On Traveling Alone

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.

A self-timer selfie at the Seine after a woman wouldn’t let me into the Orsay with my student ID. I almost cried but started walking and taking photos instead and I felt better.

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.”

I accidentally got to a free jazz concert too early, and sat reading alone while really cool-looking French people socialized around me. The seats filled up and it was a great concert.

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.

The Sacre-Coeur at Montmartre

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.

A shot from my walk through the rain towards the Musée de l’Orangerie

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.

Refuge in the Andes

After a few weeks of traveling alone in Ecuador in the summer of 2017, I had decided to go home early. It was my first solo trip, and I had ambitiously planned for a full three months of backpacking and exchanging labor for lodging. I had planned things so I would end up on the beach in time for my birthday in July, but by early June, loneliness had caught up to me, and the beach no longer felt that important.

It felt good deciding to come home and knowing that I only had one more week to see Ecuador renewed my sense of adventure. I changed my route and decided to end the trip at a hostel located several hours outside of Quito.

Secret Garden Cotopaxi, Ecuador

I took a bus back to the city, and the next day I clustered with other backpackers on a narrow sidewalk, waiting for a shuttle to whisk us away to the mountains. The last hour of the drive was on a dirt road, going about 15 miles per hour, winding us slowly past vivid green farmland in the low valleys of the Andes.

Alpacas grazing around Secret Garden Cotopaxi.
A pond and lush vegetation at Secret Garden Cotopaxi.

After we piled out of the van and stretched our legs, an Australian ushered us inside to a cozy living room, sheltering us from the chilly mountain air. We were handed ceramic cups of mulled wine, and listened with warm bellies as the staff explained the house rules and described the activities that were scheduled for the next few days. We would have group meals at a long, wooden dining table. Food was prepared in a large kitchen adjoining the living room, where there was always fresh banana bread waiting on the counter.

Another alpaca friend.

There were a few separate cabins for shared dorms, complete with bunk beds. My roommates for the weekend included two women and a few French guys on a trip together. They were all in their twenties, making me the youngest at eighteen.

Later one of the staff took us on an introductory hike, leading us as we stumbled after him in our borrowed galoshes. Our small parade of foreigners alternated between hacking through the deep moss of the forest and slipping upstream in cold water. The stream, it turned out, would widen and eventually reveal a waterfall in the midst of the volcanic jungle.

I sat with the other girls and we watched the French boys strip down and plunge into the icy water. The scene was like some kind of mythic painting- our young, happy bodies splashing around in near-perfect wilderness.

Fellow backpackers enjoying an icy cold waterfall in the jungle.
The stream away from the waterfall (and our hiking trail).

The clouds were so low where we were- and we were so high up- that we only saw the mountain tops a few times from the hostel itself. The best view would come the day before I left, rewarding us for the several hours we spent huffing and puffing our way to a total elevation of 4200 meters.

A mountain peak surrounded by clouds.
A dog enjoying the view after our ascent.
More peaks and the landscape beyond the mountains.

From the peak we had muddied and exhausted ourselves to reach, the clouds granted us fleeting glances of the swaths of farmland below. Shades of green were knitted together with curving seams of vegetation, and the edges of the mountains around us framed everything like jagged curtains.

On the way back, we passed wild horses. We slowed to watch them as they gazed down at us from their grassy hillsides.

A wild horse in the mountains.

The days passed quickly, and suddenly it was time to coordinate my delivery back to Quito, along with the other travelers on their way to the next place. I felt torn as I packed my bag, fielding questions about why I was leaving already. I felt I had finally found something good, and people I wanted to be with. But I couldn’t get out of my flight- I had already changed it once- and it was time to say goodbye.

After learning in the weeks prior how isolating traveling alone could be, I was grateful for having arrived somewhere that felt so comforting yet still pushed me towards adventure. I felt especially affectionate to the people who had been so kind to me along the way, buoying me through it all. In the airport, I took stairs instead of escalators, paying a small homage to the mountains my body had so recently scaled.

In the trips I have taken since then, I have learned that the loneliness of traveling by myself is almost always offset by scattered sparks of joy. For me, those sparks often come from connecting to other people. That feeling of mutual care, even for a split second, has propelled me through all kinds of sadness. There have also been moments that I am reanimated by something inside of me- maybe a realization of where I am and how wonderful it is to be tiny on an enormous earth.

Traveling alone challenges me to make my own joy despite the loneliness, and to see myself for where I am. Then, when I finally arrive in the company of others, it feels that much more precious, and I find that I would happily do it all again.

This piece was originally written in Fall 2020.

Psychedelic Design in Seville’s Casco Antiguo

Seville has a sizeable historic district, which contains twelve different neighborhoods as well as three different UNESCO World Heritage sites. The district is known as the Casco Antiguo, or ancient district (although one could also translate this as “ancient shell,” to add a bit of romantic intrigue). Among the many landmarks and monuments worth a visit in the Casco Antiguo is an installation called Metropol Parasol, though it is more often recognized as Las Setas (The Mushrooms), or Las Setas de la Encarnación, for the plaza where the work is located. Las Setas is the product of a design competition initiated by the local city council amid efforts to renovate Plaza de la Encarnación in 2004. The winning design, submitted by Jürgen Meyer-Hermann, was inaugurated in 2011, seven years after it was selected.

A curving walkway guides visitors around the top of Las Setas, here offering a panoramic view to the south.
Visitors observe the sweeping view of the city from the uppermost observation deck at Las Setas de la Encarnación.

