Alone. Not Lonely.

We plan trips two ways: consciously and subconsciously.  We plan itineraries, destinations, sights to be seen, events to attend, people to visit.  Then there’s what we experience inside, unanticipated, sometimes welcome, sometimes not, the things that are planned by the heart somewhere in the universe.  If we listen, we can hear the universe speaking.

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I returned to San Francisco last night having spent three weeks traveling to Finland, Estonia and Germany.  I planned this trip months ago, centered on Sam and Saga’s wedding in Turku, Finland on December 22nd.  Being grounded by this date and place, I mapped a journey both before and after the wedding.  Beyond wanting to visit a friend in Mannheim, Germany on my way to Finland, I didn’t have any objectives other than to see places I had never seen before.  After setting the dates for the beginning of the trip and its end—again, an arbitrary decision—I planned each day in advance, booking all hotels and inter-city travel.  I traveled on five airlines, two trains and one ferry.  There were to be no random decisions, or mid-trip change of plans, or serendipitous off the route adventures.  I considered many options.  I’m not sure what the motivations were for me to select the places I wanted to visit; they presented themselves as a hand unconsciously moves across a Ouija Board.  Once settled, I knew they were right.  I would fly to Germany, proceed to Finland for the wedding, spend Christmas in Finnish Lapland, take the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia and end up a week over New Years in Berlin.

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What I didn’t realize was that I had mapped a journey that would unfold in sequential chapters of ever-increasing self-awareness, insight and awakening.  And I couldn’t have realized any of these had I not been traveling alone.

Trips taken with others, whether one’s family, a friend, or a lover, provide their own special pleasures and perils.  With the exception of a week spent on my own in Puerto Rico during the depths of my divorce, feeling miserable the entire time, I had never traveled on vacation by myself.  I had always been with my parents, a friend, my family.  Since moving to San Francisco in 2008, all of my vacations had been with my former girlfriend, providing another kind of happiness.  I was afraid that on this trip I would miss the shared intimacies, the private space that exists when you travel with someone you love. Other people don’t exist then. My fears proved to be groundless.  What I experienced on this trip, by myself, was different, of course, but different in good, life-affirming ways.

Since ancient times, travelers have written about the joys of the open road when traveling alone. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s descriptions of walking alone from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, begun in A Time of Gifts, remain the most deeply personal, and cherished, writing I know.

Traveling alone with an open spirit means never exactly traveling alone.  “Alone” is a choice.  It’s when we choose never to engage not only with other people, but with our heart.  If we’re closed to those possibilities there’s little point to setting out at all.  And we are guaranteed to be lonely.

I was fortunate that my trip began with a visit to my friend in Germany.  We walked the paths of Neanderthals in the cold, wet Neander Valley; we visited Christmas Markets in Cologne, Laudenburg and Speyer; we ate pig’s knuckles as big as our heads.  I also got to share my friend’s happiness being in love with his beautiful girlfriend, a love that had been saved over many years before blossoming to the reality that had always been there from the beginning.  I’m grateful he opened his own door to me at this time of turmoil and joy in his life, and, in so doing, giving me the gift of his insight into conditions of my own heart.

From Germany I moved on to Helsinki where I stayed three days with Sam’s fiancé Saga’s brother Jani.  We had met before in Boston and New York.  Getting my first impressions of Finland from a Finn turned out to be a special, significant treat.

Jani took me on what had to be the coldest, windiest, snow-filled day of the year to the old fortress island of Suomenlinna. We were virtually the only tourists and together, and as we walked throughout this UNESCO World Heritage site in its winter isolation, often in deep snow and whipped by the wind off the frozen coastal water of  the Bay of Finland, we formed a bond of lasting friendship.  I didn’t know then that the cold, white, unforgiving landscape was to set the foundation for insights to come later in my trip.  Winter turned out to my season.

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Best of all, Jani introduced me to the warmth—literally and figuratively—and pleasures of a traditional Finnish sauna. This was the beginning of three unforgettable experiences of the common fellowship of men, the unabashed freedom of enjoying this fellowship and the hot wet body penetrating heat from the wood fired sauna completely naked, the shock of jumping from that heat into the snow and ice, and the deep satisfaction of relaxed and happy muscles that comes at the end.  I bet there’s not a word for “up-tight” in Finnish.

