Through much experience with traveling alone, I’ve come to the realization that I absolutely love it–in fact, I prefer it over traveling with others. When I say I enjoy “traveling” alone, I mean the actual process of traveling. I don’t so much enjoy the aloneness once I have actually arrived at my destination. It is much more comforting to arrive in the arms of loved ones and familiar faces or to the arms of brand new company and a brand new experience.
There are many opportunities that can arise when traveling alone as opposed to traveling with others. The solo commute is the best time to catch up on some reading, listen to some good tunes, have a thought, or simply observe the life that surrounds you. People watching is my absolute FAVORITE when waiting in an airport. By simply observing you can make a judgmental prediction as to where the person or group is from, where they are going, and for what purpose they are traveling.
When you travel with others, you tend to pay more attention to those you are with than to those strangers who surround you. I enjoy the strangers. There is always a small connection that sticks in your mind after a day of traveling solo, whether it be a slight bit of eye contact or an actual conversation, these are the little things that make up your adventure. It’s the little things, all strung together, that create your entire life–a life well-lived if you deem these “little things” with significance.
An anecdote to match my thoughts goes along with my very inconvenient commute to and from Lugano, Switzerland this past weekend. When booking my flights, I goofed up terribly and chose the earlier flights instead of the latter ones. This ended up being much more of an inconvenience than I had anticipated, but there wasn’t one moment during my commute where I was unhappy with my long journey alone.
To get to Lugano, first I had to take a night bus at 2:15 AM to Amsterdam Centraal Station where I took the latest train to Eindhoven at 3:15 AM. The train ride took about an hour and a half and I arrived at Eindhoven Centraal Station around 4:45 AM. The first bus to Eindhoven airport didn’t leave until 6:10 AM, so again, I did some more waiting around. The bus took about 30 minutes. I checked in at the airport and did some more waiting around until my flight left at 8:50 AM. After the flight, I arrived in Milano-Bergamo airport around 10:30 AM where I had to take a bus to Milano Centrale. The bus took an hour. I then had to take a train around 1:00 PM. An hour later, I finally arrived in Lugano.
For most people, this would be quite an annoyance. Not only due to the length of the journey, but also because of the endless transfers and the very early hours of the morning. I, however, met some interesting characters along the way.
For this particular journey, I made the decision to stay up all night. I went out with my friends around midnight, carrying my backpack with me, about halfway to the central station. While looking up the night bus schedule, I met a group of men looking for the same schedule. We chatted a bit, then I headed back to my group of friends while I waited for the bus to arrive. Later, I see this same group of men waiting for the train on the same platform I’m on. I had my headphones plugged in, but as soon as one of the men recognized me and pointed, I took them out and we began to chat again. Though his English was broken, we exchanged small talk and he and his drunken buddies headed on to the train before mine. It was quite the source of entertainment and a nice time-waster, to say the least.
In the train I managed to fall asleep for a bit, but before I dozed off I made sure to take note of those around me. An unspoken bond is created between solo travelers. These are the people you share a journey with. You have that one event in common, but maybe nothing else. It’s similar to sharing times with those born in the same year as you or those who experience tragedies together such as 9/11 or World War II. You will always have this one thing in common and can find a way to relate to each other through that one thing, if nothing else. While observing the others on the train, I notice an older man on the opposite end. Though we don’t exchange conversation, I can see that we share the same objective. He crosses his arms, leans his head against the window, and drifts off into an open-mouthed slumber.
Once I arrived at the Eindhoven train station, I wandered here and there until I discovered the next step in my journey. While trying to figure out the bus situation, a young Dutch man confronted me. He was trying harder than I would have liked to make small talk with me. It was then that a security guard saved me from the having to reject his very futile flirting, leading me in the right direction while directing the Dutch man the opposite way.
On my way to the bus I heard a few comments from Dutch men as if to “holler at me.” I simply laughed to myself and kept walking. Once I arrived at the benches outside the train station, I sat and waited for the bus alone. A seemingly lost man continues to pace back and forth around the bench area until he finally asks me (in English) when the next bus comes. I mentioned that the security guard told me it comes in 20 minutes. The security guard was actually quite wrong. The next bus didn’t come for about an hour and 20 minutes. Through this never-ending hour and 20 minutes, that man and I exchanged few words but many smirks regarding close-call buses that almost pull up and crazy night owls roaming around the station.
We finally arrive at the airport where the man and I say our goodbyes–a stranger I will never again see in my life. Not to be bothered, there are plenty more to come. The airport was a blur. I slept almost the whole time while waiting and flying, but I did manage to catch some interesting characters.
Once I arrived in Italy I saw a woman in fear of pigeons, many flirtatious Italian men, and a woman in large, geeky glasses covered in wordy tattoos–most likely quotes from songs or books. These individuals were all quite insignificant but were what made up “the little things” that created my entire journey.
