Ironies of Comfort, Familiarity

Alain de Botton ignites my soul. Every line in his traveler’s manifesto, The Art of Travel, has me nodding my head, biting my nails, scribbling frantic responses in the margins as I read on feeling validated, awed, inspired, humbled and humiliated by my own solidarity with his words. Botton describes with painful and beautiful accuracy the sensations of traveling alone and lingering in places of eternal transience: hotels, diners, train stations, gas stations, airports.  I am not alone as I read:

“In roadside diners and late-night cafeterias, hotel lobbies and station cafes, we may dilute our feeling of isolation…and hence rediscover a distinctive sense of community. The lack of domesticity, the bright lights and anonymous furniture may come as a relief from what are often the false comforts of home. It may be easier to give way to sadness here than in a living room with wallpaper and framed photos, the decor of a refuge that has let us down.”* 

His words transported me back to the first time I dined–and traveled–solo. In the train station in Bratislava, Slovakia, I discovered an old train car that had been converted into a diner–exactly the kind of slow, quiet, lonely, chrome fixture Botton describes above. I remember ordering a Pilsner and a piece of cheesecake. The combination was less than stellar, but the soft conversations of strangers and bright lights of the television quelled all my fears that I was, indeed, alone in a foreign country.

I am fascinated by silence. Very often I take for granted the busyness of home and can’t seem to recognize that I am craving peaceful isolation, that fly on the wall sensation of people watching and making up stories, reading license plates and street signs and basking in the glow on anonymity. Botton understands this. Yet I have struggled with hypocrisy in myself as someone who loves love but craves independence and detachment, believing that these desires cannot coexist. I am guilty of associating love exclusively with home. But instead of pondering the reality of home, I glamorize the idea of home, focusing on a past that’s come and gone and been diluted, betrayed by my own selective memories. Memories are comforting; they provide familiarity. It’s the same solace that comes from hearing a familiar song or reading a great line in a book when you’re 30,000 feet in the air or millions of miles away from the last place you were.  But the reality of home is no guarantee of comfort, as is true of life in general.

I’m typing this in San Francisco, where I just arrived. I read Botton while I was 30,000 feet in the air, scribbling frantic feelings of validation and revelation in my journal. Now I’ve come back down to earth, walked down the city’s characteristically colorful Market Street and remembered: people live here, too. The glamour and excitement of being somewhere new lasted exactly ten minutes, which is probably a record for me, and I couldn’t be more proud of myself for that. Because the reality is that there’s nothing exactly glamorous about any of the moments of which Botton writes. He talks of real people, like me, sitting alone in cafes, pondering their past decisions, wondering what’s coming next. That’s the most ubiquitously human moment of all, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

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At The Market, I snacked on chocolate I’d had before in Memphis and juice that I hadn’t, another excitement that lasted exactly one minute as I read nutrition facts in my native, ordinary English. And I thought in silence for a while. Now I’m typing. But the best part of all this, to me, is that it is so normal, and even though I’m alone, I’m surrounded by others who are doing the exact same thing. And there’s comfort in that, too.


*Excerpt from The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton, page 51

Photo taken at The Market shop, Market St and 10th St, San Francisco CA.