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Later, in Tallinn, I sought out a similar experience on my own, finding another 1920’s wood burning sauna just a few blocks outside the Old Town.  Once the other guys discovered I wasn’t Estonian, they were surprised and delighted that an American had found his way to their local sauna, firing questions at me as fast as I could answer (of course in English.)  They wanted to know how their sauna was different from ones in America; they wanted to know all about my son’s wedding in Finland; they asked whether I thought Finnish girls were prettier than Estonian girls (there being only one politically correct answer;) one guy asked me whether I thought it would be a good idea for Estonia to become the 51st American State!  When I answered it would be a very bad idea, they all burst out laughing telling me it was just a joke, though not such a silly one since Obama had been re-elected.  Would any group of working class guys in the States regale a visiting Estonian, in Estonian, about a recent presidential election in his country?

Before I left, one of the men offered to give my heated body a beat-down with the birch leaf branches used by everyone to stimulate and relax their muscles.  I couldn’t refuse, so proceeded to be whipped and pummeled from head to toe, front to back.  Smelling like a birch tree, I jumped into the ice-cold pool outside the sauna.  I couldn’t have possibly felt any better.  Throughout the evening I also had to politely decline endless shots of vodka, washed down with bottles of beer.

Is this traveling alone?  I would never have sought nor experienced these evenings of friendly fellowship traveling with another person.

Sam’s wedding in Finland, together with the deeply emotional experiences with all three of my sons, was not only the centerpiece of my trip, but coming when it did, was also in many ways the late-blooming centerpiece of my life.  This time we had together at the wedding became the catalyst to the realization—truly a spiritual awakening—that I had when snowshoeing too far out on the treeless, frozen Arctic tundra in the remote north of Finnish Lapland.  What I understood in those three very cold hours was that I had everything I needed, right now, and would ever need, in my life.

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We don’t know where we’re going and we know only a little of where we’ve come from.  We know dates and places, biological and genetic details, events and relationships.  We know all about evolution. We may even have a sense of time passing.

Where we are going always remains a mystery.  That is what, I think, traveling alone can be about if we are open and free of projected outcomes.   It’s not only about the routes and destinations, but more crucially it’s about the unraveling of that future mystery, of seeing a possibility that hadn’t existed before.  We usually don’t see these possibilities living our day-to-day ordinary lives

After Tallinn, my subconscious could not have planned my next, and last, destination better; but then it’s my subconscious. There’s always a reason when the universe speaks.

Berlin amazed, and moved me in ways I hadn’t expected, although coming after the spirit opening experience in Lapland, I was primed for the transformations so literally evoked in this startling, exciting, transformative city.  I saw my own life reflected in the unification of this cruelly divided city, turning it from a landscape of ruin to one of the most vibrant, life-affirming capitals in the world.  You can’t help being here and not be filled with anticipation and possibility.

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Earlier in December I met a journalist from Berlin in San Francisco who was on his own journey of self-renewal.  It was happenstance that we met—but not a coincidence.  It became another chapter in my story.  We met up in Berlin for coffee and another day for lunch, and shared stories of our lives, our loves, our families, our problems, challenges and solutions, our joys and miseries.  We would never have met, in either city, had we not both been traveling alone.

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While I was dazzled by Berlin’s great museums, the Pergamon, the Altes, the Neues, the Bodes and Alte Nationalgalerie on Museum Island; the splendid Gemaldegalerie, which took my breath away; the old and quirky Museum of Natural History with its tallest mounted dinosaur in the world and 233,000 eerie specimen jars stored in one dark huge room—and was astounded that all of these museums have been rebuilt from the ravages of WWII over the past twenty years—it was my friendship with my new friend the journalist that stands out as the most meaningful highlight of my week in Berlin.  Like Jani in Helsinki, these friendships were possible because I was on my own and open to letting them happen.

Along the way I met up with two Norwegians for dinner on New Year’s Eve; stood in a crowd of thousands of all nationalities in front of the Brandenburg Gate to watch the fireworks herald the New Year 2013;  joked with taxi drivers, flirted with one particularly attractive waitress at Lutter & Wengen, tried my best to engage with the many Japanese tourists in Lapland, struck up a conversation with the couple next to me at the Berlin Staatsoper, who just happened also to be from San Francisco.

Is this traveling alone?

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