rub together. Lonely is the feeling of walking the streets of Paris, completely cut off from verbal communication for lack of speaking the language. Lonely is perching atop a barstool in Edinburgh, Scotland, sipping at a glass of whiskey and almost welcoming the sleazy advances of strangers, if only for conversation. And despite the moments of sadness and panic that can accompany this feeling, lonely turned out to be an amazing and refreshing experience.
As a graduation present for dragging myself to the finish line at the California College of the Arts last year, my parents rewarded me with the most incredible and unexpected gift: a two week vacation to Europe, all by my little, lonesome self. I was thrilled, overjoyed, grateful, and completely scared out of my mind at the prospect. I had traveled before, but never alone, and never to any location where I didn’t have a constant translator if I needed one. I would be heading to France first, followed by a brief layover in England, then a week in Scotland, and finally heading back to Paris for a connecting flight home. The thought of all of those trains, planes and Metro rides had me shaking, mostly with excitement but not without a great deal of serious trepidation. When I was a little girl and I approached some new, scary horizon, my mother would tell me, “Okay, honey, it’s time to put on your big-girl pants and just do this.” So put them on I did, and away I went.
I arrived in Paris after 16 hours of travel, the beginning of which was spent with a miserable hangover and a stressful farewell breakfast with my parents at which my mother succeeded in panicking more than I was. I somehow navigated the enormous airport and found the terminal for my train to Rennes, boarded it, and collapsed into a ball in my seat. Two stops along the way, a man approached me and, in rapid-fire French, began pointing at me and my seat and then back to his own ticket. “I’m so sorry,” I said, “I don’t speak French.” He switched to English, reluctantly, and explained that I was, apparently, sitting in his seat. He got the the conductor, people stared, the two of them examined my ticket and passport. It turned out my ticket had been booked for the previous day, so I shelled out €60 for a new seat in first class (all that was available) and rode in peace to the train station in Rennes.
I cannot put into words how grateful I was to see my friend, Hayley, waiting for me at the platform. For the past five years or so, Hayley has been living in France, and this was the impetus for my decision to go there, despite being completely ignorant of the language and culture. To top it off, she just gave birth a few months ago to a gorgeous little baby girl, whom I was dying to meet. So we hugged, hopped on a bus, and headed to her hometown of Bruz, where I spent the first leg of my trip. When we arrived at her house, I was ready to collapse, but I kept it together long enough to hold this tiny, little, new human being that up until then had yet to really feel like a reality to me. It was incredible. In my arms was this bundle of cloth and flesh and tiny appendages, with features that were unmistakably Hayley’s. I should mention here that Hayley and I both have hippie mothers, and our hippie mothers took a hippie, prenatal swim class way back in 1986 when they were pregnant with us. That is how long I’ve known her. We’ve pooped our pants next to each other, thrown tantrums, had crushes on boys, had our hearts broken, had our first hangovers, went through unimaginably awkward teenage phases, moved out of our parents’ houses, and now she’s a mother. It was something else, and I thought about all of the years that had passed since our mothers first held us in their arms as I looked over baby Annabelle’s sleeping face.
My days in Bruz were lovely, though it took awhile for me to adjust to the crying schedule of a newborn. We spent our time taking walks, playing with Annabelle, eating yummy home-cooked food that her husband, Jeff, made for us, and going to bed at a reasonable hour (something I rarely do at home). We took a day trip into Rennes to eat galettes, drink fizzy fruit drinks, and catch up, realizing that it had been almost ten years since the two of us had been able to spend so much one-on-one time together. I talked about my life back in California, working at the tattoo shop, my endlessly difficult love life, and nights out at bars and art galleries. Hayley talked about being a wife and mother, about trying to make ends meet, about breast pumps and diapers and Annabelle’s love of pooping and farting. On my third day, I experience this firsthand: as I held her in my lap, that tiny, angelic face looked up at me and smiled as I felt a rumble. She was gleeful for having pooped, and I loved her for it. When it came time for me to journey on, I was sad to leave, and I felt a sharp twinge of homesickness as I waved goodbye to Hayley and her family, and boarded my train to Paris.
