In Defense of Being Alone (or, Christmas and the Case of the Karmic Meat)

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Christmas of 2014, I spent alone. But before you sigh and move on, this looking like a complaint, let me give you more information. Winter Break of 2014 I spent bouncing around Europe on a train.

Here’s how it goes: I spent the entirety of my junior year of college abroad. First, I was in Paris, followed by the spring term spent in London (with IFSA-Butler). Both astoundingly and spectacularly, the “financially responsible choice” was, rather than fly home to Texas and then right back out across the pond, to stay and play at a ridiculous kind of charade of homelessness, of displacement. From Paris, I took the train to Vienna, to Prague, to Berlin, and back to Paris in time to fly on to my new, slightly less temporary UK home.

So here’s what I should have said: Christmas of 2014, I switched out family gatherings, home cooked meals, and familiarity for walking, getting lost, a little more walking, and Christmas night in Prague.

This blog post is a manifesto in favor of taking (at least) one trip by yourself. To convince you, I’m going to write down the top three things that happened during my Christmas spent alone.

  1. THE RUSSIAN JUST STOLE MY HAM – Full disclosure, this was actually Christmas Eve, the day that I arrived in Prague. After taking a quick nap, I left the hostel to find dinner in the Old Town Square, located very near where I was staying. Throughout Europe, Christmas Markets abound– Christmas Markets featuring traditional local pastries of varying types, often a warm alcoholic drink, handmade doodads, all sold in little temporary wooden stalls.
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This is one of my favorite pictures I took– It’s a big Christmas Market in Vienna, between two museums

In the Old Town Square, by the huge Christmas tree, across from the castle, there was a bigger stall selling meat, dumplings, and mulled wine. That’s where I went, and that’s where I accidentally ordered a comically large hunk of ham. Like, if it were a cube, each side was maybe 5 inches tall. That’s a lot of meat. As I grappled with my slab of a Christmas Eve dinner, I spotted my evening’s entertainment. The Czech women standing at my table had been giggling as they listened to a very loud, very big, very drunk Russian fellow standing at the table behind us. He was alternately speaking enthusiastically into his phone (in Russian, of course), and then to strangers (also in Russian, less obviously) who either responded with bemusement, or with a discomfort that led them to relocate. I have no idea what he was saying, the only translations that the Czech women gave me had to do with the Russian fellow disliking Americans. Of course, he then lumbered over to our table and rambled. In Russian. Non-stop. Sometimes he asked questions, and in response to my shrugging and attempted explanation that I did not speak his language (one, two, three times), he would continue talking. Having established himself at our table, and, I must stress this, being quite inebriated, he then reached across the table and took, in his bare hands, my piece of ham. He stole my meat, and bit directly into it. In response to the (I’m sure) look of shock on my face, his eyebrows raised and he looked surprised, confused. Then, kindly and genuinely, he offered to give me a bite of the ham. As you can imagine, I demurred.

The scene of the crime, more or less (Prague, Old Town Square)

The scene of the crime, more or less (Prague, Old Town Square)

  1. A GOOD DEED – As inappropriate as it is to write this, I was feeling a little bummed out Christmas morning. I hadn’t gotten to talk to anyone in my hostel the previous night, and was having trouble feeling Prague’s pulse. Wandering the winding streets in search of a warm place and some breakfast, I decided on a place where I could get a pseudo-American traditional breakfast (I know, I know, tsk tsk but also this meal is the instance of “given meat” that makes the title make sense, so). As I finished my meal, feeling still a little bit grim, an old Czech fellow who had just finished his drink set out towards the exit. Passing my table, he dropped something on my table and, as he continued to make his way towards the door, said in his accented English “I have to do one good deed each day.” You think I’m kidding, but that is verbatim (I just checked the Whatsapp I sent my mom after it happened). And you know what he had left on my table? A note that said:

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On the other side was a receipt. The fellow had paid for my breakfast, and left, wanting nothing in return, not even recognition.

Prague, again

Prague, again

  1. JUST CONVERSATION: This is less of a story, less of an epiphany, but it’s important. It’s about having been alone, and about the temporary but still very real unlikely companionship you happen upon. I had walked around, gone to a Warhol exhibit, walked around some more, saw some street performers (there are some really weird street performers out there– in Vienna, there was a fellow sitting on a park bench, playing accordion, and wearing a fake deer head) and come back to the warm hostel to defrost my toes. I had journaled, I had read, and then I’d gotten a message from a friend back home. Disconcerted by the message, and unsure of how to respond, I asked the perfect stranger who was also sleeping in that room. His name was A—-, he was from Peru, he was a PhD candidate in philosophy (I study philosophy too!) in Spain, and he was feeling loneliness unconstructively, and taking pills to dull his emotional reaction. I don’t know how to make this into a narrative, but we talked for hours– about family and home (always, and usually increasingly complex issues as we age), about philosophy, about the senior thesis I was beginning to plot out, about books, about whatever. The story isn’t so much something that can be retold; it’s an instance of the content being right at the right time. But I’m including it because that momentary friendship (he had left by the time I woke up the following morning) was what defined my Christmas. If you let yourself be available and open, you run into great ideas and cool, surprising, thoughtful people.
Vienna again!

Vienna again!

Here’s the thing though, you’re going to forget some of your stories. Even these stories, as I read them over, sound like just that– like excerpts from a book. What I’m left with are these golden memories gathering dust. But even more, I’m left with a sense of my own past boldnesses and present potential capacities.

The thing that I most often hear from other study abroad alumni is that they wish that someone had talked about the loneliness of being so far away (in whatever sense you want to imagine). It is not something that should deter you for one single second from pursuing study abroad, but it is something about which you deserve to be forewarned. If you so choose, you can avoid being alone a lot of the time– you can travel with friends, you might live with other students, you’ve got school responsibilities… Despite all this, sometimes it is going to make more sense to be alone, sometimes it is going to be inescapable, and sometimes it is going to be better that way. Spending time alone and out adventuring is giving yourself more opportunity to be uncompromisingly surprised. I urge you to try it at least once.

The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall

Carmen Altes is a student at Brandeis University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at King’s College London.

Article by Carmen Altes