Happiness is relative

Every once in a while a writer says something that has you nodding like a madman in unalloyed agreement. I’ve been reading essays by Meghan Daum, and much of what she writes strikes a mean, piercing chord. Far from negative, Daum trades in an admirable candor, some of which is rimmed with bile but is mostly benign and boldly human.

Take this paragraph from her collection “The Unspeakable.” It could have — should have — been written by me at my most exposed. And though it makes her sound morose and malcontent, she is not. She’s merely describing how some people see her — including, sometimes, herself.

“Clearly, I am a killjoy. Clearly, I have problems with pleasure, with letting go. Surely, I am an unhappy person. I do not enjoy most activities that are commonly labeled ‘fun.’ Moreover, I’m weary of ‘happiness,’ both as a word and a concept.”

Daum grazes dysphoria (a state of unease or generalized dissatisfaction with life) and hints at anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure). But, like me (mostly), this isn’t quite accurate. Daum lives big and loud and gulps life, in all its pitiless unpredictability. She’s a humanist, not a pessimist, even if unhappiness creeps in with unsettling frequency.

Even for the most solo traveler, the human touch matters

Early on my vacation to Beirut, Lebanon, in 2008, I scribbled this in my faithful moleskin journal: “Depressed tonight, like the trip’s a mistake.”

Those are ugly, gooey words for an insatiable, solo world traveler like me, someone who practically levitates just smelling the inky pages of a new travel guide. Recently I hauled out a dusty box of journals from many journeys, randomly cracking open the Beirut book for the first time in 12 years. I was surprised at what I found, how dark it all read. 

It wasn’t exactly a revelation, but it’s a bit different from memories I shared in a long-ago blog post that described the city as “beautiful but battered, regal but raw … a lovely, melancholy place, at once desolate and disarming, friendly and not a little forlorn.”

What stands out in the journal is how damn down I am, on the city and on travel in general, and that’s the real shocker. Yet I think it all signifies those inevitable pockets of mild dejection, loneliness, confusion and fatigue experienced during any trip, even my best ones.

“I am so precariously manic as I travel,” I wrote in Beirut after a day of jumbled emotions. “Life’s complexion switches kaleidoscopically as I journey — up, down, sideways, loops and spirals.”

Yet this was different, so much intensely bleaker than the emotional yo-yos of my usual one-man voyages, be it China, Portugal, Morocco, Japan, France, etc. 

Much of it was certainly that the war-torn capital — once regarded the Paris of the Middle East for its beachside beauty and lush cosmopolitanism — felt like a tumbledown tomb, hushed and sealed off, choked in a martial pall. This despite hip bars and cafes, delicious restaurants, the prestigious American University and all the shiny men’s hair products.

I knew what I was getting into. I did my homework and sought out a place rocked by enthralling if troubled history, yet still knew how to party. (And how: the narrow, bar-lined Gemmayzeh district absolutely spills with stylish, rambunctious — and not a few douchey — revelers every night.)

Still, once there, my initial assessment was harsh: “Most of the city is a rundown wreck. Even the ‘nice parts’ are dilapidated — the Hamra district is gimcrack, mostly crumbling and derelict and spray-painted and bullet-pocked. … Beirut is an ugly city.” (I think I just lost my gig writing the Lonely Planet guide to Beirut.) 

I was slipping, hard, right into the old emotional vortex, and I was confused.

“I don’t know what is happening,” I wrote. “I suppose it’s the listlessness of the place that has robbed my zest. Something big is missing. A sucking, sinking void, parts depression, loneliness (one feeds the other), dislocation, depleted expectations.” 

Then I really laid it on: “This happens, and it’s fatal because it corrodes my desire to ever travel again, a crazy but not unfamiliar notion. ‘I’m through’ — that’s what I feel.”

The isolation I was experiencing in a cold city, despite interesting chats with taxi drivers and random conversations with locals in bars, was wearing. I’m far from extroverted or people-needy. But something dawned on me. I journaled, “I just need someone to talk to. My blood has frozen.” I was crying out, pitifully and most uncharacteristically.

Enter Lina, brilliant, warm, charitable Lina! The young local and I were forced to share a tiny table at popular loo-sized bar Torino Express on Gemmayzeh one night, and we naturally started talking. I learned she’s Christian, a teetotaler and speaks Arabic, French and English. She likes the heavy metal band Savatage.

Lina
Lina’s useful Arabic cheat-sheet

Not only did she write in my journal helpful Arabic phrases, she later drove me up Lebanon’s northern coast to lovely Byblos, showed me around and introduced me to some friends. She even invited me to her small birthday gathering at a bar the next night (I still don’t know how old she is). It wasn’t a romantic thing, it was plain, extraordinary hospitality. She was a mensch, a blast of sunlight in a dark stretch.

After even more encounters with friendly travelers and locals over 19 days — I spent a week in Beirut and 12 days in heavenly Istanbul — animated with laughs and living, I finally admitted in the journal: “Meeting people is groovy.”

On one of my last nights during the trip, I met a trio of travelers in Istanbul, an hour or so during which I may have finally figured something out about travel, and life. 

“I made people laugh tonight, honest extemporaneous guffaws, eye-squinching laughter,” I wrote in the moleskin. “That’s worth something. Real human connection. Meeting of minds, tickling of souls. What else is there?”