GOING SOLO: Memory As Travel Companion

When you travel solo, you don’t just bring current self to the experiences. You bring your past. And since you don’t have anybody else to bounce the present experiences off of,  the past shows up as your sounding board. Even something as simple as having a coffee in a cafe can call up all sorts of amazing associations for you. This cuppa connects with other times you’ve been in cafes, it recalls people and flavors, invites comparisons to the atmosphere and aesthetics of elsewhere. This can lead to epiphanies about your past, like realizing your stoical grandfather was lonely, or about your present, that you play games on your phone just like he did crossword puzzles once upon a time as a way of waking up your brain in the morning. 

Memories of the same recurring event layer like the folds of the earth in mountain ranges.

I think of this overlay of the past on the present is especially strong on holidays. Many people gather to reenact their families “traditions” creating multi-layered experiences of cookouts, Easter egg hunts, Thanksgiving dinners, or decorating a Christmas tree. If you are with your loved ones, the now preoccupies with decisions about stringing the lights, placement of favorite glass balls, methods for adding tinsel. Enjoying how lovely it looks. Sharing the satisfaction of your joint activity every time you see it. 

I’ve spent several Christmas seasons in Paris and the merry-go-rounds take me back to my childhood.

When you’re alone, there’s a vacuum that invites memories of people and places to float through your mind like ghosts of Christmases past. You can see this a sad, lonely emptiness. But on the road and far away, wandering through the shopping district not buying anything leaves you free to float across time. A sight or a smell or a song and a specific past event is triggered by association. It matters that there’s nobody else with their own past to distract you from it, to mix it up with theirs. The past plays out clear and alive even while you are fully in the now moment.

So a lot of my recent travels have been a joyful collection of novel experiences in the “now” flavored with trips down memory lane when I least expect it. I have no way to predict what would make me suddenly be back there with my mother, my brother, my schooling, my lost younger self. Lost but not lost not forgotten completely. The strangest, farthest corner of the earth can suddenly open up with an association that embraces and nourishes you like comfort food. Comfort memories. 

Christchurch has its own Avon lined with willows that the settlers brought to recreate the familiar charm of the faraway homeland they would most likely never see again.

Remembering while far away also showed me a way to revisit, to change, to reshape my sense of the self I was once upon a time. Something as ordinary as feeling shunned in the playground and learning to play by myself taught me how to entertain myself which in turn set me free to take off whenever and wherever. You might change your mind about how silly or sweet, how tiresome or how lovely a tradition is. You might discover new practices that you can take with you back to everyday, embedded life. You can even, as I do, toss some holidays out the window. I never was big on Halloween. I was also never big on New Year’s midnight madness until I wandered alone by the Seine amid the happy multitudes as the time came, the Eiffel Tower lit up and we all hugged each other, strangers and friends.

The Eiffel Tower flashes and sparkles on and off through the night.

So solo travel doesn’t just bring new experiences with regard to the world out there. It transforms you with regard to the world, the kingdom, the country inside yourself.

Susan diRende travels the world on her own and has been living with no fixed abode since the end of 2014. This twice-monthly column aims to encourage others to try going solo and explores what can be gained from the experience. All photos ©Susan diRende

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