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Self-Knowledge • Melancholy

The Melancholy Charm of Lonely Travelling Places

Nothing quite provokes the peculiar mixture of discomfort and pleasure that characterises the melancholy mood as powerfully as does solitary travel. On our own somewhere on the road, we may feel both lost and sorrowful and at the same time inwardly released and confirmed in our sadness.

It’s late in the evening at a large airport somewhere in modernity. Most of the terminal is now empty; the few remaining departures are all for other continents. Most of us will be spending the night over an ocean turned silver by a brilliant moon. The waiting travellers are spread out across the terminal, some are sleeping, most are checking messages, a few are looking pensively into the middle distance. Outside, maintenance crews are loading bags and fitting fuel hoses. Stacks of meals – hundreds of fascinatingly wan chicken breasts or cork-like lasagne – are being craned into galleys. Occasionally, the same metallic voice reminds us to stay close to our luggage or announces that a new whale is ready to board: Osaka, San Francisco, Beijing, Dubai. So many unforeseen, unknown places, the world still in its way so large and unknown.

We associate the word ‘home’ with what is settled and domestic, but this desolate, interstitial place can feel more like where we truly belong than home itself. Through the plate glass windows, a roar of engines can be heard. Another giant ascends in a flawless controlled rage. Soon it will be our turn. Everyone here is a pilgrim, everyone is discomfited and lost – and this may offer us more of a sense of being understood than an environment that speaks in sentimental tones of settled community and family harmony. There can be no oppressive persecutory feeling of alienation in an airport that is so obviously a zone of otherness and disaffection. Our impression of dislocation, normally borne so individually and with shame, can be confirmed and normalised in this abandoned cathedral of flight: we are all misfit nomads, lost in thought by a bank of screens or finishing a meal on our own in a bar. No one belongs and therefore everyone can belong. We, who permanently feel like outsiders, may be nowhere more at home than in the languid drift of a brightly lit airport at eleven at night.

There is a pleasing melancholy too in a hotel room in a city we have journeyed to on business and where we know no one. For a whole evening, we are on our own with the television, room service and a view onto three hundred other similar windows across a courtyard. Our thoughts can feel newly expansive and free, released from the normal demands of home and its pressures to be coherent and predictable, knowable and tame. The unfamiliar furniture, the foreign soap operas on TV and the sounds of the city beyond release us to explore areas of experience and desire we had resisted. From our bed, in another room, we can see a person reading; above them, a couple appear to be arguing, in a third, a child is showing their teddy the view. We feel a rush of love for these people we will never meet but with whom we are briefly sharing a slice of existence in a frightening anonymous concrete block on the edge of an ugly wealthy city in a country we have no energy to understand. How much we might like to open up to them, how much secret sorrow and regret there will be; how worthy we all are of forgiveness and tenderness.

Ben-Gurion airport terminal by night, a photo from Tel Aviv, Tel ...

We are true natives of the unfamiliar place: the airport, the hotel, the motorway diner, the open road under a boundless sky. In these isolated places, we have an opportunity to meet with bits of ourselves with which the routines of daily life don’t allow us to commune. We are keeping an appointment with a disavowed side of our characters, and can have internal conversations of a sort that are drowned out by the normal chatter, the smiling and the casual enquiries of our regular lives. We are recovering a sense of who we are, turning over memories and plans, regrets and excitements – without any pressure to be reassuring, purposeful or just (so-called) normal.

The bleakness all around is a relief from the false comforts of home. We don’t have to pretend any longer. The environment supports us in our wish to own up to a sadness we have had to hide from for too long. 

The fellow outsiders we encounter in these lonely places seem closer to offering us the true community we crave than the friends we should supposedly rely on. In their sad faces, we recognise the most sincere, bruised bits of ourselves. They seem like our true brothers and sisters – also unable to accommodate their characters within the strictures of the ordinary world.

There can be something almost beautiful about the ugliest kinds of travelling place: plastified, brightly lit, garish, cheap. The lack of domesticity, the pitiless illumination and anonymous furniture offer an alternative to the covert cruelty of ordinary good taste. It may be easier to give way to sadness here than in a cosy living room with wallpaper and framed photos.

We may best feel at home where there is no option to belong.

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