I’ve been thinking lately that travel and love are two of the most connecting forces we can know. Both can create a sense of boundless intimacy—can weave together a two-person community and a set of experiences that the outside world will never really understand.
And both can be profoundly lonely.
Once, I traveled three days by train over the Chinese mainland, through the valleys sunk like an extraction and the fields, raised as a scar. For those 72 hours, I saw no other foreigner, no one with skin as watery and untested as mine. My berth held six bunk beds triple stacked in a tiny cabin less than ten feet tall and ten feet wide. At night, I’d lie in the top bunk, too close to the ceiling to do anything but recline and listen to the quiet Mandarin chiming and gonging below me and the rattle and sway of the tracks below that.
At dusk, I’d leave the berth and walk out to stretch my legs. Past the families filling their Styrofoam noodle bowls at the hot water spigot and the old men playing games at the small round tables in the narrow train hallways. When they’d let me, I’d take an empty seat and watch the countryside pour by like old film, stained in sea tones and unraveling.
At the top of the mountains watching over the valley, workers lit oil fires in caves. Settling bank on their haunches and elbows for the night, their nests glowed like jack-o-lanterns in the slate cliffs over the lush wet banks over the river near the tracks. No one had told me China would be so beautiful and, somehow, I’d never decided to create that expectation for myself. I hadn’t expected the train station to be so English-free, or so hot, stuffed as a pierogi with a million Chinese headed to familial homes for the festival weekend. I hadn’t expected the train ride to be so endless, or to feel so overwhelmingly alone for every one of its hours.
This is just one card from a deck full of isolating and lonesome travel experiences, each of which I would quickly choose to do all over again. But you do need to understand what you’re getting into.
Lost in Translation was the last time I was ever really able to tolerate Scarlett Johansson in a movie. It’s probably not her fault; If God made you a Samuyed, it’s a hard campaign to get cast as a Beagle, you know? But back then, she was still sort of a beagle. Her Charlotte is brunette and smart and a little frumpy in her sensible shoes. Snarky and bookish and suspicious of a certain kind of woman, like we are.
Charlotte has joined her photographer husband of two years—an ADHD man named Tom (Giovanni Ribisi)—on some vague assignment in Tokyo. Young Tom is a little starstruck and increasingly affected by the euro-trash bands and brash blonde starlets he shoots. Charlotte is sweet and petty, grounded and increasingly lost.
Yet even in this most relatable role, there are times when I just want to smack Charlotte for all her whining and self-pitying and huffing. For sealing herself up in her ivory hotel tower and being so focused on not being her husband’s focus that she nearly misses an entire city waiting to court her.
Until we meet Bill Murray’s Bob. An aging famous actor, Bob has come back to Tokyo for easy capitalization on his past, mid-level fame. Two days filming a sort of degrading, sort of ego-boosting whiskey commercial. Sitting for a photo shoot in which the artist begs him for More Mystery, More Intensity, A Little More James Bond, and a hefty check is his for the taking.
At night, in between these obligations, he lingers in the hotel bar, listening to the horrifyingly earnest and self-adoring cover songs sung by a red-headed lounge singer in a slinky dress. A pretty embarrassment of a woman that he’s too good for, but later beds anyway, making us hate him a little.
Between his nights getting half drunk and his days reading passive-aggressive faxes from his never-seen American wife, Bob waits out his life like a teeth cleaning.
Until he meets Charlotte.
These two need each other—that much we get from the start. In their own ways, both Bob and Charlotte are so Lost, each with varying degrees of self-awareness and understanding about how this came to be. Lost and lonely and then, hark, here comes a lighthouse and here comes a ship. One to shine upon the other, and one to be shone upon.
I am far more afraid of being lonely right beside someone than I am of being lonely and all alone.
It’s a dupe, you know?
Being alone, you steel yourself. There is no expectation but for self-perseverance, and at least you’re allowed that thrill of pride. But if you set down your independence and let down your draw bridge and then it doesn’t work? Then you find yourself—or them—still impenetrable? Who can survive that?
You’ve been there, too. Those quiet doubting long drive homes. Those shut out, wordless, withholding trips beside a partner who’s closing down. Or maybe it’s you that has shut down this time, stuck with enduring the nearly unbearable wait for them to simply notice.
Charlotte still loves her husband (or some version of him), but she is losing him. At least what she needs of him—his worshipful focus, his rapt attention, his down-to-earthiness, his agreement to sit out the whole big superficial ride with her. And to suddenly be denied the security of such a tether and pact is a scary place in which to find one’s self. Whatever she used to be, before she was his, has grown timid as a casted arm.
