“about suffering they were never wrong/the Old Masters”

Florence… and there’s a mosquito bite on my neck, where I sat in the darkest corner of San Miniato on top of the hill overlooking the city this afternoon. I thought it was a pimple from too much red wine but I am comforted to know that it is an animal reaction. Mosquitoes still in Florence in October. Right at the end of October too.

And in the darkness of San M. I also felt dreadful. The whole facade of travelling alone, sight-seeing alone tumbled down and I felt profoundly homesick. Awfully homesick – like I couldn’t bear the huge distances between me and the hotel – let alone the distance between Florence and London.

I try and avoid travelling on my own these days. If I’m honest I generally avoid travelling. The huge journies I undertook in my 20s are long gone. I can’t bear jet-lag. Even the three hours difference in Brazil makes me edgy. But I had a week off and no one free to go with me. And besides, I thought it would be charming. To feed my brain with images. To spend days in the Uffizi. To wander the streets and eat delicious Italian food and drink fine wine.

Which I have done. And as my friend Simon said, from the outside it probably looked fantastic.

I strolled around the galleries with my notebook, sketching. I sat in the Autumn sunshine drinking latte. I ate fegatini di pollo and risotto. I drank montepulciano di nobile.

But I felt pretty dusty.

Eating on my own in restaurants brings up horrible ghosts of painful teenage self-consciousness. Not knowing where to eat makes me prone to blood-sugar collapse which adds an extra black edge to my homesickness. Too many museums make me feel old.

It’s taken until today – the last day – to really sink into the space.

After my black moment in the church – I made a switcheroo. I realised that homesickness is not a sickness. It is confirming the thing that i want. Home, a house, a herth, a familias, a dog.

HIllman talks about the crazy hypertrophy of Hermes in the modern world: the Web, instant messaging, global markets, 24-7 news. All information, no meaning. And the antidote to that is Hestia – the goddess of the hearth. Invisible, not personified, but present in two people eating, the space, the place, the shape of home. Hestia is all circular. Hermes is all winged and double-helixed.

So I came home to my hotel room and I had a long bath (something I never do) and soaked and soaked. I went out and had a lovely meal in a lovely trattoria a friend recommmended and I made some plans for the coming week. I was alone but by the magic of Hermes (an iPhone) I managed to be Vestal and organise three dinners for next week.


  1. Brian (DocSwill)

    October 31, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    Oh Alistair, my dear boy, let me share something with you that might help you enjoy your alone-time more. In the last 3 years I have been alone a lot, yet I’ve had more company than I can recall. Being alone is a state of mind. Something I know you can master, if you wish.

    As I read of your holiday I feel saddened. Not only are you physically alone, you seem to be emotionally alone. Having cancer has taught me that even when you are alone, it’s a choice you make. It doesn’t have to be this way if you know the secret.

    During my battle, I have met so many strangers that have enriched my life and taken away the loneliness if only for a moment. These total strangers shared themselves with me and then they were gone, never to be seen by me again. The secret is to find them and let them in. Open that beautiful heart of yours. You are not the only lonely soul. Loneliness abounds, and one must seek it out to find the comfort of another.

    I gather from your trip you were alone because you expected to be alone. Therefore, you did not think that with all those people around you, surely someone could have given you comfort and brightened your day, if only for a moment in time. You are not alone in this quest. They need you too!

    I have learned to become more open with my feelings, but also not to get attached to deeply as I maneuver through life and the cancer jungle. You see, too many of my most recent friends die. So you learn to enjoy the short time you have with them and move on when it’s time, taking their memories with you.

    Not all of these acquaintances die and those I consider to be my angels. They come into my life at the appropriate moment and are gone, often within hours, never to be seen again. They always leave their mark and I learn and grow from stories that were shared during our brief encounter.

    Now, I would assume, If you so choose, that these principles could be applied to a holiday such as yours. Though I don’t know you, I have the impression that you’re a friendly chap. So why not go on holiday with that attitude and meet new friends along the way. There are so many out there who just need to connect, to enjoy the company of another. All you have to do is open your heart and mind and they will find to you. I don’t know how to better explain it, but you must be open to it. If you wish to be alone then so be it. But if you long for the company of another human being, how my dear Alistair how can you be in such a large city teaming with loving people and still be alone? It’s a choice that you make.

