It started on the train journey from Paris. Or perhaps it began long before that inside a busy cafe on the rue Saint Jacques. While I was sitting quietly on the train to Saint Malo I noticed the feeling, like a hollow knot, twisting and growing inside me. I chalked it up to eating one too many galettes and pushed away the truth. I was looking forward to quietly marinating inside the impenetrable medieval walls of a port wedged into the mouth of the Rance River in Brittany. I need the escape, I told myself over and over again as I neared the station. This recluse will be my solace away from the frenetic everyday pace. Instead that sinking sensation in my gut expanded when I set foot in Saint Malo. Now, rather than finding contentment in the city’s isolation, I am overcome by one emotion: loneliness. It is a specter that threatens to overtake my enjoyment of this tranquil rocky shore.
I try to walk it off, but loneliness follows me everywhere I go in Saint Malo. I hear it in the rush of colorless waves beating repeatedly against the stone gray walls. It seeps into my pores with the morning mist while I stroll the city ramparts. I feel it engulf me like an oppressive blanket as I listen to the forlorn cry of seagulls wheeling round and round the desolate beach. Perhaps the quietness of the city intensifies my feelings, but there is nothing about Saint Malo that is gloomy or doleful. In its detached serenity, the fortified town remains an oasis of restorative calm. My battle is not with the city but internal, where a storm of desolation mars everything I experience. A change of scenery won’t get rid of my mood. I have two choices: to conquer my loneliness or hide in my room, incapacitated by the menace.
I find comfort in silence and am no stranger to solo adventures. Feeling lonely, however, is something different. It can affect me when I am on my own or lost in a crowd.
“Like a thief, it snatches odd moments to visit me and catch me off guard.”
To fend off loneliness, I usually go out and seek connections. I hunt for stories in congested markets, reconnect with old friends, or start up conversations at bistros and restaurants. I practice my newly learned language on locals, participate in guided tours, and patronize community festivals and exhibits. I could do the same in Saint Malo to cure my loneliness. I could pester my landlady about local gossip when she greets me in the evenings. I could distract the old men at the table next to me who come to enjoy their morning coffee and newspaper. I could join the group of boys showing off their best dives at the seaside pool. I could seek out forced chitchat and conviviality, but I won’t. Instead I shall revel in the chance to be alone.
Rather than trying to shake off my feeling of loneliness, I choose to embrace it here because I love Saint Malo’s attitude of detachment. It seems proud to be isolated from the rest of its neighbors, happy in its deserted atmosphere. I want to take comfort in this temperament and use the city’s isolation as a means to overcome my fear of not belonging. To vanquish this gut wrenching sense of desolation and transform it into a chance to forge a stronger connection with myself, I walk to the solitary fort at Petit Bé alone with my thoughts. I stand upon its ramparts and look back at the walled encampment of Saint Malo, so secure in its hermetic mien.
“I admire how the city in turning its thoughts inwards has gained strength and confidence over the centuries to be different.”
As I sit inside the vacant Saint Vincent cathedral and contemplate upon the cloistered life, I see how the locals have taken advantage of their seclusion to develop a distinct culture. I scour the bare watchtowers along the citadel’s embankments and observe the proud stance of a city which champions its austere borders. During my days exploring the lonesome environs of this port, I finally find comfort in my loneliness. While discovering the city I get a chance to learn about myself. I learn more about my fears, my inhibitions, and my weaknesses. My stay in Saint Malo becomes more than a battle against solitary misery. Here loneliness helps me deepen one of my most important relationships: the one I build with myself.
The sound of loneliness no longer menaces me as I take to the streets of Saint Malo. It has transformed into the welcome sound of my echoing footsteps. I gladly allow it to accompany me on my daily walks. I let it sit opposite me at my precious table for one. I permit it to envelop me in its clasp. I will always be grateful to the lonesome spirit of Saint Malo for teaching me to appreciate the companionship of loneliness.
Saint Malo is no stranger to solitude. Begun as a fortified monastic island in the 6th century, Saint Malo built an impenetrable wall around itself to protect from invasion. The independent streak continued when in 1590 the city declared itself a solitary republic, free from France and Breton. Pirates, encouraged by this atmosphere of freedom, set up shop in Saint Malo for much of the 18th century. Life within Saint Malo’s Intramuros today continues to be guarded by the reconstructed strength of the port’s ancient walls.