“Let’s make sure every journey matters,“ is what I read on the escalator down to the Tube station. I’m on my way to a café where I plan to do some serious studying, meaning finishing an essay plan and maybe reading a paper or two (more like half a paper if I’m being honest with myself…). Surely TfL wouldn’t call this a “journey that matters”? And what about that late-night DLR ride a few weeks ago that I took because I just had to get out of the house?

I can’t help but feel guilty whenever I use public transport for journeys that can’t really be called “essential”. It’s not like I couldn’t work from home. I have a perfectly fine desk that’s only slightly wobbly, fit for all types of studying, and very quiet roommates. But unfortunately, whenever I am in my room, I have this inexplicable urge to climb into my bed, put on my headphones and immerse myself in a book or a film, only to come back to my senses five hours later and realise the day is almost over already. And as much as I try to fight my laziness by making my bed in the morning to avoid its alluring pull, putting on “real” clothes and even a bit of perfume, it’s just not the same as studying in a library or a nice café.

I miss being alone among strangers and swimming in masses of people without a real sense of purpose. At this point in my Covid journey of consuming a lot more media than I normally do, I can’t remember if I’ve read that somewhere or if it’s an original thought. The only thing I know is that I haven’t been able to get it out of my head for the past months.

There’s something special about being in the company of people you don’t know and probably won’t ever see again, sharing a space with them at a specific time before you part ways. The smells, the smoky air, the screeching of the carriages on the Central Line, the never-ending journey from the DLR to the Tube at Bank in a sea of people: I love these visceral experiences that are so aggravating and so right. Making my way through crowded places gives me a certain type of energy, the energy that comes with moving and being moved and pushed as part of a crowd, feeling like a tiny part of a powerful organism. I enjoy aimlessly walking around Brick Lane or Soho or other busy areas for a few hours or the bigger part of the day without anyone judging me for it (oh, the joys of being a student…).

I also love being in libraries, surrounded by piles of books and the sounds of hushed conversations, existing in my own micro cosmos where I can pretend to be well-read and mysterious and chaotic, but also disciplined enough to be studying. Being in public motivates me to actually get some work done whereas at home, I can only concentrate for so long before I get into the afore-mentioned bed, start a conversation with one of my flatmates or randomly decide to cook up a feast at 3 pm because I’m feeling restless. It’s when no one expects me to be a certain way and when I am among people, but not the centre of attention, that I feel the most comfortable.

 And of course, Covid hasn’t taken all of that away from me. I have taken up early morning walks, afternoon walks, late nights walks and all kinds of other walks that allow me to still be in the company of strangers (at a safe distance, of course…). Grocery shopping has also somehow become more fun, especially at night, when the shops are less crowded, and I can just browse the shelves in search of a new product to become obsessed with.

But what’s getting to me is that everything I do in public now needs to have a purpose. Just existing and being an observer isn’t enough anymore. There’s that new sense of obligation whenever I’m in public places, that feeling that I have to be going somewhere instead of just moving around aimlessly. It feels like I need to justify being among people and taking up space (and of course rightfully so, given the risk of contracting or spreading Covid).

 

While rush hour in the past meant getting annoyed because other people seemed annoyed, but secretly enjoying the experience in all its ridiculousness, it’s now something I am avoiding for obvious reasons. And whereas being alone in public used to be a pleasant and often comforting experience, I’ve started feeling lonely when I’m among people. I interpret expressions as cold and hostile where before I probably would have just seen exhaustion or indifference. People somehow seem less accessible, further away than before and not just because of the increased physical distance.

Living in a shared apartment with three roommates, a functioning phone and laptop and a support system, it’s possible for me to still have human contact without having to be in public spaces. But I’m wondering if there are people that rely solely on casual interactions with strangers to feel less lonely. People who go to farmer’s markets, walk along busy streets or get on the bus just to feel less isolated. Who, most likely, are spending much more time at home right now, feeling disconnected, detached from the world around them.

With the second lockdown, I’ve gone back to studying from home and have said goodbye to my favourite cafés for a while. As much as I will continue to long for weird exchanges with strangers and the rough allure of the London underground system, I guess I’ll just have to pretend there’s something charming about working from the confines of your room as London is becoming gloomier and colder. If it wasn’t for my broken heater, I might almost be looking forward to studying with the soundtrack of my neighbours partaking in (seemingly equally exhaustive) arguments and workouts in their backyard, accompanied by a cup of cheap homemade tea and whatever snacks I can find in the pantry…

 

Note:

While finishing this article, I remembered that I stole the “Being alone with people” soundbite from Mari Andrew, an American writer and artist. It was in one of her “Love notes to NYC” on Instagram where she wrote about going to the theatre alone. With this phrase, she encapsulated one of my favourite feelings that I had never really been able to describe. So thank you for the inspiration, Mari.