    You have such a wonderful spirit and longing for home tells me that spirit needs to be fed with adventure, fun, and excitement. Enjoy the world and share yourself with others and they in return will enrich your life tenfold. I promise you that! I have learned to master this out of necessity. Cancer can leave you in a very lonely place. I have met so many fellow cancer patients who are depressed and lonely. To them I say. GET OVER IT! Only you make yourself alone and only you can find comfort from others even strangers, if you just open yourself up to it. What you have to say and share has value to someone and you will find value in them. Open your mind to the universe and you will be granted the comfort of the company you need at the time you need it. It’s a journey I know you understand through your teachings.

    Now be prepared that this company is often temporary, sometimes only for hours, and you will never see them again, but you will share so much for a brief moment that you will never forget them nor they you. Don’t be an island my dear Alistair, you’re only alone if you choose to be.

    I send you deep Hugs from across the pond.

    Peace B

  2. P

    November 1, 2009 at 8:43 am

    Thank you for writing this. I travel alone sometimes. I have lots of friends, but they don’t seem to be free when I am or are moving in a different direction when holiday opportunities come up. I love your idea of a ‘facade’, for it is just that, isn’t it?

    I’m off to plan some dinner parties, and the sharing of some food.

  3. alistair

    November 1, 2009 at 11:28 pm

    Dear Brian,
    Thank you for your lovely long response to my Florentine travels.
    I appreciate your wise words of uplift – but I also want to make the case for legitimate sadness and homesickness.
    Some times I don’t want to get over my sadness or indeed my solitude. For long portions of my life I have
    felt guilty about being on my own, not having friends, not opening to life – but I now recognise that there is no shame about being
    on your own. Or indeed about being sad. James Hillman points out that the pain of sadness comes not in the sadness itself but in the desire to push it away, to rid yourself of it.
    The sinking into these feelings often has a sharp wisdom to it. Instead of repeating the same corrective move over and over, perhaps I can enjoy the thing I’ve been running from – or at least listen to what its saying.
    That deep, dark pain of homesickness i felt in San Gimiano was the messager – the dark angelos – that told me what i really wanted: a home. A longing for what we miss is not a bad thing. It is the motive force that lifts us up towards the beautiful fullfilment you seem to have found in life. The messanger in your cancer seems to have lifted you likewise.
    Not fighting and correcting, but allowing the reality to blossom into its full meaning.

  4. Katie

    November 1, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    Alastair – I am a great admirer of yours in Herefordshire, and felt so strongly for you in your homesickness bout and being alone. I do not know you, but feel a strange sort of kinsmanship with you. Strange. Ultimately I think we are all on our own, battling with our own sense of self which emerges when not interrelating to friends around us. You are a great man.
    And I think it does take a day or two to get into the groove of spending longer periods than normal alone.
    Probably talking rubbish, but I love your essays.

  5. Brian (DocSwill)

    November 2, 2009 at 3:29 am


    So beautifully put Alistair. Do not misunderstand, I very much enjoy my solitude, when I want it. I am a creature of being alone, but not used to be lonely. I often travel alone and eat my meals alone, but I never felt lonely until cancer struck. I found myself on a different plain that most could not relate to. It left me lonely at times. Being alone gives my brain a calmness to collect myself and gather energy for my next adventure. Being lonely sucks the life force out of you. I clearly differentiate between being alone and being lonely.

    Being near death gives life a clarity. What really matters tends to present itself in a very poignant way. It’s been there the whole time, yet never seen. Your heart becomes bigger, the world becomes smaller, and you begin to connect to everyone and everything as never before. I just found sadness in what you had transcribed during your holiday and pictured a sad young man sitting alone atop a beautiful hill, overlooking a glistening city, teaming with souls that also needed the comfort of another. This is different than wanting that or needing that alone time and using it to find true meaning for what you want from life.

    I have nothing to personally compare to a “deep, dark pain of homesickness” so perhaps I misunderstood the equation. I have always been a happy person, yes with difficult times attached. My life has been rich with friends, family, and worldly goods. When sadness looms within my head, I push it away before it begins to seep deeper into my soul.

    Your words are so eloquent and moved me so. That is why I responded as I did. I have always had a home with friends to keep me company, especially through my cancer. I understand more now about life. I only felt a lost soul within your words. You moved me so. You are a blessing to many Alistair.

    Peace B

    1. alistair

      November 3, 2009 at 10:40 am

      Thanks Brian,
      though I chuckle at being called a “young man” these days – or indeed a beautiful ‘boy’.
      You flatter me!


