Going abroad, in my case to the London School of Economics, means quite a few things. It means the majority of your life is spilling out of three oversized suitcases, while the most important parts of your life, the ones you actually want to bring with you, are left behind. You can’t bring, as hard as you try, the miles of yarn and vast collection of knitting needles, nor can you bring the books you’ve spent two years collecting.You half-heartedly kid about adding an extra suitcase and telling your best friend to hold their breath and stay still inside.
The first week was mired with the frenzy that comes with figuring out a new apartment. I was struck, for the first time in a very long time, with a crushing loneliness I’m still trying to alleviate. That’s the puzzle of adventure-seeking: striking that balance between enjoying the revels of doing and trying not to become engulfed by the not doing.
So in the most “Eat, Pray, Love” mood I’ll ever get in my entire life, I decided to take a trip alone.
I chose to visit Rye in the early afternoon of one of my first weekends in England. It’s near the southeast coast, with a castle, an old inn, a fantastical landmark — Mermaid Street — and a house formerly occupied by Henry James, a famous writer, who lived in the Lamb House for nearly 20 years. It was a spontaneous trip. I had bought the train tickets just about 45 minutes before departure, on a bus ride back from an early morning boxing class.
After a brief interlude of the industrial grey of London’s outskirts, I was sitting alone on a train passing much too quickly through literal greener pastures. There were sheep lounging in the high early afternoon sun. Occasionally, a small brook would traverse the fields, and a pair of swans would lazily float atop it. I saw a sly fox slinking through the tall grass. It was threateningly saccharine. I would’ve let my cynicism overcome the initial giddiness if my friends were there, cracking a joke in a low, sarcastic voice to break the discomfort of a serene moment. But my friends were nowhere near me, so I silently snapped picture after picture of blurry sheep and tiny farmhouses.
I arrived in Rye with a crumpled list of spots TripAdvisor recommended, looking for The Tiny Bookstore. It was closed, so I wandered through the streets with storefronts as old as the Mermaid Inn — which had been rebuilt in 1420. I found a secondhand and antique book shop. The store was straight out of a movie, meticulously arranged by someone who loved it very much. There were aged books mixed with new editions, inconspicuous picture frames displayed unknown faces and a vintage glass case sheltered the most random trinkets.
I was in the back when the shop’s owner, an elderly woman whose red and black outfit made her look like a ladybug, put down the scissors she was using to dissect that week’s news and held up the latest clipping. Aoife (Ee-fa) laughed her way through a story about two teenage girls who’d ended up spray-tanning themselves beyond oblivion. We laughed, and when she picked up on my American accent, we talked, in one of the best conversations I’ve ever had, about everything from Putin’s annexation of Crimea to old Rye gossip, from our names to the long-forgotten existence of a shop in Boston solely devoted to left-handed items. I stood in that shop for over an hour, engrossed in a conversation with a woman I’d met entirely by chance. It was totally lost on us that we had met just an hour earlier, so much so that when a couple walked in, our conversation petered out like two girls caught gossiping.
I headed to Camber Sands, a stretch of beach a short bus ride away, at the end of the day, just in time for the sunset. Tip: always plan your solo trips around the sunset. I stretched my feet on the smooth rocks and wallowed in the nostalgia of Cape Cod beaches and an afternoon spent on the shore of the Salton Sea. There were four happy dogs and six old friends shouting their memories, a handful of teenagers swapping crude jokes, a kindergartner and her father talking about important people in science. Behind me a beginner simulated the motions of hang-gliding with his instructor. I just enjoyed being near the water again. I was alone, perhaps on one of the best days of my life yet, but I was so, so far from being lonely.
There’s a certain grief that comes with moving away. You learn to live with a five- to eight-hour time difference between you and the inner circle that’s now been stretched unbearably wide. You learn how to ask strangers to take your photos. Mostly, you learn that living alone isn’t the same as being lonely, and sometimes it’s the quietest days that make the year all worth it.