I’m learning that there are all sorts of different ways of being alone. There’s a spectrum, really, and I think we need more words to describe the various points one can be on it. Maybe these words already exist and I just haven’t learned them yet.
In Fes, I was mostly by myself but rarely ever alone. The night I arrived there, I walked through the streets to dinner with an Argentinean staying at the riad, despite myself, to be honest. Apparently three days in Tangier wasn’t enough to fully recharge me, because when Guido said he was going to dinner and asked if anyone wanted to join, the only thing that stopped me from saying no was my manners – I was just about to walk out the door myself. On the way to a restaurant he wanted to try but ultimately couldn’t find, we ran into Phil, an Australian I knew from Marrakech. Morocco is small like that. So is the world, for that matter. He was also going to dinner, and joined us.
When you prefer to be alone, two is a crowd, but three can be ok company. It’s easier to withdraw. Throughout dinner and the hours we spent the next day, exploring the medina and then watching the light fade over the old city from some Roman ruins on a hill, I likely spoke more to the people we met than I did to my two companions (despite actually liking them both, especially Phil).
Fes was sort of like that for me. Except for Eid, (which I’ll write about soon) I don’t think I did anything particularly spectacular, and yet I also somehow went six days without writing. And I should note that I was unequivocally thrilled to meet three Dartmouth students from the Foreign Study Program in Tangier, plus one visiting alumna girlfriend, right in my riad. One of the students, a ’14, had talked to me about potentially transferring from Dartmouth two years ago, and I never knew, until seeing her in Fes, what she’d ended up deciding. All of that was truly wonderful. And yet…
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There’s another kind of alone you feel when you’re in motion, by yourself. Maybe it’s what people are looking for when they “go for a drive.” I feel it nearly every time I walk onto a train platform, my bag over my shoulder, the cars stretched out before me. It’s like escape, except not from anything. It’s just about the motion, the passing of the landscape. You feel it more acutely when the train leaves the station and you’re still the only one in your compartment. You stand. You think of the J.G. Hamann quote you encountered in The Songlines, “When I rest my feet my mind also ceases to function.” The train picks up speed. The amber hills pass by, and there – a shepherd gathers his flock. It’s 40 minutes to Meknès.
Disembarking – now we’re on to something different. You’re in a sea of people, descending the stairs to pass under tracks 1 and 2, but you’re feeling perilously close to that line which separates solitude from isolation. “What am I doing he—never mind, just find a taxi.” But the driver doesn’t seem to want to talk, and your bag, at least a familiar thing to look at, is, you hope, hanging on through the corners in the tiny roof rack. You pull out your phone to take a picture to share later on Instagram. For that moment you’re connected with your friends who might see it, and think of you. The cab ride is over.
Now you look for a grand taxi, a shared ride for the 30km to Moulay Idriss. The most important pilgrimage site, saving Mecca, for Moroccans, it wasn’t open to non-Muslims until the mid-20th century. The guidebook says the ride should cost 10 dirhams/seat, but you need six people to go. Six people, alone together. Five will work – you elect to pay for two seats to move things along, and to have a little more space. “Ok, vingt dirhams,” says the driver. You wish you had a friend there to share your surprise that things worked exactly as they were supposed to; few things in Morocco have been so easy. Instead, the kilometers pass in silence.
You arrive in Moulay Idriss without a reservation, and without a map. But the guidebook leads you along in prose, like an anonymous friend through the telephone. You’re in the square? Ok, through the arches, and take the stairs on the right. Turn left at the fountain. What fountain? I don’t see – oh, this must be it. Well, there’s no water in it. Ok, left here, then…? Just keep walking. Maybe 100 yards. You should see the sign. I’m not sure… oh! There’s the sign. Yeah, made it.
Except no one answers the door at the place where you don’t have a reservation. Perhaps you should have made one. But you’re never alone for long in Moulay Idriss. A man whose guidance you’d declined in the square has arrived and, seeing your predicament, offers to show you another guesthouse. It’s getting late; you accept. The house is his mother’s, and she welcomes you warmly. The son, Achraf, shows you a room on the top floor. There’s a king bed, and just outside, a terrace with a view to the Roman ruins of Volubilis. Another on the roof looks to Moulay Idriss’ second hill. The late afternoon sun bathes the town in a warm glow. There is no Internet, but rather, tranquility. This will be a good place to stay and write. You negotiate a price with Achraf before heading out – alone – to dinner.
Later, Achraf will tell you that his mother, who speaks no English or French but thinks you’re a very nice young man, had asked where your wife is. She was surprised when Achraf told her you didn’t have one, and then sorry she didn’t have a daughter for you. He confirms your status with you. It’s true, you tell him, not yet. One day, Inshallah.
For now, it’s good to be alone.
A video I made to go along with the post. Had to make some edits to the text to make it work. The song is “The Violet Hour” by The Civil Wars.