  6. GMC

    November 2, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Dear Alistair,

    I understand how you feel. I’m not a great traveller myself.
    This summer, I rented a cottage in a quaint cottage at a Cotswold village,
    in Gloucestershire. I decided to get away from work and spend time alone.
    As much as I love that part of England, I felt frightfully homesick.

    The cottage I rented was too big (it has 5 bedrooms). I found it cosy to start with.
    I listened to Tino Rossi on the CD player and read books. But I thought wouldn’t it be
    splendid to share this quality time with someone.

    I remember a story in a French film called The Green Ray by Eric Rohmer.
    I felt like the main character in that film – a drifter- going from
    one holiday destination to another…hoping to connect with somebody.

    Anyway, I didn’t really enjoy it. I think my mother is right when she said
    holiday is the most expensive way to prove that there is no place like home.
    The religious writer, Kent Nerburn, once wrote the differet meanings between
    solitude and loneliness. I think it’s a book called “Letters to my son” which has
    a profound effect one me as I read it. According to his theory, it appears that
    we are not ready to share with someone if we are afraid of solitude. Only when we begin
    to enjoy our solitude, we can let someone into our lives.

    Metta, G.

  7. Martin McMenamin

    November 2, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    Travelling is great But I always find you find out more about home the further abroad you go ,it’s strange isnt ityou tend to realise more your own journey on eath and its isolation so home becomes more impotant ,home being where you lay your head and feel you can breath out.Seamus Heaney has a great poem on home and its comparison to the Greek legends brought on by the sound of the wheat crusher at home in Co Derry and the sound it made,cant remember the title now something like omphalus

  8. Stacy

    November 2, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    I only, truly, wish I could know you better. I would think that I would love to travel with you anywhere you wanted to go…I know that there is quite a huge difference in “being alone” as opposed to “being lonely.” I wish that you never suffer either of the aforementioned if you long to have someone in your life.

    I know you do not know me but I truly hope to get to know you better in the future if destiny will allow me such a grand gesture. You seem so kind, generous, learned and gifted that I feel drawn to you even though I only know you from television. How strange…but I believe that we, as humans, connect in many different ways throughout life.

    Even though you do not know it you have helped me to get a new lease on life just by seeing you on television each and every day. I feel as if a certain amount of purpose has crept back into my life and I thank you for that…stay in touch and may you be richly blessed each and every day…

    Most Respectfully,

    Stacy T. Williams
    Texas, USA

  9. Stacy

    November 3, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    I was able to see you again today on television and you made me smile so hugely and you fill my heart with warmth and lovingkindness. From one “young man” (I am 40 years of age) to another “young man,” you are singularly spectacular and you enrich the lives of so very many of us. You are beautifully handsome physically and I know you most certainly have a truly beautiful soul as well…I do know one thing for certain…you make every day special for me as I look forward to just seeing you any chance I get (and I do make certain I take advantage of every chance I get to do so)!

  10. Stacy

    November 3, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    I say we bring “Texas” to “England.” Or, perhaps, we could arrange for “England” to visit “Texas.” It is definitely worth a thought or two wouldn’t you say? Big smiles and much love…

    Stacy in Texas (again)

  11. Amelia

    November 4, 2009 at 3:58 am

    I can relate Alistair, after a similar experience spending my youth travelling far and wide there’s nothing more comforting than being at home and enjoying simple pleasures (and yeah, I hate the jet lag now too, lol, I chuckled at you mentioning that!). But I used to love the excitement of foreign travel, new sights, sounds, smells, interesting new people to meet. I preferred to be away from home which seemed so dull and boring by comparison.

    But now, being at home is where I want to be, waking up in my own bed, being greeted by my dog every morning who always seems so happy to be alive, pottering in my garden, cooking a nice meal, just being enveloped by everything that is familiar and constant is like a peculiar kind of soothing therapy. Home….

    It’s like Ecclesiastes says, there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven…So it’s ok to be alone, it’s ok to be lonely, it’s ok to be sad, and it’s ok to long for home because there is a time for everything…

    Much love,

  12. geoff & mike

    November 27, 2009 at 12:29 am

    Just read through the replies and am really pleased andd
    happy that you have had such positive responses from
    Here in Spain as newcomers [4 years + ]life has been hard and at times, lonely,
    but we have managed to overcome these negative feelings
    as much as possible by accepting peoples’ frailties and our own
    I realise I’ve gone off on a tangent but hopefully Ive made senbses?

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