Text and Image: Islay Kilgannon
It’s eight o’clock in the morning, I’ve slept through my alarm, and I’m right on time for the bus when I realise I’ve forgotten to pay my phone bill. My state of disarray adds a tone of excitement, as if I was travelling to the other side of the world and not a mere three-hour drive to Brussels. Though my journey is not seamless- the bus driver stops at an unexpected location before a few brave passengers negotiate our way to the correct stop- I am surprisingly calm. It’s impossible for me to be late as there’s no one waiting on me, and no expectations to mitigate but my own.
In the following days I entertain myself in all the ways a tourist might, moving through a new place, untethered and open to possibility. In a sea of unfamiliar sights and sounds I can be anyone or no one at all. I take in the city, my experiences filtered solely by the faint knowing that they will become stories to be retold later. It lends to the sense that I can do anything and make ‘yes’ a gut reaction rather than a calculated decision. Nights are spent drinking Belgian beers with strangers, lackluster attempts at speaking foreign languages, and contemplating how we all got here and where we will go next. I reveal parts of my life to people I will never see again, and yet this fleetingness does not seem to matter. There is freedom in this particular kind of solitude, and anonymity is emboldening.
In a last minute decision to spend my evening at a concert, I head towards the venue feeling self-satisfied in my own spontaneity. As I approach my destination, I am struck by a sudden self consciousness. The entrance is obscured by a crowd of people and the terraces that line the street are full. Conversations in French are punctuated with easy laughter while friends embrace in greeting. My own aloneness becomes impossible to ignore. It’s paralysing- the anxiety that comes with simply not knowing- what to do, where to go, how to belong in this environment. I walk aimlessly down quieter streets to avoid the scene altogether and find myself on a sun baked plaza overlooking the city. My discomfort melts under the setting sun and I gather the courage to go back to the venue, head inside, and squeeze into a singular open seat in the balcony just moments before the show starts. In the midst of hundreds of people I am small and alone once again, but enraptured by the music onstage we become indistinguishable from one another.
Throughout my solo travel, I oscillate between freedom and spontaneity, anxiety and insecurity. Often these moods exist all at once. In the moments where self-consciousness threatens to upset the careful balance, I seek refuge in the vaulted ceilings of the city’s cathedrals, sheltered by silence and stained glass. I lay in the grass of shaded parks when I’m tired of walking and decision-making. In these quiet, unremarkable moments I find sweetness in self-contentment. Alone is not lonely, and to enjoy your own company makes this true.