Best thing about traveling: Being alone in a bar

Posted on September 9 2011 by frank

The problem with being in your home town is that it is hard to spend time alone in a bar. Always when I try to do it, some friend or acquaintance pops into the same bar. As being alone in a bar is considered somewhat weird – as if you would not have any friends – I always have to come up with some inventive excuses to get out of the situation. Usually I claim that I-was-supposed-to-meet-my-friend-in-this-bar-but-now-he-called-that-he-is-in-another-bar-but-I-already-bought-my-drink-so-I-thought-I-might-as-well-drink-it-before-going. Then I finish my beer as quickly as I can and head towards another bar hoping to find some solitude there.

Why then to go to a bar alone? Because this enables one to feel a certain hovering form of connectedness with the human kind. It is hard to express this feeling but it resembles the melancholic form of mellowness you get when watching the stars alone at night. You feel yourself so small and merged with this vast universe. But in a bar instead of a sky full of stars there is a room full of people. Watching them happily interact, smile, laugh, dance and have a good time with each other one feels to be so far removed from their reality in one’s loneliness. At the same time watching their unique lives unfolding in front of oneself and being able to observe them while remaining anonymous fills oneself with a warm feeling. One has a somewhat paradoxical feeling of belonging to this crowd at the same time as one is far removed from it. One is an outsider at the same time as one feels to be connected.

The Bar

On a Saturday night in San Juan del Sur, the surf capital of Nicaragua, I was engaged in this favorite past-time of mine. The music played high (isn’t it sad that nowadays you can travel to whatever country in the world but you can’t escape the same hits you here at your local nightclub?), the laid-back beach-side bar was packed, and the crowd was cheerful. All of a sudden a blackout stopped the music and shut the lights leaving us in darkness. The crowd reacted by cheering loudly. Suddenly the sense of community was intensified; we no longer were a random group of individuals happening to enjoy the music in the same bar but this surpising incident united us – we were experiencing something together. Soon the lights came back, the crowd cheered again and everything continued as normal. The same event happened a few more times during the evening – after all we were in Nicaragua – and the reaction was always the same.

The intensification of the sense of community in the face of a sudden interruption of the normal course of events reminded me of anthropologist Victor Turner’s concept of communitas. Starting with some observations of a few African tribes Turner argues that in every culture the forces of structure and communitas are in a constant juxtaposition against each other. During times of structure our interaction with the others takes place within a structured, differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal-economic positions. We are bound by certain roles, norms and expectations and thus are unable to reach to the other spontaneously and with the wholeness of our being. Some form of structure is necessary for the functioning of any society but luckily it leaves room for moments of communitas in which people are stripped off of all status differences and other norms that separate them from each other and are thus able to attend to the others unique and particular being and meet the other through a living mutual relation. These moments are especially prone to happen during liminal in-between situations characterized by the dislocation of established structures. What we experienced together in the bar during the black-out was clearly a tiny moment of liminality.

Dark Beach

The waves of the dark ocean hitting the abandoned beach in the background, the relaxed bar with its light-hearted crowd in the foreground, me alone on the bar-desk with a cold beer in my hand and the lights out – I was truly enjoying my time and truly feeling connected with the world beyond myself!

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3 responses to “Best thing about traveling: Being alone in a bar”

  1. frank says:

    This relates to a strong observation I had a few years ago. I had been bothered for a while by the thought that carving one’s own way of thinking is destined to leave one distanced from the others. The more one attempts to exercise one’s mind and explain one’s newly found thoughts to others, the more one feels that one is misunderstood and alone with one’s thoughts. That’s why artists, writers and philosophers who by definition attempt to think in original ways sometimes have so strong feelings of being outsiders, of having no-one to connect to. Their lifetime efforts at writing and expressing themselves through different arts can be interpreted as efforts to reach out towards human kind in the hope of finding someone who understands and is in the same level with them.

    I can still remember the situation and the people I spoke with when I realized that the solution to this dilemma is the fact that we connect to others not through thinking but through our emotions. Instead of futile attempts at finding connection through understanding we are better off by exercising our emotional capabilities for compassion and empathy. We don’t have to understand each other to feel the other as inherently valuable and to embrace the others unique way of being.

    So what I sought after in going to the bar alone was perhaps just a glimpse of this communitas – this feeling of being connected to one another without the obstruction of titles, predefined roles and other cognitive structures. I was looking for the sense of connectedness that is not dependent on words. When the power cuts opened up small liminal moments I got just what I was asking for.

  2. frank says:

    It has been brought to my attention that there is a word for what I was experiencing while in the bar alone: flâneur. This French word means originally something akin to ‘a stroller’ or ‘a loitterer’ but the way Walter Benjamin uses the word has strong connections to my experience in these moments of aloneness in the crowd:

    “As a member of the crowd that populates the streets, the flâneur participates physically in the text that he observes while performing a transient and aloof autonomy with a ‘cool but curious eye’ that studies the constantly changing spectacle that parades before him.”

    “Empathy is the nature of the intoxication to which the flâneur abandons himself in the crowd. He enjoys the incomparable privilege of being himself and someone else as he sees fit. Like a roving soul in search of a body, he enters another person whenever he wishes. In this way the flâneur parasite is dragging the crowd for intellectual food–or material for his latest novel. In so doing, he wanders through a wonderland of his own construction, imposing himself upon a shop window here, a vagrant here, and an advertisement here. He flows like thought through his physical surroundings, walking in a meditative trance, gazing into the passing scene as others have gazed into campfires, yet remaining alert and vigilant all the while.”

    If you want to explore more about what being a flâneur is all about, start with this blog post about taking the turtle for a walk and letting him set the pace.

    Here is another blog post in Finnish called Liminaalielämää liian korkean taivaan alla that originally lead me to discover the term and its relation to my experience.

  3. Bua says:

    How about being alone in a coffe shop? Maybe I’m not a popular person, I can sit alone in any coffee shop in my campus without any interupt. Also I prefer to sit in any coffeeshop to see something around. During our Thai New Year of this year, I went to Sing City in Laos, I missed a chance to go to the only one pub of the city. Because I’m too tried and want to take rest. Even my male colleauges told me that I should be there with them. They said that there are many interesting things there. But anyhow I can heard some noise from my room in the bangalow. But from the picture they took, there were many interesting things there. So I told myself that if our group will have a chance to visit there again about this November, I’ll not miss it.

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