Two weeks ago today (10/10/2017) I set off for a solo trip around Europe.
I haven’t had a cuddle since I left Britain.
For those of you who don’t know me, I love to hug, hold hands, and squeeze my friends and family. I’m a tactile person. I’m naturally physically at ease with those around me. I love a good cwtch (which is a term, it turns out, people in Europe are not familiar with!) Consequently, I’m someone who feels lonely, disconnected from her surroundings and the people she is with, without that physical contact.
At first this absence didn’t bother me. In fact I enjoyed the space to be by my absolute self. Explore myself in a way I never had before. I connected with my surroundings on a whole new level. With the world. My environment. I was connected. But to the bigger picture. To strangers through eye contact, and to the cities and towns I visited through my feet.
But in the presence of another person, Stuart, who I was sharing that time and space with, I realised how much I missed being able to be at ease with another human being. To hold hands, entangle limbs whilst sprawled on a sofa watching TV, to lean, to be leant on, to feel the warmth of a second body simply being near you. Not even holding you, just being near you.
I have held no one in two weeks.
I thought that having a travel buddy would be just like travelling with a friend. But it’s not. It isn’t a friendship like the ones you form at home. It’s a connection based on a need to have companionship, understanding, and shared experience. Stuart and I were friends. Would we be friends outside of travelling? Probably not. I don’t know. We travelled together for ten days, and to be honest, I can’t tell you that much about him. He worked for Mars for eight years, enjoys scrolling through Reddit, after seven months of travelling he feels lonely and wants to move on from Europe to Asia. He also trades in stocks. Our friendship was maintained on a surface level. It’s hard to invest emotionally in a person when you’re constantly moving, constantly leaving things behind. Because that means leaving your heart behind. So you don’t. You form connections on a functional level. But it’s hard work. It’s exhausting actually. You’re maintaining a feasible facade that doesn’t let too much of yourself slip. Enough personality to form a connection, but simultaneously holding yourself back to keep that connection from becoming something lasting, meaningful, and ultimately painful when you will inevitably have to say goodbye. You can’t have lasting when you’re always leaving.
I went to Vienna to eat chocolate cake and drink coffee. Viennese coffee is served short, black, and strong. Exactly as I like it. The chocolate cake, so famous in Vienna, is called Sachertorte and is named after Chef Franz Sacher who invented it. It is soft in flavour. A light chocolate sponge, with a thin marmalade spread, and a chocolate coating. I loved it. Stuart wasn’t as taken. He likes his coffee large and thin. An espresso shot watered down.
I was in heaven. He wanted to go to McDonald’s.
In Vienna we stayed with Michi, Iza, and Isa. Stuart had met them in Spain earlier that year and exchanged contact details. We had travelled to Vienna separately and I had got to the house first. I stood outside the huge doors waiting, ringing the bell. Nothing. I messaged Stuart, “No one is answering the door. Am I at the right place?” I sent him my location.
“I’m messaging Michi now. I’m not far away. Wait there.”
I waited. I wasn’t worried, but I knew Stuart would be. He had organised this accommodation. If it fell through, he’d feel responsible. I rang the doorbell again. Five minutes later and Michi answered the door. He was tall and lean, full of smiles. He led me to the second floor up a curving staircase. We entered through two similarly huge wooden doors and a dog bounded up to greet me full of energy. I put down my stuff and went through to the living room where a grand sofa bed constructed out of pallet crates, blankets, pillows, cushions, and all manner of throws, made a throne of comfort. The ceilings were tall. The floors, wooden in some rooms, and marble in others. I felt as though I had stepped into an art noir film. Smoke filled the room. Tattered maps and pieces of art decorated the spaces.
The night we arrived in Vienna it was Lange Nacht Der Museen (Long Night of the Museums). This is the one night of the year where the whole of Austria opens up all of its museums until one o’clock in the morning.
Stuart and I, eager to participate in this annual activity, wrapped up and went out.
It was cold.
We bought a beer from a stall and wandered through the people moseying around in the centre of the museum quarter. We deliberated. Both tired and happy to just be, we failed to make any kind of executive decision, and eventually, ended up in what we called ‘the tar museum’ due to a poster on the front depicting birds covered in tar. It was this installation that we were keen to see. And seeing as it had taken up such a large poster space, we assumed it would be a focal point of the museum.
We were wrong.
We found ourselves in a natural history museum. Fish lay dried and pinned to boards, rooms of dead butterflies and moths, taxidermy galore… And then, eventually, one tree with tar-covered birds hanging from it and two other specimens similarly covered in tar. We’d wandered the whole museum searching for it, to find that we’d seen the whole exhibition on the poster outside an hour before.
We ate Leberkase sandwiches sitting on a bench at a tram station kebab shop. Literally translated as ‘liver cheese’, Leberkase is a loaf-shaped chunk of meat that is cut into thick slices served in a bread roll with mustard. It is the Viennese equivalent of the drunkenly purchased doner kebab.
For the rest of our time in Vienna, Stuart and I were lazy tourists, or at least, by my standards. I struggled at first. “We’ve got to do things!”
“You can’t keep going like this,” he said, “you’ll burn out.”
We enjoyed one another’s company. We went sightseeing, and we watched Netflix. We smoked and we drank. We cooked together. We walked together. We explored together. We coexisted. We felt comfort in the presence of a second body sharing the same space.
On our last night in Vienna, I had a message from one of my friends saying she and her boyfriend had broken up. I was approximately 1150 miles away from her. I couldn’t hold her. Promise her I’d be on the train tomorrow. I couldn’t put ice in a glass and pour over a quadruple shot of gin. I could only promise her that I was there when she was ready to call. But what I really wanted to do was cook her dinner and get her pissed.
There have been some moments in the last two weeks where I’ve felt like this is the most complete and at ease I’ve ever felt in my entire life.
Travelling allows you to be freed from social pressures.
None of your acquaintances will ever see you again.
There’s a liberty in that. You can be, unreservedly, your absolute self. Because no judgement you experience will last. No exclusion will damage you. You are free. You are you. And no one can challenge that. No one can land a lasting blow.
But in another country, far from home, I have also not held my husband in two weeks. I have not nestled my nose into his back while he sleeps. I have not jostled shoulders with my friend Tristan in the pub, laughing at one another. I have not linked arms with the familiarity that comes with friendship, with another human being.
Stuart is the closest I have come to being near another human being in this capacity, but with it comes an awkwardness. We are not close friends. We have fallen into a bond because we are travelling and have a mutual desire to not be alone, and we recognise a friendship in one another. But he is not Tom, Flora, Tristan, Lili, Naomi, or Leanne. And he is not Sion.
We sat sprawled on a sofa last night, limbs entangled as we watched Netflix. But it was not the same familiarity that I have with my friends at home, where I can cuddle them. Cwtch them. Love them. It was limited. It was not home.