I usually travel alone. For years, my friends prioritized responsibly, and couldn’t find the money to join me in my travels. Now, they either don’t have the time, or have graduated to roller suitcases and rooms with en-suite bathrooms, things that wouldn’t be my style, even if I could afford them.
I like places where they stay up late, make cheap wine, and shout about politics in the streets. I like cities with cobblestone centers and ancient ruins, that smell like smog, and piss, and sun-baked garbage. I like places where the men wear good shoes, and where people laugh at me when I try to speak their language. Places where old ladies feed me, and understand that food is love.
I spent the summer of 2002 in Athens. They had just adopted the Euro, and prices were skyrocketing, but the city hadn’t yet been modernized for the Olympic Games. It was dirty in all of my favorite ways. I stayed in a hostel, in a neighborhood that tourists were advised to avoid, one populated by Albanian guest workers, prostitutes, and junkies. The guest workers crammed into buildings, loitering on the sidewalks when it wasn’t their turn to sleep. They never bothered me, but I passed much of the time back then. Sometimes the working girls would proposition me, late, as I walked back to my room. I’d grin at them and they’d realize their mistake, fading back into the shadows.
I got my hair cut at a barbershop, a mile or so outside of the center city. The elderly barber thought I was a boy and cut my hair as short as it’s ever been. His young adult son apologized awkwardly for his father’s mis-gendering of me. I didn’t understand the words, but was well familiar with the ritual. I loved the haircut, and went back every week.
I walked everywhere, miles every day. I never tire of the Acropolis, and I took other hostel residents on unofficial tours. I watched people. At night, I ate and drank with people I’d met, lingering over meals that lasted for hours, outside in the heat.
In all my travels alone, I am both excruciatingly lonely, and oddly comfortable. I have my way of navigating the unknown, of dealing with languages I don’t speak, and of finding my way. It’s a familiar suffering. I miss it now. I imagine hot nights, the smells of cities, the shouting of people who live boisterously. I miss the stray dogs and the suspicious cats that live in sidewalk holes, with their dirty kittens. They are my friends. They watch people too.