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.

Homelessness in the Welfare State

During June of 2017, Danish parliament passed an anti-begging measure to discourage panhandling. The following month, within a fourteen-day span, five people were arrested in Copenhagen by plainclothes officers for begging in public places. When my urban design professor mentioned to us during the first week of classes that panhandling is illegal in Copenhagen, I couldn’t believe there was even a homelessness problem to begin with. Coming from the United States, I had understood the Danish welfare state to be a relative utopia of democratic socialist policy without knowing how that might manifest in daily life. Even after going to Denmark and learning more about how the welfare state operates, it strikes me as a surprising struggle for a country with a famously tightly woven social safety net.

It doesn’t take much digging, however, to notice the increasingly complex approach to issues of squatting and homelessness in Copenhagen. As more central neighborhoods get tapped for redevelopment and public space is further commodified, homelessness is being relegated further away from the public realm. Local ignorance regarding homelessness in Denmark makes the decriminalization of homelessness and poverty unlikely, too. A study on perceptions of homelessness in Copenhagen and one of its suburbs identified a theme in residents’ understanding of homelessness: The Danish government provides assistance to those in need, so why wouldn’t someone take it if they had to? Homelessness must be a choice.

Generally, those most removed from daily urban life (in this case, residents of the more expensive and suburban Hellerup neighborhood) were more likely to hold such convictions. The interviewees from Copenhagen proper had more varied responses, with a more sympathetic bent. What the study found was, unsurprisingly, that homelessness is not a choice but rather a matter of repeated poor circumstances that strip away a person’s economic and social resources. This can make it difficult for folks struggling with homelessness, often along with addiction or mental illness, to go through the official steps to claim their benefits. They may not even know they are qualified for the benefits in the first place. And even then, there have been reports of government employees turning people away for their behavior while visiting the office to fill out paperwork.

Clearly, there are social and bureaucratic barriers that still keep those experiencing homelessness from getting the help they need. This condition is not unique to any city. Thankfully, Denmark has such a strong welfare system that homelessness is unlikely to reach the proportions it has in the United States. The criminalization of poverty and need, however, does nothing to help the most vulnerable residents in any city. Denmark’s recent anti-squatting laws are only the most recent legal apparatus developed for clearing urban space for more desirable occupants; but it is certainly not their first or most dramatic attempt to do so (for example, the destruction of the Youth House, which involved police violence and mass arrests). As redevelopment and gentrification continue here and in cities around the world, protection and resources for those least likely to benefit should remain a priority.

Public space is not public if it isn’t for everyone.

Illusory Inclusion at Copenhagen’s Superkilen Park

Nørrebro’s Superkilen park, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group, Topotek1 and Superflex attempts to design for integration in the most diverse neighborhood in Copenhagen. The architects chose to represent the diversity of the area surrounding the park using symbols of the many different nationalities present in Nørrebro. For example, the park is furnished with a Portuguese tiled bench and a small collection of palm trees from China. The park offers a variety of activities for different users, like assorted play structures for children and a row of chess tables partially sheltered by small trees. The park is visually striking, particularly in the Black Market section, contributing a modern aesthetic to a neighborhood with otherwise older building stock. The park also connects two busy streets running through the neighborhood, Nørrebrogade and Tagensvej, providing an interactive and interesting route for cyclists and pedestrians on their ways home or to other parts of the neighborhood.

The Black Market at Superkilen Park

While the park’s distinctive visual statements appear to operate on contrasts and representations of a wide range of objects and cultures, they are a central tool to the park’s intended message of inclusion and unity. However, according to Brett Bloom’s critique of Superkilen, the park’s design process was much less inclusionary than the park’s widely publicized origin story would indicate. Bloom claims that designing the park, heralded by the city administration and BIG Architects as a highly participatory process, curated an image of participation rather than involving the community on a radical or tangible level (Bloom 15). 

The park’s design also seems to disregard the demands of its physical environment, where rain and snow are to be expected and adaptive design is increasingly important for cities facing the impacts of climate change. The majority of the park is paved, which leaves much less room for the green space that residents requested.  The Red Square, for example, was paved with bright materials not intended for outdoor use, resulting in constant need for repair and a walking surface that became hazardous in rainy or icy conditions. The surface has since been repaved with brick, although this change still leaves that section of the park covered with hard, heat-absorbing material.

This design choice also has negative consequences for the trees in the design scheme, as rainwater cannot permeate the paved surface. The palm trees in particular are poorly suited to the environment regardless of pavement type, because they are not native to Denmark and are unlikely to survive the next couple of years. The durability of imported materials is questionable for many other symbols in the park. For example, the Portuguese bench mentioned earlier is currently in a state of disrepair from enduring a much harsher physical environment than the one it is native to. 

Dust blows into the bicycle lanes during reparative construction on the Red Square at Superkilen

Representation generally is an issue in the park, although Superkilen was conceived as a space for integration and multiculturalism. While the aim was to represent the more than 50 cultures present in the surrounding neighborhood, there are multiple monuments from the United States while there are very few American immigrants living in Nørrebro, particularly as compared to immigrants from the Middle East. This indicates a possible rift between the intended inclusionary effects of the park and what choices were made purely for aesthetic reasons. 

A bench tiled with Portuguese tile, heavily eroded

In Rem Koolhaas’s treatise on the ‘generic city,’ he critiques how cities become oversimplified images of themselves, over-preserving their historic core and abandoning complexity in order to become ‘logos’ of themselves (Koolhaas 218). Through this process, a city verges on becoming generic, rather than remaining dynamic and interesting. The reduction of culture to specific visual symbols in Superkilen is a similar process, threatening the over-simplification of non-Danish cultures and failing to acknowledge the complexity of those cultures and their role in Denmark, which has built its society on assumptions of cultural homogeneity (Jespersen 79). While the park makes a visually and conceptually bold tribute to the diversity of the most culturally and ethnically diverse neighborhood in Copenhagen and provides important recreational space for residents, its execution has not ensured the level of inclusivity that was intended in its conception. 

Cited

Brett Bloom, “Superkilen: Participatory Park Extreme!”

Rem Koolhaas, “The Generic City.” The City Reader.

Knud J. V. Jespersen, “The Danish Model of the Welfare State.” A History of Denmark. 

October 2018