Loneliness on the River Spree

Most of the time I’m alone. And when I say alone, I don’t mean lonely. There is a big difference. Loneliness is being void of context – disconnected, and socially unfulfilled. I’ve been lonely. I’ve stared it in the face, and waited for it to blink. There’s crispness to loneliness that is hard to define especially when you’re so well connected. I have a loving family, devoted friends and wonderful children; they keep me anchored but I’m not immune to the swaying tide of loneliness.

It’s tempting to write about loneliness in the context of relationship status – whether you’re single, dating, naked with a random, sleeping with an ex, thinking about sleeping with an ex, swiping until your thumbs are numb, or focusing on yourself (what ever that means), but loneliness and isolation goes beyond relationship status. Having no context goes deeper than if you’re sharing a bed with someone, or have a date for that thing you’re dreading because you’ll be the only one uncoupled. (I love the word uncoupled. You can almost hear a train detaching from a carriage).

Loneliness isn’t the sole property of the single person, and moments of isolation while coupled can be just a difficult to navigate. Picture the front carriage of a train hurtling in a certain direction, and there you are, attached with no choice but to follow. Loneliness can be frightening – especially when it creeps up on you when you least expect it. For me, it was a Tuesday afternoon under a sunset in Berlin.

It was a moment of loneliness that was so visceral I was surprised by its intensity and sobered by its swiftness. For the first time in my life, I felt disconnected, isolated, distant and unreservedly alone. My European adventure was a planned three week solo trip to Berlin, Florence and Rome to spend my days wandering art galleries and museums, taking photos, meeting locals and breathing in all the life a hopelessly romantic writer can muster. My first few days in Berlin had been a blur of trying to figure out how life worked there and the points I could engage in. Then finally I had my first afternoon to relax, wander the banks of the River Spree and enjoy some time with my thoughts.

Spring was doing its thing, and Berlin was waking from its slumber. Opposite Museum Island, I sat on the banks of the river watching Berlin life. Couples on rugs drinking beer. Couples walking hand in hand. Couples pushing prams. Couples kissing under the sunset. Groups of couples sharing a picnic. Couples. Everywhere I looked, couples!

The feeling began as heaviness. There’s really no other way to describe it. A heavy weight that rests somewhere beneath your solar plexus and kind of dictates your body language. Lonely people walk lower to the ground. It descended like a fog as though someone had placed a heavy blanket over my shoulders. I’ve felt lonely before, in the kind of I-live-alone-and-am-single kind of way that is normal, but this was different.

It was late and early back in Australia, and there was no one to call. I was alone and I was isolated. It’s a natural part of the human experience to crave external connection. To be understood. To be listened too. To have another look in your eyes, communicating that they’re on your team. Touch. Laughter. Kiss.

Now, at this point in the article, I could articulate that I had a moment where I looked within myself and found all the love and acceptance I needed – I was a bald, white Jay Shetty getting my self-love on. Not quite. You see, I’m always with myself. I don’t bore myself; on the contrary, as an extroverted introvert, I crave time with myself. But we are humans built for connection and authentic human experiences that include the company of others. In these moments there is nothing wrong with craving it, wanting it, searching for it, and aching for it. It means you’re alive.

Under a German sunset on the other side of the world I craved human connection more than what I can ever recall in my 41 years of life. It was visceral. It was painful. It was surprising. A crawling ghostly figure that had haunted me the past few years, normally abated by the familiarity of home, had sprung up and attacked me from nowhere and I was unprepared. Out of a three-week trip alone, this was day three. I still had over two weeks that would include Florence and Rome, and in that moment I wondered if I had made a very big and expensive mistake. I made a quick calculation to see how much money I would lose if I cut my time short and returned to Australia. It wasn’t possible. I had to endure.

The weight rose from my stomach, traveled up my chest through a swelling in the throat and directly to the back of my eyes. Crying in public is embarrassing. Thankfully, hidden under my sunglasses, I steeled myself and let it take me. I surrendered to the moment. I looked across the River Spree and watched how the light attached itself to buildings and water and trees. I watched the wind move branches and how the leaves created small dancing shadows on the water. The sunlight took on a clear orange hue that illuminated the leaves to almost florescent green. Somewhere, children laughed.

Further up the river a group of cyclist rode over a bridge and their silhouette appeared as like ghostly shadows. I had no choice but to fully immerse myself in the bitterness of the moment using all the vulnerability and courage I could find, in the hope of discovering the sweet. I just let it be. I embraced it. I found a willingness to feel it all. As Albert Camus once wrote, “In the depths of winter I discovered that within me there lay and invincible summer.”

In that moment I found myself letting go of things (yes, it’s a pedestrian word but honestly it’s the best way of describing it) and I uncoupled from carriages I didn’t realise I was pulling. I gave myself patience and understanding, and just let it fucking be. By embracing the discomfort I was being kind to myself with a level of compassion that I so easily show to others. It was accidental, and only achieved alone, on the other side of the world in Berlin of all places.

The crawling Stephen King-ish ghostly figure that was on my back trying to claw at my jugular, had transformed into a purring cat winding between my legs looking up and begging for attention. In a less eloquent way, I had made loneliness my bitch.

After about fifteen minutes of letting the sadness escape, the moment passed. I took a few deep breaths, thanked the universe, took a final look down the river and decided it was time to leave. I walked through the couples doing couple things and embraced my inner Judd Nelson at the end of Breakfast Club. “Don’t you….forget about me…” FIST IN THE AIR.

Judd Nelson in the final scene of The Breakfast Club.

The rest of my time in Berlin was filled with wonderful moments I will keep with me for the rest of my life. But as life would have it, I found myself back there on the River Spree, in that very spot, four days later, under a sunset doing couple things.

Her name was Isabele. A Brazilian Au Pair living in Switzerland and in Berlin for the day. We met on a Street Art walking tour and after four hours of wandering the streets of Berlin, we left together and waited for the tram, drinking Heineken. It was refreshing to have some conversation over a beer. We shared a tram ride; and walked towards the banks of the Spree to the very spot where I stood only a few days before.

We talked about writing, poetry, life, and the crazy stupid nature of love. I read some of her poetry and she laughed at my dumb jokes, and I tried to catch glimpses of her smile when she wasn’t looking. She was that rare mix of delicate but strong, a young beautiful woman finding her way in the world with vulnerability and grace. It was a thing of fucking beauty. We watched the sunset. I rested my hand on her leg and she leaned into me. We kissed under a German sunset. In that moment we were a couple doing couple things. I marvelled at the irony.

Eventually she left, and I walked her to the tram that would lead her to the airport and a flight back to Switzerland. I watched the tram wind down the road until it was out of sight, feeling like I was in a Woody Allen movie.

The whole experience by the River Spree lasted one hour, but the memory will remain. For the rest of my time in Europe, loneliness tried to demand my attention but I had broken its back by just letting it be. By accepting it without judgment and showing kindness to myself that I so easily show to those I love. Walking back to my apartment I stopped at an Italian restaurant and sat at a table alone. I took out a small book by Andy Warhol, ordered a glass of wine, and surrounded by full tables, drank and read alone. To the table next to me was a family from the UK, with kids the same age as my own. The father, hearing my accent when ordering, started a conversation and we briefly talked about Cricket. A few moments later, they invited me to join them and I had dinner with a family of strangers. In my loneliness, I reached out to the universe through acceptance, and the universe reached back and it fucking took my breath away.

In the following two weeks I made other connections and had other equally incredible moments that are so dear to me, I may never write about them, but I’ll never forget my time on the banks on the River Spree.

I mean, who could?

A.

The banks of the River Spree in Berlin.