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!

 

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Chillin’ with the Habsburgs

Let’s talk ANTM—America’s Next Top Model, of course.  If Prague were an ANTM contestant, she’d be the edgy girl who, when it comes to makeover time, gets feminine, wavy extensions put in over the jet-black, spiky do she came in with (how will she overcome such a drastic change of identity???).

Vienna is the classic, aristocratic beauty.  Her cheekbones cut glass, her pores are so tiny they make you want to die, and she knows how to take a good photo from the first challenge…doesn’t everybody?  Okay, moving past the way-too-specific metaphor, Vienna is gorgeous.  Had it not come after Prague on the trip, I think I would’ve liked it even more, but whaddayagonnado?

We spent the first day in the center of Vienna, starting in Stephansplatz and making our way to the Hofburg Palace (Habsburg hangout #1), where we saw more cutlery (and chamber pots) than I ever really cared to see.  The audio tour through the Imperial Silver Collection really got me in touch with my aristocratic side.  “The 30-metre Milan Centerpiece is clearly superior to its predecessor, the Old French Centerpiece, in its gold carvings and pristine mirror plateaus.”  I recently considered buying a shirt that was dry clean only.

The ticket also included admission to the Sisi Museum, a more relaxed exhibit dedicated to the myth surrounding Elisabeth, the reclusive wife of Emperor Franz Josef whose popularity rose drastically after she was assassinated by an Italian anarchist.  This was my favorite part of the visit.  Elisabeth was a weird lady.  She was completely obsessed with her looks and weighed herself every day, adhering to crazy diets in order to stay below 103 pounds (She was 5’8”.  If that’s not shocking to you, don’t talk to me, you skinny bitch).

By the end of the visit, I felt pretty bad for Franz Josef.  After the Sisi Museum, we went through the royal apartments.  Franz Josef’s study proudly displays several portraits of his wife, including a big one right in front of the desk that served as the 19th century equivalent of desktop wallpaper.  Elisabeth’s study features an exercise machine of her own invention and a set of rings mounted in the doorway.  Right in the next room is the bathtub where she periodically sat for a full day while attendants washed her knee-length hair in a mixture of cognac and egg yolk.  Something just doesn’t add up here…

We rounded out the first day with a trip to the Leopold Museum, best known for its Egon Schiele collection.  Habsburgs in the morning, tortured Austrian expressionist in the afternoon.  Instead of trying to describe Schiele’s work, how about I just let it speak for itself?

      

I had never even heard of Schiele before this trip, but it turns out he did some incredible work, especially considering he died in 1918.

We spent the last full day in Vienna at Schloss Schonbrunn, the Habsburgs’ summer residence.  Just think Pride & Prejudice, but multiply Darcy’s mansion by about twenty.  Many of the gardens had already been dug up for winter, but we were just in time for beautiful fall color. It was a nice last day of an exhausting vacation, which came off surprisingly well (if I do say so myself).

       

Five lesser-known reasons to visit (and fall in love with) Prague

5. Their currency is seriously cool.

Although Prague is generally less expensive than other big-name European capital cities, it’s almost a shame to spend any money at all, unless it means discovering a banknote you haven’t yet seen!

The bills feature important figures in Czech history and culture.  At the time, I didn’t have the 5000 or 2000 notes, but they show, respectively, TG Masaryk, an incredible politician who, among many other accomplishments, defended a Jew in the Czech equivalent of the Dreyfus Affair, and Emma Destinova, one of the greatest opera singers of all time (and a woman…imagine!).  On the notes in the picture are a politician-historian; one of the most beloved Czech author(esse)s, Bozena Nemcova; a teacher, scientist, all-around smart guy; and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and the guy who gave Prague its most famous landmarks.

Finally, instead of stamping their coins with the floating heads of random presidents (seriously, Dwight Eisenhower?), Czech coins show awesome things like this:

4. The street musicians are actually really talented.

Based on a sample size of two (my research methods professor told me that’s sufficient), Prague street musicians are better than the average subway station accordionist.  I walked across the Charles Bridge on two different days and saw two great bands.  One was kind of jazzy, a sax, clarinet, trumpet deal.  The other was a little more honkytonk (wonder how you say that in Czech?) and featured a tuba, washboard, and vocalist, plus these superstars:

And yes, that is a cigarette in the trumpet player’s left hand.  So, maybe try to get to Prague before this guy’s lung capacity drops too low.

3. Prague looks good, even in the rain, or covered in graffiti, or drizzled with bechamel sauce (probably).

Some cities just can’t stand up to bad weather or the slightest bit of dirt.  Prague has all the beauty of Paris, but you don’t feel like you’ve seen it all before in a movie or on a postcard.  Passing from the historical sections of Prague into places like the bustling, commercial Wenceslas Square, I noticed the increased use of neon signs and a few more McDonalds, but the buildings were still more charming than the average high-rise in an American city.  Plus, when in doubt, just paint it in a pastel shade of green, pink, or yellow.

2. SmetanaMANIA

Anyone who’s known me for awhile knows that several coincidences led me to start rooting for the Green Bay Packers back in the third grade.  In the same way, in the 8th grade, Bedrich Smetana’s ‘Moldau’ became the first piece of classical music I ever bought on CD.  And though I knew Smetana was from Bohemia, I wasn’t expecting the widespread worship he still receives in Prague and probably in the Czech Republic in general.

As I said, it was coincidence that led me to this particular piece of music; I haven’t been listening to Beethoven’s piano concertos since I was eight or anything like that.  Smetana is (I think) not as well-known in the US as his compatriot, Antonin Dvorak.  In Prague, he’s hailed as the father of Czech music,and I, for one, couldn’t be happier.

This is from the Prague Municipal House, or city hall, famous for its Art Nouveau styling. Smetana and Dvorak are the farthest to the right.

1. It’s good to be reminded how hard some peoples have fought for their cultural identity.

Excuse me while I go all polisci major for a sec, but it was inspiring to see how proud Czechs are of their culture and history.  Now, I’m regrettably ill-versed in Central and Eastern European history, but even I picked up on the pride Czechs have in their country and their capital city after years of fighting and protesting to claim their own identity.  It would be hard not to notice–you see it in their currency, their municipal buildings, their street names.

This open, yet somehow unassuming pride is really refreshing.  While I don’t believe the stereotype that all French people are snobs, I do sometimes think they consider it a foregone conclusion–to the extent that it’s not worth reiterating–that French philosophers, artists, and writers have been indispensable to the development of Western culture.  Americans are stereotyped as not letting you forget their country’s more recent role in this development.  Maybe both groups are right, but the sincerity with which Czechs celebrate their own heroes is distinct and, for lack of a better word, totally cool.