Matt Gross writes about food and travel, and is the former editor of BonAppetit.com and the former Frugal Traveler for the New York Times. He lives in Brooklyn.
The last time I remember being alone was in mid-December 2013. I was exploring Istanbul for a week on my own, eating and drinking everything I could put my hands on, partly because I write about food and travel, but also because that’s just what I do. My base for this indulgent episode was an Airbnb in Cihangir, a formerly bohemian neighborhood that was in the full throes of gentrification. This one-bedroom was big and comfortable and well-situated: Down the block was a storied pickle shop; behind it, through a wall of windows, was a sunset valley of rooftops, minarets, and Neo-Classical consulates.
The apartment was also empty. That is, I was the only one there. It took me a while to notice, actually—my first few days in Istanbul were so full of action that I was only "home" to sleep, shower, and make coffee—but then, one night, I retired early. I sat on the couch, and heard… nothing. There was no one in the apartment but me. I wasn’t listening to music or watching TV or even catching the sounds of life outside the window or on the floors above and below me. Just silence, the kind that leads you inside your own head.
At first, it was disconcerting. Where was the tumult I was used to? Back home in New York, I had a wife and two young daughters—there was always someone around, eating, cooking, crying, reading aloud, singing, crying, using the bathroom, waking up, going to bed, getting put to bed, running the dishwasher, or crying. Here in Istanbul, I was 5,000 miles from those responsibilities, from those constraints, from that life. It should have felt freeing; married people are supposed to relish these rare moments.
Instead, I didn’t know what to do with myself. This wasn’t exactly my first time alone in a foreign land. In fact, I’ve spent most of my professional life wandering the earth, almost always returning to a solitary hotel room. I got accustomed to being by myself. I even like to think I became quite good at being alone, at not needing companionship every day. I could make new friends in Urumqi or not make new friends in Urumqi. Solitude was something I owned.
In Istanbul, however, I felt like the renter I was, a guest in the realm of loneliness. Was I sad? Scared? Excited? Did I miss my family? Did I crave human contact? Did I just need to put on some music? Yes, maybe, I don’t know. Was my emotional state a function of the city itself, this gyre of people and history, or would it have happened anywhere on this, my first long solo trip in nearly two years?
I remember sitting there quietly for a while before noticing, somewhere underneath this mishmash of conflicting emotions, that I was okay. Neither scared nor excited, just fine. Normal. I thought of the classic line from Lawrence of Arabia: “The trick is not minding that it hurts.” Alone in that apartment, I was exempted from the realm of needs—I needed no one, and was needed by no one. That was freedom, and it was a freedom I’d forgotten.
And it was a freedom that didn’t last long. The night ended, and a few days later I was back in New York, back in the realm of needs and people—people I love, it should be noted, as well as needs I need.
It’s been that way ever since. I haven’t experienced a moment of true solitude despite various trips away from home, to New Zealand and to Boston, to Seoul and to Albuquerque. In part, that’s because I’ve stayed in more hotels than apartments, and hotel rooms tend to lack the right atmosphere of absence and expectation. They’re confined, temporary by design, reset by housekeeping each morning to appear as if you’d never been there, whereas apartments are homes decorated with family photos and children’s drawings. The closets are filled with clothes that smell of their owners. A night or two in an Airbnb won’t hurt; it takes time for loneliness to properly ferment. And indeed, most of my trips have been relatively short. (In Boston, where I briefly moved for a job I ended up hating, I was too consumed with feeling miserable to notice I might be lonely. That’s just my hierarchy of negative emotions, I guess.)
The perhaps weird thing is that I miss being alone—or, maybe more accurately, I miss the feeling of dealing with being alone. There was a Sisyphean triumph in coming to terms with my aloneness, again and again, in various far-flung corners of the world. I was good at rising above not knowing anyone and not speaking the language, and now I have no need to be good at it.
What’s left is muscle memory. In the same way that I can pick up a skateboard today and, with a few hours of practice, pull off many of the same stunts I did as a teenager, I know that I can also confront and conquer loneliness with a similar joyful acceptance of the inevitable pain. With skateboarding as with solitude, I know the trick is not minding that it hurts.