“The price of being a sheep is BOREDOM. The price of being a wolf is LONELINESS. Choose one or the other with great care.”-Hugh MacLeod
Alexis Sanchez slides a cheeky pass to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlin, then makes a darting run towards the six-yard box.
Chants of “Come on Arsenal! Come on Arsenal!” swell around me and raise the hairs on the back of my neck.
Oxlade-Chamberlin slips a right-footed pass to his midfield teammate, Francis Coquelin.
“We need a goal, lads!” is passionately screamed into my left ear by the north Londoner that’s been guzzling pints of beer behind me.
Coquelin rolls a perfectly weighted ball towards the corner flag, which Theo Walcott runs onto. 60,000 Arsenal supporters leap to their feet in excitement.
I lean over the barrier that’s meant to separate the spectators from the field. I’m almost in play, just a few feet behind Olympiakos’s lean and lanky goalkeeper.
I’m here because I left my seat in the nose-bleed section at halftime and snuck down to the only open seat in all of the Emirates stadium, which happened to be in the front row and right behind the goal Arsenal would be attacking in the second half. It’s a trick my Dad taught me when I was a kid, when he took me to Philadelphia Phillies games. At the start of the game he would look for two empty seats behind the Phillies dugout, and keep his eye on those seats during the first few innings. Then, around the fourth inning or so, we’d sneak down when the ushers weren’t looking, and make those seats our own.
Walcott cuts inside a Greek defender with one lightening-quick touch, and lofts a glorious cross into the box. As the ball floats through the air, time seems to slow for everyone in the stadium – except Alexis Sanchez. He ascends into the air like a rocket and attacks the ball with his head…
I’m trying my best to will this ball into the goal-mouth, because I’ve been living in London for the past two months and Arsenal have become my adopted team. My apartment – or as the Brits like to call it, my “flat” – is located in East London. Geographically I’m closer to West Ham than Arsenal, but the Irons seem to play a boring brand of football, and always get mired in the middle table. Arsenal and their sleek attacking style have won me over, and I’ve now pledged my allegiance to them. Tonight they’re facing the champions of the Greek League, Olympiakos, in a must-win Champions League match.
My flat is located just a few steps from a cultural axis of London’s population, one of many. The BBC once reported that over 300 languages are spoken in London each day, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve heard about half of them spoken on the block that I live on. I’m right where the skyscraping financial district of Moorgate ends and the Bengali neighborhood of Whitechapel begins. Just a few blocks north of me is the gentrified hipster haven that is Shoreditch – and a stone’s throw south is the London Docklands, which was built on the backs of hardworking immigrants.
The best way to illustrate the diversity around me is to tell the incredible life story of the building that sits just a block away at 59 Brick Lane. London’s French Huguenot community left France to escape persecution from the Catholics, and first established it in 1743 as a Protestant chapel. In the 19th century, Jewish refugees from Russia and Central Europe adopted the building, and it became the Spitalfields Great Synagogue. Alas, when the population of Jews decreased over the years (with many moving to areas of North London) the synagogue had to close.
Cut to the 1970’s. Brick Lane is increasingly populated by Bangladeshis who had come to Britain from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh in order to find better work. Many found employment in factories and the textile trade in East London. The expanding Bengali community needed a place to worship – and so the building at 59 Brick Lane was bought and refurbished. In 1976, it reopened as the London Jamme Masjid mosque. Today, it serves the Bangladeshi community as a mosque.
How many buildings in the world can say they have been a chapel, a synagogue and a mosque?
On any give day I could be walking between a multi-millionaire in a perfectly tailored three-piece suit and a shaggy haired, leather-pants-wearing hipster, while smells of sweet ginger, turmeric, chili and cumin waft around us. This is one of the many reasons why I love London so much. Another one is Champions League nights like tonight.
Sanchez’s diving header ricochets towards the left corner of the goal. Olympiakos’s goalkeeper dives for it. His fingertips graze the stitching of the ball, but the power behind the header won’t be denied, and both Sanchez and the ball end up in the back of the net.
The crowd erupts, Gunner flags go a-flying, and my eardrums ring with excitement.
I’m caught up in the electric atmosphere and I punch the air and yell, “Arsenallllllllllllll,” like I’ve lived here all my life.
I turn to my left to celebrate, but the couple next to me are having their own private hug-fest and so I turn to my right, but the friends that came together are chest-bumping and high-fiving. Same with the people behind me. Everyone’s here with someone – except for me.
And that’s when something strange happens; a foreign, all-encapsulating feeling of being singularly alone, like I’m the only person on the planet. It’s bleakly ironic.
I have to be surrounded by 60,000 people to feel quite this alone.
I’ve been traveling by myself for nearly two hundred and fifty days now and I’ve never truly gotten lonely or homesick until this very moment. It’s a double-edged sword some days; I love being alone so much so that I’ve retreated from society to point that I’m nearly a recluse now. I often go days without having a conversation with anyone other than myself, which is strange I know – but I have to admit that I kind of enjoy it that way. Every time I find myself making plans with someone in London, I always hope they’ll cancel at the last minute – and when I’m actually in the middle of a face-to-face conversation my mind always drifts away and I think about something Paul Theroux wrote in his book, The Great Railway Bazaar. He was traveling by himself from London to Beijing and after having a chat with a woman while traveling across Asia, he wrote, “I need to be alone after seeing people, sort of put myself back together.”