And Bob still loves his wife, probably. It’s hard to know who or what they actually are outside all their machinations, but there seems to be at least a similar promise of partnership here, too. Or at least the fossil of some kind of loyal intimacy. They’re older than Charlotte and Tom and so their routines are a little more acerbic, a little less elaborate. They’ve learned the shortcuts to really wounding each other.
But they’ve also developed the fortitude to cope. Bob’s wife hides behind the royal duties of child rearing and interior design and stays home. Sends carpet samples to prove her martyred service to Bob in lieu of tenderness. And Bob stays on the road. Sends home his paycheck and half-hearted romantic overtures in lieu of responsibility. I saw Lost in Translation once, years ago, and really loved it. Loved it in the quiet, deep sort of way you love books you only read once—at a very particular time in your life—and don’t really think or speak of much ever again.
Re-watching it now, though, I find myself less forgiving of it, at least initially. Irritated that Charlotte and Bob need this dalliance, which is far less innocent than I remembered it being. What I had once cataloged in my memory as nuanced, wanting looks that went forever unacted upon were, in actuality, elevator kisses and sultry karaoke songs sung to each other, with pointed meaning and drunken swaying hips.
But then again, it isn’t much more than that—not much more than a teenage caper formed to pass a few echoey days in an electric city one million miles from home. And so I forgive them, Bob and Charlotte. I forgive them again this time and then already again for the next time I watch it, in another decade or so. Because we have been there too.
What I mostly loved about Lost in Translation the first time around, I think, were the gaps. It is a movie practically defined by what is missing. The quiet spaces and the unspoken words and, of course, the now-classic final scene. The whispered farewell between Bob and Charlotte that we’re not asked or allowed to hear.
Do you remember this? There are entire websites devoted to analyzing and breaking down what Bob says to Charlotte in the film’s final moments, his aging cheek pressed to hers—soft and taut and flawless as a whole lifetime left before you.
I really love that Sofia Coppola never told us. I want something in all this to remain pure. If it must be a secret, then so be it.
And that’s the beauty of the entire movie, really—its sort of Japanese elegance. What it invites and never forces. The line that it toes.
I am a person who can never not say what is in my guts, my overactive mind, my thumping chest. And here is this whole entire poised world. This Asian fairy tale told in elaborate gift-giving greetings and techno club dances, the subtleties of marital jousting and the choreography of old black-and-white movies amidst an insomniac’s midnight panic. The drunk-making mystery of friendship with just slightly too much more.
Give in to where you are. This might be my best travel advice and my greatest travel challenge. There is so much for a human being to fear. Not in hiking through the Malian outback alone, not in forging the medinas and the subways and the canals. It’s the connection. Understanding how to insert yourself into a stream of human connection when there is so much potential for a misstep. The rapids you misunderstand and the pace to which you are unaccustomed. The depth for which you are unprepared. And ultimately, the possibility that you will be rejected, heaved back out upon the shore.
Approaching a stranger on a train or online is not just that thing; It is everything. It is risking it all—gambling against rejection, wagering love that may spend itself down to the loneliest fibers. Risking that despite it all, knowing we may end up alone.
And that’s why you can forgive Bob and Charlotte.
Because in a wild city that doesn’t belong to you, a million literal or figurative miles from your partner, you might change. It might take something different than you think to keep on keeping on. And even if you, like Charlotte and Bob, hold on to your promises and moral fiber, you still might need to surrender to the moment. Find someone’s hand to hold and run the streets with them until you forget everything. Until you can make yourself go home again.
Finishing this essay took too long for no particular (and a hundred insignificant) reasons. Sitting on an airplane drinking gin and tonics and wondering about quinine and procrastinating it, though, I read this quote and finally pulled it all together in my mind:
“First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons — but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which had lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new, strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world — a world intense and strange, complete in himself.”
—Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories
And I thought: that’s it, exactly (and yet still only a part of it). Just like traveling, we often enter into love for far different reasons than we choose to remain in that strange country. We change, they change; what we want changes. We learn them too well, the illusion burns off, they stop needing us, we let them down. Somehow, we eventually drift apart and there is an incredible loneliness left in the indecision over whether or not we’ll choose to paddle after each other.
Sometimes it takes work to love a country. Most times, it’s not what you thought it would be and there comes a point where you have to decide if you can just let it be what it is, and choose to love it fiercely anyway.