By ANDREW O’HAGAN, NY Times
The first rule of travel is that you should always go with someone you love, which is why I travel alone. The writer’s life is more openly narcissistic than most, yet it takes a true connoisseur of self-involvement, a grand master in the art of selfishness, to experience the world’s delights as they are meant to be enjoyed: through one pair of eyes, via one set of ears, with the perfect use of your own nostrils, tongue and touch. I believe that traveling alone is the last great test of who you are in a world where everyone aches to be the same.
I mean, you meet people. But you also meet yourself. That is the beauty of going it alone. For me, it all started with a trip from Scotland to America when I was 18. I had been there in books and movies, of course, and, in my youth, I had studied my countryman Robert Louis Stevenson’s strictures about New York. “You must speak to no one in the streets,” he was told, “as they would not leave you till you were rooked and beaten. You must enter a hotel with military precautions.” As it turned out, I fell on New York like an old pal. I arrived and immediately went for a drink on 34th Street and thought I was in heaven. The heaven was being oneself. Perhaps even being oneself for the very first time, without tradition scrutinizing you, without expectation hounding you, without class defining you and without a sense of other people lording it over you. That’s an unforgettable experience, especially in youth, because the lasting feature of the solo traveler lies in his hunger for singularity. Even today, when I grab my passport and head for the airport, I have something of Emerson in mind, wandering into the woods to establish “an original relation to the universe.” But I also have Jean-Paul Sartre in mind: “Hell is other people.”
The fun starts with the choices. Will I be solo tobogganing in New Zealand? Will I be watching Wagner’s “Ring” cycle in a series of Bavarian chapels? Attending a vegetarian cooking course in the Taurus Mountains of Turkey? Drinking approximately 400 shots of tequila on some God-forsaken beach in Thailand? Doing yoga in Amorgos, Greece, in front of a perfect blue sea? Or will I be cycling through the back roads of France with the promise of lunch up ahead and no conversation?
Every vacation is an ego trip for somebody. It’s just that in families the person actually commanding the ego trip has to pretend he or she is running a functioning democracy. (And vacations, like failed states, are always run by one person.) People argue so much on vacation because the occasion so often falls short of the desire: the desire is for rest, peace, no pressure, and a sense of being away from one’s usual self, and your average family holiday sets fire in comic sequence to each of these high hopes. And often as memorable and meaningful as a family holiday is, it just doesn’t feel like a holiday.
What feels like a holiday is turning up alone at the Hotel Danieli in Venice on a beautiful day. You open the window onto the Grand Canal and you feel the breeze. You order tea from room service and press your face against a cotton pillow. You take out the books you will read and you run a warm bath. You lift pictures of your loved ones from your suitcase and place them gingerly on the bedside cabinet and blow them a kiss. You switch off your phone. Then you take off your shoes and die of bliss. “From midday to dusk I have been roaming the streets,” wrote Henry James in a letter to his brother William from Rome. “At last — for the first time — I live!”
Let me dispel a few myths. You will be lonely. No: you won’t. My solo travels in Paris have brought many perfect hours of being alone but not a moment of loneliness. People who depend on other people are often in hiding from themselves. Two and a quarter million people live in the City of Light: you will see many of them and you will pass them in the street, but when you see Notre Dame after dark and walk home and perhaps stop to have a drink in the Marais, you can feel that the only thing that is missing from your experience is the common dependency on someone to distract your attention. You are living without it: you are on vacation.
Distraction can be nice. Of course, it can. One of the reasons many people travel is to find a structured way of distracting themselves to the point of oblivion. I’ve been to Ibiza with a crowd of boys and forgotten my own name. I once went on a group holiday to Machu Picchu on which the people — a group of solo travelers looking for adventure — spent the whole time involved in a rolling soap opera that only used the forgotten city as a kind of verdant background. They couldn’t see the sites: they only saw each other and themselves in each other’s eyes. Everyone needs something specific, I guess, and you can’t travel far away from your basic needs. But traveling alone offers the chance to test the limits of what you think you know about yourself. Who knew that he needed a barefoot walk on a long white beach and the sight of a thousand jellyfish thrown up on the sand? Who knew that he needed a bottle shop serving perfect Australian shiraz, a jacaranda tree sprouting blue against a hopeful red sky over Byron Bay — who knew he needed these exact things in order to know he could survive the sickness of a child and the depression of a parent? I know that man, reader, and he went there alone.
Show me the world, says the group traveler. And show me two weeks when I don’t have to think. Fair enough. But not for me: I want to think new things on holiday and the best way to do that is to go it alone, allowing yourself a space — a beautiful space, with any luck — that is circumscribed neither by your need to perform nor your need to blame. Get up when you like. Skip as many museums as you like. Eat or don’t eat. Dance or don’t dance. Swim far out if you want to. Drink Champagne at breakfast. Write a paragraph if you have one to write. Say nothing for days and dream of home. Keep the light on all night.
I love a solo holiday. It tends to refresh the part of oneself that is most depleted by modern life — patience. I once went to Germany on a 10-city expedition. It was winter and the trains slogged through enchanted forests and past emerald lakes to places where castles and universities jostled in the mind beside evidence of man-made problems. I loved the snow, and felt, halfway through my travels, that I was actually moving slower than I had when I was back at home. I was taking my time, giving things their due, and the solo holiday had in some way increased my reserves of contentment. I had been on mindless holidays and they were fun and I couldn’t remember them. But my travels in Germany left me quite refreshed with thoughtfulness.
I’ve had solo pints of Guinness in the pubs of County Kerry and County Cork. I’ve walked across the sage- and juniper-scented maquis of Corsica on a spring day, where you can still find the world of Napoleon’s childhood. More than once I went to the Isle of Iona in the Scottish Hebrides, the burial ground of the early Scottish kings, and watched darkness descend on the Sound of Iona while evensong came from the old monastery. I wasn’t on these travels for visions or transformation, but simply to feel the force of the world, for a day, for a night, as it operates outside the chatter of commerce or media or mass psychology. I love these things, but not on holiday, when one might hope for a place where you can resist the temptation to be drowned out.
It’s not for everybody. It’s not for people who are apt to get anxious about the good times they could be having. Life is so virtual nowadays that people might spend their lives casually mourning a version of reality that can only exist elsewhere. The virtue of many modern holiday destinations is that they provide the perfect conditions in which high-paying customers can feel entirely homesick. This has been excellent news for the comic novel, but I’m sure I couldn’t love it. The wanderlust of the solo traveler doesn’t kill homesickness, it partners it, making the vacation all the better for involving one’s profound wish to go home to normal life a little changed. If I ruled the world, and you can rest assured that I don’t, I would send each person for a fortnight away on their own. It wouldn’t serve the divorce lawyers or the councils of war very well, but it would make people much happier to know the entire world was theirs.