It’s taking me longer and longer to put myself back together after most conversations. I don’t know what it is exactly, and I can’t pinpoint the reason it’s becoming harder and harder to be around other people. Maybe it’s because I can better see the madness that most people unknowingly run hither and tither through like chickens with their head chopped off or maybe it’s somehow related to being an only child and that I’m so used to spending big chunks of time alone. Lately, I’ve stepped farther and farther away from the normal rules of society and since I have nowhere to be, no bills to pay and no set schedule I often lose track of what day it is and the month we’re in. If it weren’t for the ever-changing weather in England I wouldn’t know if it was June or December.
That said, my alone-time in London has nearly been perfect and it’s been a city of firsts for me. I did my first live television interview here and the first stories written by other publications about me and my journey have been published while I’ve been here. I sold my first short film for money and I celebrated my first full year on the road.
The other day a complete stranger came up to me and said, “Oh my god, are you the photographer TravelTall?” When I said yes, it became the first time I was ever recognized for anything other than just being really tall. And the amazing part of that story is that when this person recognized me, I was sitting down. I’ve always been the tallest kid in my class since kindergarten and I’ve been 6 feet 9 inches tall for the past twenty years. Often I’m the tallest person most people have ever seen in there life so they can’t help but blurt something out how about how tall I am or recite the worlds worst joke, the one I’ve already heard twice today, “how’s the weather up there?”
And don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love being tall and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world, but when someone asked me if I was a photographer and not a basketball player it was something of a wonderfully unexpected out-of-body experience.
But after all those firsts and the bursts of euphoria that follow, I’ve been left with a lingering feeling that’s hovered around me that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, until now.
There’s been no one for me to share all those moments with, and again tonight as I spin 360 degrees and look for someone in the crowd to high five, there’s no one to celebrate Arsenal’s game tying goal with. And so with my arms outstretched and raised up towards the heavens with no one to hug but myself, it hits me like a ton of bricks.
I miss her. I really, really, miss her.
I thought that time was supposed to heal all wounds, but the longer we’ve been apart, the deeper mine have gotten. I’ve buried these feelings until now because of how challenging just trying to navigate around the world has become. And when I stop and think about it I’m still a bit befuddled about why she even left in the first place, but in this moment it immediately becomes clear what I need to do. She came all the way to Africa for me and now it’s my turn.
I’ve tried to move on and I’ve even gone out on a few dates here in London. But every time I’m sitting across a table from someone else I only ever end up wishing it was her face that was the one looking back. And I need to do something about that.
I need to go to all the way to Thailand for her.
I take the London Underground back to my flat after the game, disappointed that Arsenal lost, but clearly knowing what needs to done. Whenever I would get stressed and all worked up about trying to balance our relationship, with trying to travel across Africa with her by my side and still get my all writing and filming and photography done, she would always calmly stop me and say, “Do you want to go further or faster?” Not meaning miles traveled, of course, but the depths of our connection.
My answer at the time was faster – I wanted it all right away, and I was willing to sacrifice going further with her for faster alone.
What a mistake.
I walk over to my bedroom window and look out over the twinkling lights of ‘The Gherkin’, the iconic cone-shaped skyscraper that highlights London’s skyline – and I think about what, if anything, has changed about me since she’s left. I wonder if things would be any different if we tried again. I wonder if she’s moved on and met someone else or if she’s even in Thailand anymore. I wonder if I really give myself to her will it ruin my creative process and detour my journey. I wonder if after everything I put her through in Africa if she would even want to see me again.
My reflection in the window doesn’t have any of the answers. I don’t know if I’ve changed at all and if anything, I’ve become even more invested in my work. Hell-bent on finding a way to make all this work. I don’t know if I can meet her needs, or if she can meet mine.
I think of the advice that Elizabeth Gilbert was given in her book Eat, Pray, Love. When she was worried about pursing a man after finally finding her own balance, her Balinese friend said, “To lose balance sometimes for love is part of living a balanced life.”
I’m nearly there. I’ve nearly got myself perfectly balanced, and I’m close to cracking the code on how to make all this work – but I can’t help but think about how much I miss her. As if on cue, raindrops start pattering against the window. Missing anything this much is somewhat foreign to me. I don’t miss people or things very often. In an interview I did this week for my hometown newspaper, the reporter ended the interview by asking, “what do you miss the most about the United States?” I felt kind of embarrassed because I couldn’t think of anything and just as the interview was about to end in an awkward silence I blurted out, “hot dogs”. That’s right: after a year of being away from friends and family, the only thing I could think to say that I missed was junk food. Embarrassing. But I’m telling you this to illustrate just how locked in on my dream I’ve become. Nothing else seems to matter.
It’s September and we haven’t talked on the phone since that excruciating phone call back in February. We haven’t emailed much either. I usually only hear from her about once every two months, because she’s been volunteering in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand, which is also where she lives in exchange for volunteering her time. And since most monks don’t require Wi-Fi in order to attain enlightenment, she hasn’t had access to her email. The only time I hear from her is when she heads to the nearest Thai town, wherever that is, so she can stock up on supplies and chia seeds, and reply to her emails.
She asked me to Skype with her once a few months ago while I was in Sudan, but I didn’t, thinking it would be to hard for us. And I’ve been regretting that decision lately because now I don’t know how she’s doing. I don’t even know where she is, other than in a monastery in Thailand – and how many monasteries has Thailand got?
I sit down on my bed and flip open my laptop.
As I type in her email address my hands shake and my heart thumps. Then I take a deep breath, and I begin to write.