Deep inside travelers lies a dark secret that you don’t write about in postcards. It presents itself innocently enough, just a twinge as you’re walking a foreign street, a slight ache that’s probably just a little fatigue or hunger or maybe sun poisoning?
You check yourself like you’d check a baby: Are you tired? No, you just finished your second café latte (You would have preferred plain coffee with milk, but can’t figure out how to order it.) You’re not hungry and you’ve been walking in the shade. Could you be — no, you won’t even let the word slip into your frontal lobe, because once it has, like a couch surfing friend, there’s no way to know when it will leave.
Too late. You were distracting yourself by snapping photos of funky trees, and tricked your hands but not your gut. It is here, deep in your belly, that Loneliness has set up shop, shakes out a blanket on the futon, makes a copy of your key and settles in.
Crossing the world seeking adventure comes at the cost of routine comforts and organic friendships. Sports meetups and sponsored bar crawls can buy you some GMO friends, artificially grown over the slightest of familiarities: “You like watching soccer?! I like watching soccer!” and “You arrived through the airport, too?!”
These fast connections can be invaluable, uniting strangers of various backgrounds over the common desire to understand different worlds while satiating that companionship craving. For some, these friendships last a lifetime, but others find that while clinging desperately to each other like two freshmen on their first night at college, the relationship is fleeting and at the end of the day, has an expiration date printed on your plane ticket home.
You debate whether to synthetically stuff your void with food or souvenirs. You select a restaurant’s sidewalk table so you can vampire bits of life from the cheerful passersby. You hope the waiter will ask how you are, but it turns out that here you order at the counter and they’re too busy for void-filling during the lunchtime rush. Gauge still on empty, you meander with leaden legs. You pause at a bakery window, for there sits an elephant ear pastry that reminds you of your childhood.
You enter the bakery. What was adventurous yesterday — hunting down the ticket machine to wait in line, locating the counter for ordering and then the different counter for payment, translating price numbers in Spanish (back in high school you didn’t see any reason to learn numbers past 100) — today is burdensome. You rabidly unwrap the pastry on the street, but the sweet crunchy texture you craved is abruptly replaced by a strange softness, a bitter sugar, “this isn’t the elephant ear I remember, how dare they!
Instead, you find yourself clomping heavily back down the street, shielding your eyes from the blinding sun and sharp blue sky, furious the weather could be so misaligned from your heart.
You estimate the cost of a same-day flight home — it must be a same-day ticket, for by tomorrow you’ll regret the purchase. You slip into flashbacks with family and friends: nothing extravagant, it never is the birthdays or holidays you remember, but rather you glorify the mundane, the irritating: your dogs barking at the door despite knowing full well how to use the doggie door; waiting in line at The Bagel Shop (though not the official name, it’s the only bagel shop in your world); complaining before the daily roommate run; falling asleep on the couch to infomercials.
You find yourself trailing two girls because you’ve seen people wearing similar jackets back home, they walk like New Yorkers, and maybe, just maybe they actually speak a familiar language that doesn’t require brainpower to translate, and your ears are straining and now it’s been two blocks and it’s bordering on creepy and your pace has quickened and finally within earshot you can hear them speak: “Si! Si es muy divertido!”
Your pulse drops and your legs don’t just slow but stop altogether; you stand rigid for fear your knees will just give up right there in the street, and you realize it’s time to go where you swore you never would venture abroad, back in the days (two hours ago) when all you yearned to do was embrace the beauty of local cultures.
As your pace quickens to the nearest Starbucks, you find yourself hoping they’re playing Christmas music, because even though it’s September and you’re Jewish, wouldn’t that just be lovely?
You know that tomorrow is another day. You will see dazzling sights that prove “jaw dropping” is a real physical phenomenon; you’ll relate to strangers who remind you just how small this world is; you’ll sample foods that tingle taste buds you didn’t know existed; you’ll grow wiser from reflecting on the imperfections of the society in which you were raised. But for now you’ll sip another café latte, jotting your thoughts in the margins of your copy of The Motorcycle Diaries, because scribbling notes about Loneliness on a napkin just seems way too sad.