In October of 2018, I took a train trip from Copenhagen through Brussels, Paris, and Berlin. Many of my classmates were traveling as well since we had the week off. Most people traveled with a group of friends or to meet people they knew studying abroad in other cities, but some of us traveled alone. What stood out to me talking to people in my apartment who had spent even a day traveling alone was our common ground of shitty moments.
One of my housemates got hopelessly lost walking through Amsterdam, then shattered her almost-dead phone when she was trying to get directions. Another, who went to Cinque Terre, wound up having to walk up the steep roads of a coastal village in the middle of the night when her plane was delayed and her train passed her stop. Yet another shared how uncomfortable it was at first be the only one eating alone in a restaurant. As for me, the loneliness-restlessness I remembered from other solo trips hit me hard on my third day in Paris and I nearly cried in public three different times. Traveling alone doesn’t always go well and it doesn’t always feel good. But it gives you a stronger sense of self, an emotional connection to wherever you go, and shows you the goodness of the world when you least expect to see it.
You’re On Your Own
In his book Why Travel Matters, Craig Storti advocates hard for traveling alone. To be a traveler (distinct from being a tourist), Storti explains, your perception must be uninhibited by having a familiar person with you, no matter how well you get along. A travel buddy could be a distraction, filtering your experience through their own, or simply make it harder to meet locals (Storti 139). In A Taste for Travel, John Julius Norwich says a companion can ‘cushion’ the traveler, “desensitizing their antennae.”
This is not to say that traveling with someone whose company you enjoy is by default a bad idea. Traveling with those you love is its own kind of wonderful adventure, and one that is worth having. It just depends what kind of trip you want. For me, traveling alone means more direct contact with a place and my experience with it. I can think and reflect in a more authentic way because I’m only focusing on my own experiences.
Because you typically have a more direct channel to wherever you visit when you are alone, and because you have your own emotional journey while there, traveling alone helps you develop an emotional relationship with the places you go. Experiencing a new place alone gives me a personal and emotive connection to wherever I am. I have regrettably few memories of the trips I took when I was younger where I was guided along with a large group of other tourists, or even just with other family members. My experience wasn’t defined by relating to the place, but rather by relating to the people that came there with me.
Solitude Demands Optimism
Traveling alone can be draining. Having only yourself to rely on when navigating a new place, eating alone, and, if you’re like me, overcoming introverted tendencies to make new friends, can all be pretty exhausting. I felt this on my third day in Paris especially (you know, the one where I kept almost-crying in public). That afternoon I found myself walking through the rain, sans umbrella, wishing for someone to magically show up to take me in and take care of me.
That didn’t quite happen, but sticking it out got me pretty close. The first sign that things might be okay was a ceramics shop, which I tried to enter not realizing it was closed for All Saint’s Day. Not a graceful start, but the designer was there and invited me in while she found a card to give me. We made some small talk, during which she validated my desire to learn how to make pottery. I didn’t feel better immediately, and ultimately had to walk back into the rain, but I was glad she was so kind to me.
Later, I went Montmartre, happy to find the Sacre-Coeur shining over everything. My only memory of Paris from my first trip to Europe as a kid is that church, so getting to come back and recognize something washed a lot of my stress away. I walked past it to one of the winding side streets and found dinner at a cozy restaurant with a kind hostess who let me practice what little French I knew as I ordered my food. I was the only one there at first since I was early, and getting that extra warmth helped me start to mend. I wrote on my phone, ‘I don’t feel good, but I feel better,’ and read short stories until it was time to go back down the hill for a concert. These little moments of hospitality answered my wish for getting taken care of, and wouldn’t have been possible if I had allowed myself to give up and stay in for the rest of the day.
Traveling alone is not only defined by loneliness. It gives you moments of euphoria, little gems of sheer joy that come unexpectedly. I have had one of those moments every time I’ve traveled alone. Walking home on a dirt road in Mindo, Ecuador and getting caught in the rain was my first experience with this. I was breathless and laughing, and was able to experience it so intensely precisely because I was alone, thrilled that I had managed wind up in such a beautiful place, not to mention spend three weeks getting by on what Spanish I knew in an unfamiliar country. Later that summer I found the same feeling, this time standing in a lake in the Rockies during my second day of driving to Denver. It’s one of my most precious memories, even if I have no one to remember it with.
I didn’t expect to have that feeling last week. I spent the bulk of my second day in Paris going between a bookstore and a bistro, reading and writing for hours about what I was feeling on my own in a new place. I wound up walking from the Louvre pyramids to the Musée de l’Orangerie, and although it was cold and had started to rain, the joy I remembered from other places came to me and I felt relieved and comfortable for the first time since I had arrived. I bought some roasted chestnuts with my last bit of cash and walked through the park happy and content, finally having found my moment of joy that always makes the solitude feel worth it.
Finding that moment told me I was experiencing not only a new place but new aspects of myself in an authentic way. Last week’s trip changed what I thought I had already learned from other travels because that’s what solo travel does. It gives you experiences with only yourself and can teach you something new even years later. It gives you space to grow and experience feelings fully and lets you create relationships with worlds outside of your own.
On the train out of Paris the morning after going to Montmartre, all my bad feelings had evaporated into a fondness for the city and a vague interest in returning. I had learned what I liked and what I didn’t and added it to my growing understanding of what kinds of travel work for me. It felt like looking back on a long school year, knowing there had been highs and lows but ultimately nostalgic because of how much it felt like I had grown. And all this within a week. I imagine longer, more adventurous journeys both back in the U.S and abroad and feel the excitement that made me want to study abroad and travel alone in the first place. There is so much to see and feel just beyond my immediate world, and I feel better the further out I go, still knowing it won’t always be happy or comfortable. That’s the whole point.
This piece was originally written in Winter 2018.