Given the rich history of its center, the Seville’s willingness to incorporate a modern and playful installation into a major plaza is a lesson for other historic cities grappling with questions of modernization and looking to reinvigorate an existing public space. Las Setas is nothing if not innovative- at the time of this writing, the Metropol Parasol is the largest wooden structure in the world. The figure provides a striking contrast to the colorful, flat-faced buildings surrounding it, ballooning out of a plaza that offers reprieve from the narrow, winding streets that weave through the city center. Despite its size, Las Setas has a strangely DIY feel, as its wooden frame appears to be constructed from simple balsa wood pieces that have been notched and fitted together like some kind of psychedelic model airplane.

Winding walkways allow visitors to absorb the Seville skyline and its monuments from many different vantage points.

While massive sculpture-building appears to dwarf the architecture that surrounds it, the scale of Las Setas does not prevent it from engaging with and even complementing its context. The sloping lines of the stairways leading towards the central figures offer a natural line of sight that guides the viewer’s impression of the installation. The abstract, curved forms of the setas themselves offer a gentle contrast to their rectilinear surroundings while paying tribute to the meandering, curved streets which converge on this plaza. Furthermore, the gridlike pattern created by the work’s interlocking pieces complements the many right angles of walls, windows, and balconies that decorate the plaza’s border.

View of Las Setas from street level.

That Las Setas was allowed to exceed the height of neighboring attractions, such as the nearby Iglesia de la Anunciación, is significant. Some European cities have adopted regulations to ensure that new structures cannot exceed the height of a given historic monument, most often a church. For instance, Budapest’s Saint Stephen’s Basilica as well as its Parliament Building are each exactly 96 meters, and no building is allowed to exceed this height. This policy is in large part a result of the city’s specific history, as the area that would become Hungary was first settled in the year 896. Beyond Budapest, deliberation over height restrictions has permeated policy debate in many other European cities as modern demands challenge historic, human-scale urban fabrics.

View of nearby Iglesia de la Anunciación from Las Setas.
The northeastern view of Seville from Las Setas.

The striking scale of Las Setas, then, might be read as an indication of the city’s priorities. Notably, Las Setas is not a skyscraper. It is not residential or commercial, but rather, a creative endeavor that represents an aesthetic departure from the historic, medieval typology that dominates the Casco Antiguo. At the same time, this design object is also a major tourist attraction in an already heavily visited city. The city’s selection of a non-Spanish designer for the work may also have been meant to indicate Seville’s international sensibility and appeal. International reputation is important for the city, as tourism generates around 15% of Seville’s income, making it an essential local industry.

As with any city, extra money in the coffers likely provides Seville more fiscal flexibility, which could result in better local services or further design innovation, among many other possibilities. However, when tourists become too much of a priority, the local character of a city is threatened. Furthermore, efforts to extract value from previously overlooked or underinvested spaces- the site’s neighborhood is described as “run down” here– can threaten existing residents, as has been witnessed at varying scales in plenty of cities around the world. Plus, the work is not without its technical flaws.

Steep staircases are among the design flaws at Las Setas that have been criticized for being inaccessible.

From a design perspective, the height of Las Setas may present the city to tourists as something to be consumed rather than engaged from street level or inspected up-close. Despite the physical and visual distance of the viewer from the street, however, the monument’s modern, innovative form offers tourists a new mode with which to observe the city. Whereas church towers would typically offer the most expansive view of a medieval city like Seville, Las Setas acts as a more flexible, expansive, secular alternative.

The cloudlike structures appear lovingly incorporated into their plaza home, animating yet never threatening the space. Las Setas encourages viewers to imagine what the future may look like for a historically and culturally significant city like Seville. It is then the responsibility of the city to ensure that Las Setas gives to the city and its people- both socially and economically- more than it takes.

Welcome to People City

People City is made up, but you’ll recognize pieces of it from where you’ve already been. If you’ve sat in the sun in a public plaza, listening to the fountain bubble and musicians play for passersby, you’ve been here before. The widest sidewalks and bike lanes you’ve ever navigated are here, too. The crowd of protesters downtown, who carried their painted signs rolled up on the subway en route to City Hall, are still chanting through the streets. If you’ve congregated with your neighbors on your front porch, stoop, or outside the local corner store, you’ll find yourself doing the same here.

People City represents a vision of the city as it might be, but not as a utopian dreamscape. My goal here isn’t to imagine away the realities of city life but rather to celebrate moments where cities do good by their people while critiquing where they fall short. I’m a student of cities, so this process is as much about learning for me as it is about sharing. This is a sketchbook of ideas, a journal of drafted thought. I hope you’ll bear with me.

The relationship between the city and its people is historically fraught. Industrial urbanization subjected masses of people to disastrous living and working conditions, yet made large-scale organizing (against those same conditions) possible. As the city grew to bursting it became a physical manifestation of structural inequality under capitalism. And in the post-WWII United States, those structural inequalities were demonstrated more viciously as white people fled to the suburbs, taking their privileged tax base away from inner cities and leaving already systematically oppressed citizens to fend for themselves. More recently that pattern has shifted, as wealthy and predominantly white suburbanites ‘rediscover’ the value of the city and move into spaces made available to them by the displacement of more vulnerable longtime residents.

As the gap continues to grow between the poor and the wealthy, the city likewise becomes polarized as a home for both. This along with the increasing privatization of formerly public goods and services means that the line between space for the people generally and space for the consumer specifically has become hazy. We are finally recovering from freeway-dominated mid-century planning practices, but those highways remain, and we still struggle with creating equitable and human spaces. We’ve seen towns and cities adopt principles put forward by New Urbanism, but are still deeply entrenched in an inequitable economic structure so that even something as simple as walkability becomes an issue of wealth and class.

Ultimately, though, the city can be a rich and vibrant place where all sorts of very different people can mix, which is why public space and human-centered design are so massively important. The potential of the city is that of communication, exposure, celebration, protest, and all that people as individuals and as a collective can bring to it. People City is that city: animated, yet imperfect, and above all allied with its people.

Summer 2018