Thanks to Tim DeMarco for Cargo Literary’s first “In Translation” series. Originally Ich lauf allein by Thorsten Nagelschmidt, DeMarco has taken this piece from the German and given it a new spin.
For me, it’s a party.”
I Walk Alone
“Don’t you ever get bored being on the road all by yourself?”
A question I am constantly asked, to which I always emphatically and honestly answer “No.” I’ve never been bored alone. I’m only bored when I’m around people who are bored, when they infect you with their boredom and you bore each other stiff and drag each other down. Boredom is a beast that feeds on itself and it is always hungry.
When I’m alone I feel immune to this terrible mental condition. Time seems to go by too quickly rather than too slowly. After all, even in the most desolate places you can still read, write, sleep or pick your nose – four activities for which even at home I wish every day had eight more hours.
I love traveling on my own. You see more, hear more, you’re more attentive, you’re less distracted. Being alone is exciting! Some may call it autism. For me, it’s a party.
Like everything else in life, a large part of traveling consists of waiting. Standing in line at the boarding pass control at the airport is bad enough without a companion. If you are not blessed with the ability to fall into a microsleep while at the same time still being able to maintain your normal motor skills, or with an interest in your fellow human beings, you need headphones or a good – but not too demanding – book in order to at least somewhat painlessly withstand the waiting. And even then you still need the patience of a saint. When accompanied by someone else, that snail’s pace progress becomes just as pleasant as chewing on tinfoil. The agony in your companion’s face reminds you how slowly everything is happening. It makes every second last twice as long and the whole procedure seems even more brutal.
On the express train, on the other hand, I usually feel a sense of relief when someone finally takes a seat next to me. Probably because then I don’t have to fear that at every stop someone is going to take the seat next to me. When an unpleasantry occurs, at least you don’t have to worry yourself sick that something unpleasant is about to happen. The fear of catastrophe is more stressful than the catastrophe itself, just as any paranoiac can confirm if he could just let down his paranoia for a minute.
In the train I am forced to deal with this situation. I can’t just spread myself out as before, clamp my always over-packed luggage between my feet and hope that my seat neighbor will spare me his chatting loudly on the phone with work colleagues, business partners or family members, sloppily smacking his lips on some stinky salami sandwich or annoying me with boring stories.
A selective perception is helpful. You have to have the ability to tune out the others. I succeed in doing that sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but I have determined that you can train these abilities. With the exception of overpowering voices that just cut through the air, I have succeeded pretty well in blending the noises around me into one single wall of sound if I want to withdraw myself from my fellow man. It works best around non-German-speakers. It can be a blessing to not understand a language and to just perceive it predominantly phonetically. You learn that at the breakfast table: as long as music is playing on the radio, it’s no problem reading the newspaper. But as soon as the host starts talking or a German-language song comes on, you get distracted. (I’ve always asked myself how the British or Americans can stand it that almost every song that they hear is sung in their native language).
And if you get suckered into a conversation by someone or are actively looking for one, but are sick and tired of their own biography, you can always make up an imaginative story. A half-truth beautifies the speech, the Finns say. Personally, I rarely make use of this practice, because it’s simply too demanding. Liars need a good memory in order to not get lost in their stories and creations, and I’ve been equipped with such a sieve for a brain, that I don’t even remember how this sentence started and what I even wanted to say anymore. But still, the possibility to be someone else completely or to at least play someone else turns me on. What a relief in a world where you are constantly bombarded with imperatives of self-fulfillment: “Express yourself!”, “Just do it!”, “Don’t be a maybe!” Or, as a Viennese garage door once screamed in my face: “Always stay true to yourself … But be crazy … and … risk it all!”
A selective perception is helpful.”
It’s not just about finding yourself, but also about losing yourself.”
Traveling alone makes the positive reinterpretation of every possible, frowned-upon day-to-day characteristic possible. You can obfuscate, lie or bluff, without making anyone have to feel attacked or humiliated. Otherwise derided characteristics such as naïveté, curiosity or the tendency to daydream are tolerated and accepted – under certain circumstances they even come off as particularly likeable. As an unaccompanied traveler in good moments I’m somewhat of a selfless egocentric. I am allowed to be fickle, cocky or indifferent, without having to justify myself. I allow myself the luxury of aimlessness, the lack of opinions, ideas, emotional bonds, and responsibility and evade the local rules, play my own game, follow my own rules that I can rescind or change at any given time. If I don’t like where I am, I just leave again. Sometimes I take something with me, but I rarely leave tracks. It’s not even necessary to wipe them away – they’re just going to get covered by countless other new tracks anyway.