The journey on the way back from Lugano was even more of a hassle, though it was deemed with even more significance than the journey there. This commute consisted of an hour train ride at 10:00 PM, a 2 hour wait in the train station, an hour bus ride at 1:00 AM, a 4 1/2 hour wait in the airport, an hour and a half flight around 6:30 AM, a 30 minute bus ride, an hour and a half train ride at 9:00 AM, and a 30 minute tram ride–ending my trip around 11:00 AM.
One very significant character I met on the journey back was in the Milano train station. I was sleeping on a bench when a man sits on the opposite side, disrupting my slumber. Naturally, I look up to see what awoke me. I see it is only a man waiting, as I am, and put my head back down on my backpack. After some unsettled movements on the other end of the bench, I feel one very abrupt jolt ending in quite a feeling of silence. When you’re trying to sleep, not only can you hear silence, but you can feel it. With this thought, I am reminded of Pavlov’s Negative Reinforcement where the annoying, unsettled man is removed and I am left to increase my behavior, or rather, continue on with my sleep.
When I looked up, the man caught my eye and held up his water bottle. He started speaking in Italian when I told him I was sorry, but I didn’t speak Italian. I assumed this would dismiss him and I could continue on with my rest, but of course he switched over to English and forced his question in-between me and my ever-so-comfortable backpack. He just wanted to know where he could buy another bottle of water. I directed him towards the vending machines and finally went back to sleeping.
You’ll never believe what happened next. He came back! He sat right back down on the other end of my bench with the same annoying, restless movements. The only difference was he had a full water bottle instead of an empty one. After a while, I was forced to give up my sleep. I looked up, repositioned myself on the bench to a more upright position, and stared off into space. I figured I ought to figure out my bus situation, so I asked the restless man where I might find the bus or where to buy a ticket. Appreciative that I directed him towards a vending machine, he offered to escort me to the buses. After figuring out the time and location of the bus, the restless man asked if I was interested in getting a coffee with him at the McDonald’s right next-door, as he was waiting for a friend to come in and he needed a wake-up call. I needed a coffee awfully bad and nothing was open in the train station, so I accepted his offer.
Though some might feel that having coffee with a complete stranger is a threat to one’s safety, there are obvious precautions to take and one must undoubtedly follow his or her instincts. This man was obviously just bored out of his mind and needed someone to talk to. He was not at all creepy or flirtatious or even remotely dangerous-looking. He quite resembled a teddy bear with his friendly attitude and his goofy grin. Not to mention, the McDonald’s was quite full of other bored and hungry travelers; a cry for help would have been well-heard.
The restless man asked me if I preferred “café americano,” seeing as I was from the States. He bluntly mentioned that the coffee was on him and continued to order and pay for two “café americanos.” We sat at a table right directly outside the door to the McDonald’s restaurant. Here, I found out that Mr. Restless was Egyptian and he had been living in Italy for seven years now. He lives and works in Rome in the business of hospitality. It all started to make sense. He most definitely had the proper personality for a career in hospitality. The friend that he was waiting for in at the train station was meeting him for a five day holiday in Milan.
We ended up exchanging numbers before we finished our coffee and went our separate ways. While walking toward the bus that would take me to the airport, Mr. Restless expressed quite graciously how happy he was to have met me. It’s all about the little things.
Once I arrived at the grand bus doors, it was time to say goodbye. Mr. Restless bid me adieu as would a good friend. I walked to the back of the aisle and chose a seat next to the window. As soon as I sat down and settled in, the biggest smile abruptly appeared on my face. It wouldn’t go away. It was the kind of smile that hurt your cheeks and there was simply nothing that could be done about it. This one, very bizarre and lonely stranger changed my entire mood that evening. I no longer felt the need to sleep, but rather stared off into the distance and reflected on the night’s little events.
The Milano-Bergamo airport was filled with a sea of campers, sleeping on benches and suitcases in order to make their early morning flights. Never having slept in an airport before, this was quite a new and exciting experience for me. I found a spot in a corner where nobody else seemed to be camping out. I placed my backpack on the ground to use as a pillow and used a sweater as a blanket. Feeling comparatively like Mr. Restless, I nodded off here and there, but just could not get comfortable on the hard tile floor. I eventually was forced to choose observation over slumber as I patiently waited for check-in.
After the flight, everything surprisingly moved smoothly. As soon as I got off the plane, there was a bus waiting outside. I hopped on, went to the train station, and as soon as I bought at train ticket my train arrived. I suppose this made up for the exhausting hours I waited earlier in the night. On the train ride back to Amsterdam, I eavesdropped on two older ladies having a conversation in Dutch. I would estimate these lovely ladies to be in their 70s. What I’ve noticed from eavesdropping on Dutch conversation in hopes to pick some up is that older individuals tend to speak slower, making it much easier to learn and understand. I didn’t pick up as much of the conversation as I would have liked, but the two were quite cute with the way they interacted. They seemed like old friends, or possibly sisters that had gotten together for a day outing.
Numerous people asked me how Switzerland was when I arrived back in Amsterdam. When I mentioned the long commute, each person sympathized with my seemingly bothersome experience. In response, I can’t help but smile. They may never understand the importance of “the little things.”