When I was at university, my best female friend said she preferred sharing a house with other friends. I said I preferred living alone, if I could. Then she said something that has always stayed with me, “I like to be with people, but have the option of being on my own.” I guess I like being on my own, but have the option of being with people.
The older I get, the more solitary I seem to be turning. I am increasingly craving my own company. Perhaps this is because all my jobs, so far, have involved days full of intense listening and talking to people.
If I spend too long with my fellow humans, I feel as though I am floating in the air, disassembled, not quite sure where the various bits of me are. The sense of fragmentation makes me bad tempered, anxious and exhausted. When I am alone, all the scattered parts of me come together. I feel the ground supporting my feet. I am whole, again. At that point, some people might even say that I am good company.
Do not get me wrong. I like people. I love my friends, very much. I feel privileged to have them in my life. However, for friendships to work, the times I spend with them need to be followed by intervals. I like to think of my precious friends like luxuriant oases you come across after a relatively long walk across a stretch of golden sand, with no other company but the twirling djinns of the wind. I am not one for sipping water from a bottle every few minutes. I need to wait until I can drink a large glassful in few gulps, and feel the cool water fill me with strength.
Having dinner alone whilst on holiday is a miserable experience for me. I hate the looks – part disapproval, part pity – I get when eating at my table for one, in a restaurant. I also miss not having a companion to share my report of the day’s events. However, I do not necessarily want to share all the events with my companion, as they unfold. I like to wander the streets of a new city, stopping to rest or drifting into a winding street because it intrigues me, without having to take into account anyone else’s preferences. I like to listen to the murmur of ancient buildings without another voice in my ear, and establish intimacy with a new place, without interference.
To this day, one of the most perfect holidays I have had, is a trip to Venice with my dear friend B. We would meet and have breakfast at one of the tables the pensione had set by the canal, then he would go his way and, I, mine. We would meet again in the late afternoon. “I want to show you this beautiful church” or “shall we go and see this painting together?” one of us would say, and we would set off together. Later, we would have our picnic supper under the arches of the Palazzo del Doge, then stroll down the narrow calli for the rest of the evening. After a large part of the day alone, it was wonderful to have the company of a like-minded person.
When you travel alone, you meet many people on your way. Your read their faces and hear their tales. You can even make new friends. When you travel in company, the same people are no more than anonymous passers-by.
I enjoy going to the theatre with my friends. There is great fun in laughing or being struck by a new idea, whilst in state of togetherness. Still, often, I like to go on my own. I like immersing myself into the text and the performance, without the distraction of worrying if the person next to me is enjoying the evening, or is comfortable in that seat. I am ridiculously long-sighted, so going to the cinema alone is sometimes more relaxing, unless I am with an obliging friend who does not mind sitting in the back row. Also, I like staying put and reading the final credits to the very last, and not feel I have to get up as soon as the film is over. Afterwards, I sometimes like to spend a little time analysing the play or film, absorbing it, deciding what I think, before starting the vocal post-mortem which inevitably follows when you are with friends.
I enjoy very much going to a park with a friend. I like sitting on the grass with a picnic (as long as my friend has prepared it – I never seem to get the hang of a good hamper), discussing books or politics. However, often, I love spending time in the park on my own. In truth, I am never alone in the park. A red-breast robin will hop over to my bench, inquisitive. I think he is the park’s secret agent, on a mission to investigate all human visitors. He cocks his head. Friend or foe? Friend, I reply. Somebody’s dog runs up to me and, after a good cuddle, we look into each-other’s eyes, and acknowledge a perfect understanding. A grey squirrel does a somersault in the grass, then runs up a tree, like a circus acrobat, spreading the news of my arrival and, hence, the possibility of nuts. In the distance, a grey heron takes slow, balletic steps in the shallow water, then stops and stands still, like a statue, before lunging with his beak into the water, with lightning speed. I admire and envy his unwavering focus. A breath of wind rustles the leaves of the tree, and the swishing sound gives me a kind of thrill. Above me, a crow caws an ancient, arcane spell. A leaf sways down and lands in my lap. It is a message for me from the tree. “Listen,” it says, “I’ll tell you a story. Something I witnessed three hundred and twenty-five years ago.”
I close my eyes, set my imagination free, and listen.
I am alone, so there is nobody to tell me that I am… well… perhaps a little mad.