The rattle of the coffee grinder. The jangle of silverware against chipped porcelain plates. The clash of a hundred discordant conversations occurring simultaneously. Noises clatter off the cafe walls and crash against my eardrums like salt water waves against a jetty. Voices mix together, blending cadences and pitches and stories until none are distinguishable. Together in their separateness. Anonymous in their unity.
There is something thrilling about being anonymous; plopping down in the middle of other people’s lives and observing their conversations and gestures, their business meetings and their friendly catch-ups. Of course, when trying to snoop in one’s home city, one runs into the issue of being recognized, “Oh hey, you! [insert required amicable chit chat here].” Not that there’s anything wrong with running into friends and friendly acquaintances and arch nemeses and that person you’ve met ten times but just cannot remember their name … but sometimes a girl just wants to interlope uninterrupted, amiright???
I’m not going to pretend that was my main motivation for moving to Spain. It wasn’t even a pro on my nonexistent pros and cons list. But as I stepped off the plane into the frenetic Madrid airport, I realized with a start, “I don’t know a single person in this entire country.” Some would call that realization terrifying, but I found it liberating. I was on my own, wheelin’ and dealin’ and taking care of business—my business—all by myself.
The time I spent in Spain was unique and wonderful and epic for so many reasons, and whenever asked about it, I provide a bevy of those reasons (the food! the people! the culture! the nightlife! the beach! the crippling debt and high unemployment rate!). But I have never vocalized that feeling of being alone, isolated in my observer’s bubble floating above the fray. Maybe because that sounds incredibly depressing out of context. Maybe because I only had the chance to be that complete and unbiased observer for a short period of time before I started “making friends” and “participating in society” and all that. But I still look back on my first few weeks in Spain with a fondness unmatched by many other experiences in my life. Writing alone on the beach, solving the puzzle of the metro bus system, having to revert to Plan B when the bus drivers went on strike (Plan B was ‘try again tomorrow’ in case you were curious), renting an apartment, learning southern Spanish slang terms, wandering the aged, cobblestone streets of Cádiz for hours, a stranger to the city, carving a life for myself out of the ancient bricks.
Spain was one giant self-imposed test of my independence, and I am happy to (self) report that I passed. I did it. Yes, it was hard. Yes, it was magical. Yes, coming back to the United States was bittersweet and awful and exciting. Yes, I miss Spain. Yes, I’m happy to be home.
There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely. People are so often concerned with being marked as lonely (the horror!) that they dare not do too much or go too far alone. I maintain that being able to be alone with yourself is one of the great skills in life, and being happy with being alone with yourself, greater still. Your life is yours, and yours alone. Fill it with people who make you happy, but make sure you are one of those people.
I’m alone a lot less often these days, but whenever I do find myself in a coffee shop, an airport, or even just walking down the street sans accompaniment, I try to take a moment to cherish the noises, sights and smells of my own universe at that moment, alone in my observation. No one else is around to see it in exactly the same way as I do. It is just for me.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Christopher Michel