I get it. You don’t know anyone where you’re going, you’ve never been there before, you don’t speak the language. I get that some people don’t like traveling alone.
Actually, most of the people I’ve talked to about traveling alone say they wouldn’t like it. Not don’t. To which I say, you might be surprised.
I’ve been on my fair share of solo trips: Madrid-Sevilla, Florence, UK-Ireland. I have even broken away from travel companions, God bless’em, mid-trip to go on my own to a city I really wanted to see. (Grace and Utsav, if you read this, it had nothing to do with you and everything to do with my incredible rigidness, exacerbated by an Excel spreadsheet I started preparing last August.) This weekend, I’ll be leaving on a six-week trip that will take me through Spain, Portugal, and France (with a random trip to Berlin thrown in) before it’s back to the States.
These are not dangerous places, even for a lone 23-year-old, vaguely Aryan-looking American girl. But the reactions I get have nothing to do with safety. I’ve gotten sympathetic looks and nods, even eyebrows raised in concern. Then there’s the standard ‘I don’t know if I could do that,’ which conveys nothing near the respectful curiosity I think it is meant to.
At least in a few years, when I hit my late twenties–crunch time!–I’ll be prepared for my role as the still-single older daughter who everybody thought would make it to the altar before her baby sister.
The downsides of traveling alone are obvious: having all of the burden of planning on you, getting bored or even lonely, feeling exposed, without a wingman. I’ve experienced all of this at one time or another. I’ve made sacrifices. I’m probably not going to go to a bar in Ireland, or Spain, or the Czech Republic, alone. Forget going to a club on my own.
The upside is not as obvious to others as I would’ve thought. When you travel alone, you are forced to make new friends. There it is. You might be thinking ‘Well, duh!’, but I can’t tell you how few people seem to think of this.
Take my last trip as an example. I spent a week in Edinburgh and London, then went over to western Ireland for another week.
My first night in Edinburgh, I had my first solo Couchsurfing experience. Couchsurfing is a site that allows users to find either hosts in an unfamiliar city or ‘surfers’ who need a free place to stay in your hometown. More on that later.
My host told me he’d be hosting other people and having a huge CS party the night I stayed. Fine by me. It turned out he couldn’t throw the party, but he still ended up with six Couchsurfers at his place: an American au pair living in Paris, an American girl and a Polish girl who study medicine together in Poland, two Norwegian girls who are making a documentary about CS, and me. We came there alone or in pairs, yet there was an immediate feeling of solidarity, of looking out for one another. Even after I checked into my hostel, I met up with Marianne and Ida, the Norwegian film students, almost every day until I left Edinburgh.
In London, I wasn’t really alone. For my first two nights, I stayed with Laura, one of my best friends from Ewing and my parents’ original ‘third daughter.’ Laura used to come to our house for ‘second dinner’ after her family had finished eating three doors up the street. I had a great time meeting her friends from the University of Maryland’s London program. To thank her, I tried to approximate a Bohlander family dinner for her…yes, tried.
My third and fourth nights in London, I gave Laura a break. I found a Couchsurfing arrangement with a 30-something veterinarian from the Netherlands and her 20-something British roommate. We talked about London, of course, but much more than that. Turns out, my Dutch host did a fellowship in Philly a few years ago and is visiting her friends there this summer. Sure enough, after staying at her place for just two nights, I’m already hoping to see her again on my side of the Atlantic.
In Ireland, I admit, I started feeling the first signs of loneliness. I was in County Kerry, a huge tourist attraction when the weather warms up, but pretty remote. But one of the great things about traveling so far from home is just being American is a good enough excuse to strike up a conversation with someone, especially other Americans. And by this point, my ears perk up at the slightest hint of an American accent, in any language. Well, the Romance languages anyway.
In Killarney, I got a drink with two girls who were on a road trip through Ireland, one of whom told her would-be suitor that, seriously, she really wants to be a Bible school teacher. Now, that’s a memory. On the bus to Galway, I met two girls on spring break from Penn State (I was polite, I swear). In Galway, I sought out some traditional Irish music with a young professional who lives in Philly and a Cali girl who teaches English in Barcelona, both of whom I met at my hostel.
I’ve got love for the Europeans, too. Twenty minutes after they figured out I speak French, I went to the club in Killarney with a group of French undergrads who study English in Dublin. My CS hosts in London hosted an adorable young Italian couple the second night I was there. Over breakfast, they talked about how they are not going to baptize their future children (that’s a big damn deal in Italy, or France for that matter). They’re going to support their children’s right to choose their own religion. It should come as no surprise that that just makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.
This all goes to say, yes, I have made sacrifices by choosing to travel alone. But, if you choose not to travel alone, don’t assume that you’re not making sacrifices. Who knows? Maybe you’re the kind of person who will always be making new friends. I have a few friends like that. Speaking for myself, I would not have met many of the people I just mentioned if I had been traveling with friends.
Here’s hoping that by the time I arrive at the Marseille airport six weeks from now, and one day before my visa expires, I can rattle off an even longer list of new friends.
Cuz that’s the best way to stick it to the haters.