Illustration by Gracie Newton
By living abroad alone, I agreed to an unwitting trade-off: Travel, retreat and newness in exchange for the suspension of honest intimacy.
This life is largely voided of intimacy and, in all honesty, I don’t know how I didn’t foresee its absence. My family is not here, my close friends are not here and I have not fallen in love here; it makes for a largely solitary existence. It also has made intimate moments feel vastly more special and more valuable. When the clouds part and I find myself in a moment of closeness, it almost feels as if I’ve never existed in one before.
I spent an October weekend in Hamburg, Germany. After a scheduling error, I was left scrambling to find a place to stay for an extra night in town. I’d made a friend that weekend and feebly reached out to see if he had a bed (or couch, or floor) for me. And thus, I walked into one of those aforementioned moments of unexpected closeness, intimacy appearing to me in a way I didn’t know I needed.
His mom welcomed me in with a hug, a tour of the house and an invitation to help make a pie. I talked to one of his brothers about my traveling, about his classwork and about American politics. As I ate dinner with his family, the nuances and details from my youth of family dinners in my own house slowly reassembled and fell into my lap. I was glowing.
I was so enthusiastic about being present in a moment that seemed so mundane. For these people, it was a weeknight with an unexpected American guest. For me, it was a night of family. It was a reminder of the comfort of a place called home.
Later that night, I sat on the back porch and called my own mom to tell her about the stand-in mom I’d been temporarily gifted. I looked around and I breathed. There were blessings that are so often overlooked: a mother figure downstairs who cares for you, a cup of tea, a porch overlooking a sleepy saccharine neighborhood.
In Dublin, I’ve also become accustomed to being anonymous. Part of why I went abroad in the first place was in search of city life, and I hadn’t realized how isolating it can feel to be unknown almost all of the time, to not have access to a place where you can recognize and be recognized.
In the same vein, however, it means that when I have found myself feeling familiar, special or distinct, I value those moments more than I ever did before. I am much more grateful now for the communities I’ve known, been a part of and will return to. And when I am suddenly reminded by the world of the ways that I am remarkable, the moment lasts, leaving residual warmth under my skin for weeks.
One Sunday, Kati – a friend from USC – came into town for a concert and she reached out to see if I wanted to join her. When she invited me, I was thrilled and shocked. In my time of being a fan of Darwin Deez, I had become accustomed to knowing he was a niche passion. He wasn’t particularly well known, but here he was, touring in Dublin for only 17 euro. And there I was, being invited to come along. In saying “yes,” I unknowingly allowed the world one of those extraordinary and brief moments of thrusting me starkly out of anonymity.
Kati and I arrived early, agreeing about the importance of getting a good spot. When it was time for his set, Darwin appeared from the crowd, simply jumping up onto the stage after emerging from somewhere behind us. He danced and encouraged us to dance too. He talked to the audience often, surprised that we all turned up on a Sunday night and wondering what we had to do the next morning. And then:
“You, in the overalls, what do you have to do tomorrow?” Darwin asked.
I realized I was wearing overalls and I was in the front, and he was looking at me. In fact, everyone was looking at me.
The fourth wall vanished.
Suddenly, I wasn’t part of the whole of the audience, but I was “you in the overalls.” I told him I had class in the morning. Slowly, as he kept returning to talk to me in between songs, I became journalist and then, finally, Cassidy.
“Cassidy, after 4 or 5 years of being together, this is the song I’d sing to you,” Darwin said. Before the next song he said, “I wrote this next song about a girl I was seeing. This was before me and Cassidy, of course.”
After the show, Darwin spoke to me about feeling small in a new place and we found that he is from Chapel Hill, NC. We’d both be back in the Carolinas come spring and maybe we could regroup.
I left the concert in a trance. The occasional smiling stranger would nudge their friend and point at me. I floated out of the venue, the last thing I heard was someone from the audience addressing me as I walked out of the door: “Bye, Cassidy!”
In that night, I’d felt just about as far away from anonymous as I could’ve.
Hardly any days look similar here. There are so few reliable constants, and I am always on the hunt for new experiences in this city and new ways to put myself out there. That being said, I’ve picked up and pocketed anything resembling routine if I can find it. Sometimes, routine develops and I don’t notice until I’m in it, like the drill that has taken shape when I go home from the airport, sitting in the same back corner bench of the city bus with some kind of candy from the country I’ve just traveled to. I sink into a podcast and usually get a 40-minute front seat to the sun setting on my sweet city.
I don’t know when I started feeling comfortable calling Dublin "my" city. I don’t know when I would’ve started using the adjective "sweet" to describe it. Maybe after the taxi driver taking me home on Nov. 1 saw how astonishingly hungover I was and stopped at a convenience store to get me vitamin water while telling me a story about a particularly wild Halloween she had in the 1980s. Maybe after attending an audition for a performance project on a whim and feeling unbelievably welcome, which reminded me again why I fell in love with theater in the first place.
Or maybe after a man sitting next to me at a poetry night gifted me a copy of his book, just because I’d mentioned that I was from Florida and one of his pieces was about driving through Jacksonville during a storm.
I read his poem that echoed with my home and I looked around and laughed a little with disbelief. I was sitting in the corner of a pub in the corner of Dublin and had just been gifted words describing a common experience hailing all the way from sunny Jacksonville, FL. I closed my eyes and reminded myself again – of course there is no correct way to do this – that intimacy can be found unexpectedly, and that anonymity can be a tool if you remember how it teaches humility, allowing unique access to renewal.
I smiled and tucked away another unexpected sweetness, another kindness from a stranger. I held the book to my chest and indulged my very sentimental heart. Another unknown name turned into a known one. Another step away from the expanse of anonymity.
Extraordinary has found me in entirely unexpected bursts, shocking me and shaking me by the shoulders before fleeing again. But I think that’s how it always operates. The comings and goings of extraordinary just feel much more extreme here.
I embrace these moments wholly when I find them, knowing these deviations from anonymous, these moments of unforeseen closeness, will be fleeting. But I know they will always find ways to sneak up on me again.
Sometimes, this is all I have and I hold it very close – a faith in the ridiculous and random pattern the world follows. A faith in the knowledge of the next bizarre, beautiful sweetness.
The next family dinner or Darwin Deez concert is on its way to me just as fast as it can get here. The next beautiful day, the next smile from a stranger, the next impulse to create, the next letter from a friend will appear, and I won’t know when.
To get there, all I’ve got to do is keep existing.