Alone but not lonely

Tuesday, 02 April 2024 00:14

‘Happy birthday papa! Thank you for being the best dad I could ever ask for.’ Sent. It was New Year’s Eve. Fireworks were going off everywhere and I could no longer concentrate on the work that I was hoping to have finished hours ago but, thanks to procrastination, was still far from completing. I opened the blinds, switched off the lights, and as per the tradition that I had come up with for the past four years that I have been studying in Czechia, I propped up my chair next to the window and watched as the night sky lit up with a brilliant display of colours.


Mind you, this wasn’t only limited to the area near my dormitory. Far off in the horizon, equally spread out, tiny sparks were exploding into dazzling blues, vivid greens, and sparkling golds. The resounding pops and booms filled the air, creating the perfect soundtrack to the mesmerizing visual spectacle. And it wasn’t even midnight yet.

I wrapped the blanket tighter around myself and took a sip from the hot cup of tea clasped between my fingers. My phone buzzed. My dad had replied with a big 'thank you' message, accompanied by several heart emojis. A smile slowly made its way across my face as I continued to read the texts that followed. You see, the calendar had already flipped to January 1st, 2024, in my parents’ time zone and incidentally, it happens to be my dad's birthday too. One day later, it would be my mom's. This was the crux of why the winter break was always a tough one for me. I don't mind spending holidays alone. For me, it's the best time to recharge, experience stillness, and most importantly, savour the much-needed break from the stressful lifestyle of a medical student. Don't get me wrong. I'm incredibly grateful to be given the opportunities I've been given, to be studying what I've always dreamed of studying. Yet, I think it's still worth acknowledging that everything comes at a cost. And, for me that cost, primarily, has been missing out on family time.

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At some point, as you grow older, you realize that your parents aren’t going to be around all the time. More importantly, you begin noticing the impact they have had on your life ever since you were little, and the sacrifices they made so you could lead a life better than theirs. I know this doesn’t apply to all parents, but God has been pretty merciful to me in this regard. You seem to spend even less time with your siblings (which is not always bad). And on top of all of that, keeping in touch with friends becomes a Herculean task, especially when they have fanned out all over the globe. You would think these would be the things you’d catch up on when you manage to free out some time, especially during the holidays. As the holidays gleefully peak around the corner at your miserable self during the last few working days, you start making mental notes of all the things you would get done as soon as they were here. And when they finally arrive? I end up doing absolutely nothing. I talk to my parents on a daily basis and on New Year's Eve, and I get to talk to my extended family who are usually either gathered at our place back home or the other way around, to celebrate my parents’ birthdays together.

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We joke about how we’ve arranged special fireworks for my dad’s big day and at the same time, console Mum saying they are also for her, but we’ve had to arrange it all on one day for economic reasons. Delicious food and even better company (apart from the constant struggle to prevent wars from breaking out between all the kids) culminate in a wonderful evening, overall. Except, I haven’t been experiencing it first-hand for quite a few years now. I’ve stopped trying to plan things for my birthday too. Almost every year, I have had an exam right after and I am definitely not one of those people who can forget about everything and just enjoy the day. My mind keeps thinking about how much material I could have covered if I just stayed home and studied. But nothing compares to how it is during Ramadan and Eid for us Muslims staying alone. Ramadan is the month when people would break their fasts at sunset surrounded by family, pray together in mosques, or join their neighbours for the evening iftar meal. The city always seemed abuzz during this time. The month is also about reflecting spiritually, so the time spent alone is also vital.

Marking the end of Ramadan is Eid-ul-Fitr, or ‘the festival of breaking the fast’. The festival lasts three days and includes performing the communal prayer at daybreak on the first day after showering and donning new clothing. The celebrations vary from country to country but, in general, involve visiting friends and family, spending in charity, enjoying feasts, and giving presents to the young. As I was now completely devoid of all these yearly enriching experiences, naturally, the first year of my studies was a difficult one to strive through. Medical school is overwhelming as is but this was just the cherry on top. Of course, students came together and planned some activities out so we wouldn’t feel alone as we were all in the same boat anyway. But, for me at least, it never quite felt the same.

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As the years have gone by, however, I have discovered a sort of comfort in my own company. Being alone doesn’t always mean being lonely, despite the looks of concern you get from people when you tell them about your solitary plans for the winter break. I tend to look at it differently. You get to spend some time with the person you ought to like best (that would be yourself if that wasn’t clear enough). And I don’t mean it in a narcissistic sort of way. The key to being alone without feeling bored or on the edge of sanity is to keep busy by outsourcing your energy into more creative endeavours. Just staying in your flat, staring at the wall above you as you lie in bed isn’t going to give you the epiphany you might be looking for. For me, this means writing loads, going for nature walks, and doing a lot of photography despite not being too good at it. I’ve always found that solitude deprives you and expands your mind in a way that makes you more innovative. It gives you the space to let your thoughts simmer for a moment, to process and emotionally recover from the strains of student and/or work life. And when you do come across instances of spontaneous social interaction, such as a striking a friendly conversation with a stranger after they asked you for help taking a photograph of them with their family, or an old lady teaching you how to open those darned plastic bags when your hands are too cold, it makes you appreciate the good that still manages to thrive in this world just a little bit more.


About the author
Fatima Ahmed is a fifth-year med student at the First Faculty of Medicine at Charles University. From Pakistan, Fatima was born and raised in Dubai, U. A.E., where she still resides. Beyond her passion for medicine, Fatima says she loves various sports and exploring new destinations through travel: “I'm a bit of a nature enthusiast, so I grasp every opportunity to break free from the confines of my books and indulge in invigorating hikes,” she admits. 


About Insight
Insight is our newest feature at Forum EN, offering valuable student perspectives. The aim is to describe - with greater insight and detail - the experience of being at Charles University, providing a glimpse into everyday or even extraordinary moments that might otherwise be 'lost' in the rush of academic life. 


Author: Fatima Ahmed
Photo: Fatima Ahmed's personal archive

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