Paris is incredible. Everywhere one turns, there’s something worth looking at. I stayed near the Bastille, which turned out to be perfect for me as there were a ton of vintage shops, bars, and fun stores all around. My hotel was very close to the Seine, which I used as an easy landmark to follow everyday when I walked to various points of interest. The Metro system also proved to be incredibly easy to navigate, which is good, because Parisians are incredibly, unapologetically rude. There is an overwhelming attitude among the locals that if you are not from Paris, you are a hillbilly, even if your French is perfect (mine is non-existent), or even if you know more or less where you’re going but just needed a point in the right direction (I had no idea where I was half the time). By day one to the end of day three I was longing for simple conversation, and for human contact, but I kept myself fairly well distracted by visiting as many cultural points as possible. The most amazing thing I saw while in Paris, by the way, was the Catacombs, where the bits and pieces of roughly six million human skeletons make up the walls of a series of underground tunnels. And it’s hard to explain, but there was something magical about walking for miles in an enormous city, surrounded by people, and not knowing anyone, and not knowing what anyone was saying. I sat on the Metro, watching the sights of Paris flash by, and let myself drown in the ambient noise of conversations in French that could have been about anything but became nothing more than the lilting sounds of a foreign and beautiful tongue. At night, however, in my hotel room, all alone, I missed hearing my roommate come home late from the bar, I missed hearing the beep of my cell phone as it received a text message, and I was beginning to seriously miss human contact. I was lonely. I would’ve paid for a hug if I knew how to ask for one.
The morning that I left Paris to head to the United Kingdom, something went horribly awry. By some miscommunication between my credit card company and my hotel, the room had not been prepaid. It was 5 ᴀᴍ, Paris time, which made getting ahold of a human being in the United States impossible, so I was forced to put all €680 on my debit card, effectively wiping out all of the money in my bank account, spending money included. As I hauled my heavy suitcase down the dark morning streets of Paris to the train station, I cried silently to myself, knowing it would be at least 48 hours before I could have money wired to me in Scotland. I heard my mom in my head saying “Big-girl pants, honey, time to put on the big-girl pants.”
My day in London was awful. All you really need to know about it was that I spent the majority of my time there in the back of a seedy cafe, sneaking bites of food off of plates left behind by strangers, drinking cup after cup of crappy coffee, and smoking an endless chain of rolled cigarettes. By the time I dragged myself into the hotel lobby in Edinburgh, it had been nearly 30 hours since I’d had a proper meal, and my lungs felt as though I’d been inhaling sand. In the morning I started anew. I found a Starbucks up the street and managed to get in contact with my mom, who wired me money, and while I waited for it to come through, I walked around the city. It just so happened that I was there for the last weekend of the Fringe Festival, one of the world’s largest art, music, and general entertainment festivals. All around me were mimes, street musicians, comedians, dancers, and puppeteers. My funds came through just in time to go have a pint, which turned into many as I caught the last bit of a comedy show.
The next night I went on the ghost tour, which took us into the Edinburgh vaults. Rest assured, these are not a happy place. I have never in my life felt as uncomfortable as I did in there. When I got out, it was dark and I was in need of whiskey, so I headed back to the pub I had been to the night before in the hopes of seeing something funny and lighthearted. Boy did I ever. The pub in question was a place called The Banshee’s Labyrinth, touted as being the most haunted bar in all of Scotland, where I happened upon a room in which a man was singing funny songs with his guitar. His name was Paul B. Edwards, and he was just what I needed. At the end of his stellar show, he was kind enough to give me a copy of his CD and even treat me to a delicious cocktail known as the “Ghostbuster,” which is kind of like a White Russian’s naughty uncle. I sincerely urge any and all of you to check him out on Youtube. After his show, he directed me to go sit in on another performer, The Monkey Poet, who was doing a show that consisted of hilariously lewd poetry and strikingly smart political commentary. It was also magnificent, he is also very easy to find on Youtube, and I highly recommend that you do.
By the time I started on my long, long trip home, I was incredibly, overwhelmingly lonely. I wanted nothing more than to get back to my little apartment and surround myself with people I knew. I missed my family, I missed my friends, I missed my co-workers, I even kind of missed the crazy people on Telegraph Avenue that try to bum cigarettes off of me every day. When my plane touched down in San Francisco and I turned my cell phone on for the first time in over two weeks, I was not even annoyed at the number of drama-laden text messages that filled my inbox, or the emails from my student loan services. On the drive home, I was almost relieved to see the billboards for immense McDonalds burgers and crummy sitcoms. I need some amount of this chaos to feel normal, and I felt starved for it. It was not until my friends began asking about my trip that I felt a longing to be away again. I recounted everything, the good and the bad, and wished that they all could have been there with me. I’ve been home for nearly a month now, and the novelty of being back has lost some of its luster. But I will return to Europe, maybe this time with a friend or two, so that the next time, when I have to put on my Big-Girl Pants, I won’t have to go it alone.