Cities are full of people; Different cultures and ideas burst from the seams of every borough. No matter where you are, you’re never far from another human being. I am drawn to cities like a moth to flames; Paris, Lisbon, Hanoi, London. All places I have loved and loved to be alone in, surrounded by millions of others all alone. I am by no means the first person to say this and I doubt that I’ll be the last but I think making the distinction between being alone and being lonely is important, especially while living in a place such as London.
I am an expert at being alone. Flying solo in restaurants no longer fazes me, and I find buying just the one ticket to the cinema perfectly fine. I don’t even need headphones or my phone to use as an awkward prop to detract from my singledom anymore, though I do love reading a good book over a meal. This comfort with being by myself is not something I was born with. I remember vividly the first time I ever went into Manchester on my own. I was nervous and felt like everyone was judging me for wandering about without a friend by my side. And that feeling persisted until I went to Greggs (of course) and sat myself down in Piccadilly Gardens with a chicken pasty. I watched people going about their day and realised that the only ones at all interested in me were the pigeons, desperate for the remains of pastry cooling in my hand.
I wish I could say that revelation set me on a fast-track course to ‘alone-time self-enlightenment’ but it wasn’t until a trip to Brighton to see my boyfriend of the time I had the choice of either staying cooped up in his damp, student flat or venturing out and seeing the city on my own. Armed with my kindle and Google Maps, I spent the entire day out in a place I had very little knowledge of. I have never looked back since.
This is not to say that I no longer feel lonely. I am always wrestling with my isolation in London, which brings me back to my point of London being absolutely brimming with people. I live in Shoreditch and I couldn’t throw a bagel without hitting a bearded coffee enthusiast or pink haired artiste but just being in a place that speaks to my sensibilities doesn’t do much to tackle the lonesomes. I need to connect to people and that’s so damn hard in a place like London. People run their lives at 100 mph and with no chance of stopping them, you’re only option is to move at the same speed and hope to catch a bit of conversation over the wind. (And no, Tinder is not a viable solution!)
The trouble is that social exchanges easily tire me out so I must be picky with the relationships I choose to nurture, else it becomes a vicious cycle of “being lonely > meet someone to talk to > tired but no less lonely > too tired to meet someone else > still lonely”. I have spoken to a number of people who suffer from a similar social fatigue and I believe it to be a trait of the introverted crowd. This isn’t to say that people who tire us out aren’t our friends, it just means that we need a break occasionally to recover. For me this is the crux of the lonely vs alone debate. I choose to be alone while loneliness hits hardest when I’m doing all I can to maintain my friendships and make new ones but getting nowhere.
I wish that my 25 years had uncovered some amazing secrets for beating loneliness but as far as I know they simply don’t exist. I just force conversation onto my co-workers, drag myself out of my comfort zone (no one is going to befriend you if you’re in your room all the time) and ultimately do things to make those meaningful connections. It’s something I’m terrible at but I do my best. I adore living in London and I refuse to allow my loneliness to be the thing that drives me out!
Cities and isolation are a pair that match up perfectly but I’m learning to take that loneliness and channel it into my love for being alone. I have done and seen so much. Late night walks; stolen kisses, literal cat fights, street artists creating memorials. Day time meanders; the wonder of children, a dog sled in winter, a woman singing to pigeons. Just because I am the only one with the memory doesn’t make them any less important or wonderful.