I've just been remembering my first time in London. It was, in fact, my first time outside Ireland. I was in my early twenties and I was there on my own. So many people had urged me to try travelling abroad I thought I would give it a go.
Alone? I was certainly alone. You never feel more alone than when you are in a foreign country on your own.
I wandered around the capital city, frequently getting lost, frequently retracting my steps. As a lifelong anglophile, I felt strange to be finally in England. I'd always wondered what it would be like to be surrounded by people speaking in a strange accent. That wasn't so odd, as it happened, but the architecture and monuments did feel very different and foreign. Somehow I was especially struck by the exoticism of W.H. Smith-- perhaps because it is something so ordinary, but it wasn't my ordinary. (Similarly, in America, Target stores are the thing that seem most American.)
I didn't talk to anyone all day, except for functional conversations. That evening, I phoned my father from the lobby of my cheap and enormous hotel. There were some kind of high jinks going on in the lobby, which made me feel doubly all alone.
The sound of my father's voice coming through my receiver, in a place where everything else was unfamiliar, where nobody knew who I was or was looking out for me, was the strangest thing I'd experienced all day. Every time I remember it, it moves me profoundly. It was almost like I was really hearing it for the first time.
Similar to this is another memory I've mentioned before-- being with my mother and my brother, when we were kids, in a carnival in Dublin city centre. It was evening and the carnival was about to close. The city was very melancholy in the evening gloom. I experienced one of those moments when we see ourselves as though from outside, and comprehend how small we are against the scale and relative indifference of the world. How dear our loved ones appear at such moments! And not only our loved ones, but the very idea of love, of ties, of belonging, of fealty-- as though nothing in the world is more fragile, or more important.