29 Aug

I have just been on holiday on my own — to Dundee. How bizarre is that? Most holiday images consist of happy couples walking along sunny beaches or families enjoying themselves in a sparkling blue sea. I’ve never seen a holiday brochure depicting a solitary older man wandering round a declining industrial city on the banks of the grey Tay estuary. I’m pleased that I’ve done this however, because I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a mould breaker.
How did this unusual vacation come about? My wife, Chris, was away in Italy for a month, supporting her daughter who has recently had a baby out there. The friend whom I originally planned to go on this trip with was unfortunately not well enough to travel. I could have cancelled it and forfeited the money but that would have been a waste and I would only have been home alone anyway, twiddling my thumbs. So I decided to go for it, taking myself as my only travel companion. At least there weren’t any disagreements about what to do or where to eat. Also, I didn’t have to spend sizeable chunks of “boring” time waiting outside shops while Chris trawled through their contents. In fact, despite the initial strangeness, I found the whole experience enjoyable and relaxing. I made my own plans, set my own pace and changed my mind whenever I felt like it. It was very liberating.
I remember a school assembly talk delivered by a former teaching colleague, in which she set out to distinguish between being ” alone” and being “lonely.” It’s all a matter of attitude and choice. Loneliness occurs when one is alone but has not chosen to be. Having the solitary state forced upon you can be dispiriting and depressing. Human beings are generally sociable animals enjoying the company of others. It’s nice to share an experience, to exchange views, to be stimulated by the presence of another person. Then there is the social stigma of being on one’s own. If I was alone in a social setting like a restaurant or a pub, would the other people be talking about me behind my back or even pitying me? Would they assume that I was a sad, “Billy no mates.” Being alone in a crowd can be a very lonely experience when everyone else seems to have a friend or acquaintance to chat to and you have no-one. It could lead to one becoming an object of pity.
However, if one CHOOSES to be alone, then the idea of “loneliness” is banished and all the advantages of that situation come to the fore. It’s good to have personal space. It’s liberating to have complete freedom of choice. It’s nice to have the time to be able to reflect rather than being constantly interrupted by someone else’s chatter.( enjoyable as that may be.) So the very act of choosing to be alone flips everything into reverse and can be an extremely positive experience.
A former partner of mine chose to holiday alone in The Orkneys. All her previous holidays had been with her former-husband who she had just split up from. It was as if she now wanted to prove herself to be a whole individual instead of merely being half of a couple. This was just before she met me. She drove all the way through Scotland on her own, caught the boat from Caithness and camped alone in Stromness. People commented on how brave she was. I think that by choosing to holiday alone my friend wanted to demonstrate her independence and at the same time, strike a blow for feminism. Until this recent trip I have never had the guts to copy her.
Travelling alone means that one is more likely to strike up a conversation with a stranger. A single person is more approachable than a couple or a family group, who just tend to talk to each other and form a barrier to outsiders. Wandering around Dundee, I didn’t exactly set the city alight with my electrifying conversational skills but I did have a little chat with the young man who sold me my ticket at Discovery Point ( where Captain Scott’s Antarctic research ship, “The Discovery”, is moored). We talked about the forthcoming Glasgow Commonwealth Games ( in 2014.) and the scheduled Referendum about Independence for Scotland. On the same day I had a short discussion with the waitress at Henry’s Coffee House about why you cannot seem to buy a toasted teacake in a Scottish cafĂ©. It’s something I’d never realised before.( if it’s true.) The girl turned out to be as mystified as I was because she is just a student at Dundee University and actually hails from Peterborough! She did tell me however, that Dundee is a very good base for students as it has got a compact centre and all the main attractions are within easy walking distance.
On later days I chatted with Jim, a Celtic supporter who I met while watching a Champions League match in a pub. Football even more than the weather is a very good way of “breaking the ice” and getting men together. Jim and I swapped brief life histories while watching Fenerbache lose to Arsenal and downing a couple of pints of McEwans. I also met Lily at the Jute Mill Museum: the Verdant Works. Manufacture of jute products used to be such a massive industry in Dundee that the city was once nicknamed “Jutopolis.” Lily had worked in a Jute Mill for 20 years and had been a guide and demonstrator at the museum for a further 17 years. She told me that workers used to talk to each other in sign language because the noise from the machines was so deafening. That is why, Lily explained, many older women in Dundee are deaf or have hearing problems. It wasn’t because they were listening to rock music! The mill owners employed mostly women and children because they could get away with paying them lower wages. In fact, so many women worked in the mills and factories, leaving their menfolk at home, that Dundee gained its other nickname — “She Town.”
So, during my trip north of the border, I was “alone” but never felt “lonely.” I’m pleased I left my comfort- zone and ventured out on that Scottish break. I must admit that when I was walking to catch the bus that would take me to the train station, I had a slight feeling of trepidation and had half a mind to just slip back home again. I could have locked the door, closed the curtains and just pretended to be in Dundee for the next 5 days. I could easily have found out about Tayside from the Internet and put up knowledgeable Facebook postings, as if I was actually there instead of sneaking round my own living- room. But ultimately, that would have been the coward’s way out. How could I have looked myself in the mirror if I had done that? Captain Robert Falcon Scott had sailed all the way to the Antarctic and yet I would have been too scared to travel to Dundee to see his ship “The Discovery.” ( built in Dundee in 1901.) No, I couldn’t have lived with myself if I had timidly turned back. So I gathered up my courage and travelled on by foot, bus and train, across the border and into the unknown.
I am an avid reader of travel books. Two of the best travel writers in my opinion: Colin Thubron and Jonathan Raban, also seem to travel largely on their own. Come to think of it, so does Bill Bryson for much of the time. Great features of all their books are the entertaining and illuminating conversations they have with the locals in the area they are visiting. It is these inter-changes rather than mere observation and description, that really reveal the essence and character of a place. I now realize that my chat about the non-existent Scottish toasted tea-cake belongs in illustrious company.
I chose Dundee, St Andrews and Aberdeen rather than a Mediterranean sea, sun and sand holiday because I am interested in finding out about the history, culture and architecture of places that I have never visited before. In this respect I suppose I have a Victorian approach to tourism. According to Michael Portillo, a lone TV traveller ( except for the camera crew that is) the Victorians used the newly developed railways to explore and educate themselves about their own country. In this spirit, many of them ( mainly from the middle classes I have to admit) set out on mini Grand Tours determined to combine escapism with education.
Maybe by undertaking this little journey of exploration on my own, I found out more about that area of north-east Scotland ( Angus and Fife) than if I had been constantly conversing with a travel companion.( or continually waiting outside shops.) Being alone enabled me to interact a bit more with the local inhabitants and have a more direct connection with the sights and sounds of the places I visited. Being a solitary tourist in Dundee may not have been such a strange or sad event after-all. Dundee is a fascinating, stone built Victorian city, a bit like a smaller Glasgow. It is now in the middle of a big redevelopment, trying to re-invent itself as a tourist destination. It turned out to be an enjoyable, relaxing and interesting visit even though I travelled there alone. Having said all that, I couldn’t wait to get home to tell everyone about it!


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