People have asked about my experiences of loneliness, which is fair dos. This whole project came about because I don’t feel lonely (93% of the time) despite being thoroughly alone in my Transylvanian mountain eyrie. But it wasn’t always so. There have been some moments of excruciating isolation, and for many years a chronic, if mild, yearning for the perfect partner. (There are some seriously groovy benefits of hitting 50!) I’ll add another story from time to time (as I remember them). I’d love to hear your stories too, of course! Much more interesting than rehashing mine…
Lost in Greece
In 1986 I shoved off to mainland Greece for six summer weeks. I’d lived there for a while in 1979 and did classical Greek at school, so I could read and speak a bit. Even so, it was a launch into the Aegean blue with no travel plans except to meet my chums Una and Nikos on Evvia (Euboea for classicists). Classic independent travel, or typical haphazard foolishness, depending on your point of view. I was 28.
The night before I went I felt utterly miserable – depressed, apathetic and longing for Mr Someone-Special to sweep me off to Planet Bliss. I remember standing on the Embankment in Jubilee Gardens (where the London Eye is now), looking at the oily Thames wash past, and wondering what it would feel like to sink into it and end the minor-key blues. Had I not been due to leave in the morning, maybe I’d have tried (but probably not).
The trouble with travel as an escape mechanism is that you take yourself with you. So however far you run, you only change the scenery. So I took my misery to the hot white light of Greece, and headed immediately off the tourist trail. With my bit of language I did quite well with essentials, surprising the locals who weren’t used to the English speaking another language, and getting a broad welcoming smile as a result. But it was hard, after a few days, hearing no English and being too shy to chat. The excruciating moment came when I was having breakfast in Tsangarada, a stunning village on the side of Mt Pelion, which drops steeply into the Aegean (that day not wine-dark but electric blue). On the next table was a young Irish family – a red-haired girl, her husband and two small children. They looked happy and friendly, and I drank in the English chatter, longing to join them. But crippled by shyness I pretended to ignore them, and for the three days they were there, was gripped by a homesickness and loneliness that I’d rarely felt before or since. It was only when they left that I could sink back into enjoying the intense pleasure of rural Greece and the imagined thunder of centaurs galloping through the forest of chestnut trees, where Achilles grew up and the Argonauts set off to find the golden fleece.
During the six weeks there were other lonely moments, but none as fierce as that, and more to do with boredom born of the fear of shoving myself into social interaction. Too scared of introducing myself to strangers, easier to sit and read a book than risk rejection by other English-speaking travellers. I did once accept a lift from a Greek businessman in Areopolis, on the way across the Peloponnese to Kalamata (olive-ville). He was kindness itself, but cross with me for being irresponsible as a lone woman on the road. When we got to Kalamata he bought my bus ticket to Methoni before he left me to my fate with more fatherly warnings.
When I got back to London, I felt I’d changed. Grown, got a bit tougher. The loneliness had been part of that. I’d felt it and survived it, made it through six weeks of meandering from the Aegean coast to the Ionian. It prompted a change, and within a month I’d resigned from my job and started up as a freelance. That was a series of mistakes in the offing, but that’s another set of stories.
Lost at school
I must have been about five. The end of the school day, waiting to be collected from Conifers in Midhurst*, waiting, waiting, waiting. An alcoholic mother was not always reliable in these matters. to pass the time I got on to a swing and swung, higher and higher, the view of the school gate better the higher I swung. Eventually, my sister turned up. Practised at the spectacular dismount, I waited till the high point of the arc and jumped. The skirt of my dress caught on the chain where it fastened to the seat, and as I jumped, the skirt ripped. I landed in the playground with my white knickers on full view, the skirt dangling from the swing. Luckily the playground was empty since I was the last to be collected, but my sister screeched with laughter and teased me all the way home, and for days afterwards. The humiliation was profound (still remember it nearly half a century on). What I longed for was to be scooped up and comforted in loving arms, not laughed at. As a lonely moment, it was intense, but only one of many in childhood. Living within a family does not guarantee a feeling of closeness or companionship. It’s not one’s family’s fault, necessarily, but thoughtless, careless moments can have a profound effect on you, and build into a crushing sense that one is just not good enough. Anyone know that feeling?
*NB No criticism of Conifers – loved the school, and it’s still going strong.