At the train station or airport, at a café in a foreign city, on unknown streets and alleys, you sit down in relation to others, readjust yourself, ask yourself questions: Where do they all come from, where are they all going, how do they all live? Which also entails: Where am I from, where am I going, and how do I want to live? And by association: Who am I, who was I, and who could I be?
It’s not just about finding yourself, but also about losing yourself. The unfamiliar surroundings enable you to shrug the burden of your own history and heritage from your shoulders. In a foreign place you don’t always have to be yourself. Definitely not for the others, to whom you are just a blank page, one of many, at that.
What a pleasure it is to disappear into the anonymous masses, to become a spectator and observer, a silhouette, to become invisible! “When traversing foreign countries, see to it that they echo your silence,” Dr. Gertrud Oheim recommended back in her guidebook Einmaleins des guten Tons, published in 1955. “The more silent you are, the louder the others talk.”
Occasionally even I wish I had a travel companion. For example if the steering wheel has to be held for a second. During my first driving experience in Ireland I had such a situation. I had just landed in Dublin and gotten a rental car and had to drive on the left side for the first time in my life. And what was even worse: having to sit on the right side and change gears left-handed simultaneously. All the internalized automatisms of the past years were worthless, if not obstructive. It demanded all of my concentration just to follow the course of the road.
Unfortunately, the Dublin airport is quite close to the city. The stretch of highway on which I could have acclimated myself to the unaccustomed driving ways was much too short. After just a few kilometers I had to take an exit and found myself smack dab in the middle of rush-hour traffic. Soon enough I had already taken off another car’s side-view mirror, shortly thereafter I discovered the two idlers on the other side of the street. Despite my already – to put it mildly – “shaky driving style,” I gripped the steering wheel between my knees, pulled the camera out of my bag on the passenger seat with my left hand, simultaneously rolled down the window with my right hand and was just able to catch them both. It was as if the driving school took someone to a drive-by shooting during their first lesson. Thanks to a cacophony of car horns from oncoming traffic I was spared a head-on collision.
But it was worth it. What a wonderful scene!
According to Alfred Polgar, coffee shop patrons are people who want to be alone, but need the company of others to do so. If you were to replace “coffee house patrons” with “outdoor beer-drinkers” and were to extend the company of “other people” to include the company of “a bronze statue” then you would have impressive proof for Polgar’s theory.
The fact that this picture presented itself to me in, of all places, a country whose residents are known for their steady drinking, pleased me even more. As I came to find out later, the man on the left in the picture is Brendan Behan, an Irish author with an affinity for alcohol, who is also known as “Brendan Beerhahn,” and who has said himself that he only drinks on two occasions: when he’s thirsty and when he’s not thirsty. The demise of this boozehound in 1964 at the ripe age of 41 was brought about by this affinity for alcohol, which must have been so extraordinary that the Daily Express felt it necessary to write the following catchy phrase in his obituary: “Too young to die, but too drunk to live.” Which kind of sounds like you can only really get drunk once you’re dead, and therefore might give all the pissheads of the world some sort of hope of a liquored-up afterlife.
In any case, Brendan Behan lives on. As a bronze Borstal boy, he sits on the bench at the Royal Canal, waiting, in snow and rain and heat and gloom of night, and has become a beacon of hope for all the lonesome lushes of Dublin. “With friends like me you’ll never drink alone,” he seems to be whispering to his thirsty friends to his left and right.
Too young to die, but too drunk to live.”
Whereas this in this case slightly modified “Never alone” quote, which has been adopted by soccer clubs and churches, comes off as more of a threat to me.
Never walk alone? What a nightmare!
 Or: “resk it all.” I couldn’t help but imagine the wildly passionate, celebrating author, who actually is only giving out random self-optimization nonsense, locked up in a room for a night with a psychopathic violent criminal. The type of guy who is only ever himself – that is, a psychopathic violent criminal – and who, at the advice of the poet gone mad, risks it all, even a lifelong prison sentence. The demand for “ALK ALK ALK ALK ALK …” next to it seemed to me all the more warranted.
Thorsten Nagelschmidt, better known as Nagel, is an author, musician, and artist. He grew up in Munster and lives in Berlin and Hamburg. Until 2009, he was the singer, lyricist and guitarist of the band Muff Potter, releasing seven albums and playing more than 600 shows all over Europe. His debut novel, ‘Wo die wilden Maden graben,’ was published in 2007. His second novel, ‘Was kostet die Welt,’ was published by Heyne in 2010 and a musical version of the novel was released on the label Audiolith. An English translation is currently in the works. His third book, ‘Drive-By Shots,’ a collection of insightful stories and photos from his various travels, was released in 2015. Nagel has had numerous exhibitions of his linoleum print series Raucher (Smokers), and a new novel is in the works. Visit him online at www.nagel2000.de, www.facebook.com/nagel (Official) and www.twitter.com/nagel31O125GO.