The Lonely Traveler?

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.

See, they're real!

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.

Because you made it this far!


13 thoughts on “The Lonely Traveler?

  1. Loved your post Maggie and really looking forward to seeing you in Barcelona in a few short weeks. I think it’s cool that you travel alone…ballsy, I’d say! Now, as far as you being the first one in your family married, I don’t think I ever thought that you would be the first to walk the aisle but whatever. I’m curious to know what you cooked for Laura when she was there!

    • Thanks, Aunt Missy! I can’t wait to see you guys!!! It’s definitely going to be a highlight of my whole time here.

      Yeah, I’ve never really thought of myself as getting married right away, either! Haha, who knows? We’ll talk in another ten years about that one.

  2. maggie!! Don’t worry about going to a bar in CZ by yourself. Its actually kind of fun! The Czech people are really nice, when they aren’t awkwardly hitting on you at a tram stop. But seriously, I Love this post. I’m doing my first solo trip to Cinque Terre on Monday. You’ve given me hope! Maybe we can meet up somewhere depending on where you are and when. I still have class until the end of May, but I’m planning a Berlin trip (hopefully for a 10k there) and a trip to France!

    • Hey Kristin, glad to hear you’re meeting some nice guys in Prague, haha. Thanks for commenting! Have fun in Cinque Terre, I’ve never been but have heard it’s stunning! Yeah, let me know where you are and who knows, we may end up crossing paths!!

  3. The long-awaited post from Maggie. I just love your take on things, so insightful and interesting. I must say that the thought of your CSing alone scares the bejesus out of me, but what do I know? Love you, Maggie, and can’t wait to see you next week in Barcelona!!!!

  4. Great post Maggie! I am too a solo traveler and understand exactly how you feel. Enjoy your last 6 weeks in Europe and see/visit as much as you can!

  5. Maggie, you’re such a badass…you stick it to them haters!!! I have never traveled alone but I would like to try it, and more after reading this! It has always sort of appealed to me because it means you can do WHATEVER YOU WANT and don’t have to visit stuff you’re not interested. No compromises with traveling companions. No discussion about what to do. Lovely! (Does this reflect that I have traveled with my family twice in the past 4 months? Probably.)

    On another note, where you wrote “Cali girl” I read it as “Call girl” twice. I was almost convinced that was actually what it said.

    Can we Skype before you embark on your marvelous adventure?? Maybe Friday night like we were saying?

  6. night for you obvs, afternoon for me.

    ALSO logistical question: are you doing this whole trip with all of the stuff you have in France with you? I assume you are moving out of your apartment when you start the trip…?

    • of COURSE we should skype before this trip happens, so yeah, tmrw night hopefully. and no, thank god, i’m not taking my two huge bags with me on all of this. i’m coming back through gap anyway b/c i fly out of marseille at the end, so i’m just leaving the bags in our soon to be empty apt. they’re not exactly rushing to fill it before next school year.

  7. Pingback: “On est bien à Gap” | Maggie's Gap year

  8. Maggie, my first comment on your blog! Which I have enjoyed reading (but which i haven’t looked at for a couple months…oops!) Traveling alone for an extended period sounds really good, I did it for just two days in London and it was great. And I’m going to be teaching assistanting in the académie de Montpellier next year so I will be trying it and asking you lots of questions sometime soon 🙂

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