This was the summer I finally did something I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time.
I went to Europe for two weeks… by myself!
I’d been to Europe twice previously: once when I was 12, and once when I was 22. After that latter trip to Italy, I was really bitten by the travel bug. I would read all the travel columns in the paper, research off-the-beaten-path destinations, and have dreams of being abroad. So I told myself that once I got a job, I’d do a trip. I’m not sure if I’d always envisioned it as a solo journey, but as my planning got more intense and things began falling into place, it became an exclusively Sarah trip.
Besides my family, I have travel guru Rick Steves to thank most. I bought his books (for months, I could not get my nose out of Europe Through the Back Door 2014), I watched his videos, I read his columns… this is the guy to follow if you are planning anything Europe-related. In fact, I had almost as much fun planning my trip as I did actually traveling!
My trip included London, Paris, and Salzburg. Of these places, I’d only ever been to London, and that was 15 years ago; but I remember having such a ball in that city, I had to go back. (Plus they speak English and many of the museums and attractions are free, so it was a great place to start.) I speak embarrassingly little French and German for a music major, but I got along fine everywhere I went.
That isn’t to say it was a dream-come-true all the time. Being alone in big and new cities for two weeks was sometimes scary, lonely, and boring. There are so many pros to traveling solo, like following your own schedule and saving money, but so many things I saw I wished I could have shared with someone else.
Still, part of the reason I went was to embrace being alone and see what I would learn from it. Here’s what didn’t happen:
- I didn’t become much if any more assertive. There were several opportunities when I could have spoken up about it being my turn next in line, or about paying my dinner bill, or asking people to take my picture. Sometimes I did these things, sometimes I didn’t. Now I can get fed up with people just like anyone else. Once in Salzburg, I was getting so frustrated at my waitress for seemingly having forgotten about me that I almost just left some money and took off. But I wanted the other staff members to know that I was angry, so I walked into the restaurant (I had been eating outside) and asked a random waiter for my bill. My own waitress was sitting down eating lunch, and, with her mouth full and completely nonchalantly, she told him where I was sitting so he could collect it for me. (Turns out you do have to flag waiters down in Europe… but you aren’t expected to tip!) So, yes, when things start getting absurd, I speak up about them. But I’m still much more likely to exercise patience. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
- I didn’t really meet other travelers. Here and there I met a few people- I can think of five off the top of my head, and two of them didn’t even share their names. By and large, I seemed to be the only person around who was traveling alone. Now I know that was almost certainly not true. If I had been hosteling, I probably would have met dozens of people. But I wasn’t. I was airbnb-ing. I knew my hosts and that’s basically it. This probably also has something to do with me being a more reserved person. I wasn’t about to head to bars or restaurants late at night in any city. I wasn’t there for the social scene. But everything I read about how easy it was to find other people traveling didn’t seem to be true in my case.
- I didn’t feel fundamentally different after I came home. I did feel like Tom Hanks in Castaway for a few days, and I know that sounds ridiculous since our situations were nothing alike, but my trip seemed so, so long that coming back was such a shock- a good shock, but a shock. I remember ordering lunch at McDonald’s at South Station in Boston and being so relieved at not having to ask, “English?” My apartment seemed so normal, and I loved that. But I didn’t feel like a changed person. Maybe I should. Lots of people who knew I was going were so thrilled and impressed at my endeavor. I think that’s because my personality doesn’t scream Adventurer/Solo-Traveler/Backpacker. But I am the kind of person who knows deep down when something just has to be for me. And Europe had to be. And it was. I teared up upon seeing some of the sights I had been craving for years. I kept telling myself, “You’re here!” And I really did enjoy myself. But I don’t feel that different.
That’s what didn’t happen. Here’s what did happen:
- I traveled twice across the Atlantic alone. I don’t like flying. I wouldn’t say I hate it, but I’d rather not fly if I don’t have to.
- I spoke five different languages at some point: English, Spanish, French, Italian, and German. I also gave a few people the silent treatment, which is the universal language for “Leave me alone!”.
- I traveled with one backpack and a small drawstring Mount Holyoke day bag. My mother, who was in North Carolina while I was in Europe, was stressing about fitting all her stuff in one bag for a five day trip. I told her she could absolutely do it.
- I lost a bit of weight. That’s what happens when you walk miles and miles a day and eat grab-and-go food.
- I learned to care less about what I looked like. I guess that’s kind of a big deal, actually. In the mornings, it came down to, “Would you rather spend more time on your hair and makeup, or go see the Tower of London? Which are you going to care about more in the long run?”. I didn’t roam the cities looking like a slob, but I didn’t let other people’s expectations of me dictate how I spent my time.
- I tried escargot! Contrary to Mary-Kate Olsen in It Takes Two, it did not taste like a balloon. It was rather good.
- I went to concerts! I attended a string concert in London, an organ concert in Paris, and a piano concert in Salzburg. They were beautiful.
- I sang Feed the Birds on the steps of St. Paul’s and didn’t care if other people heard me.
- I stood in the room where Mozart was born and tried to inhale in genius.
- I also jumped around and sang like Fraulein Maria in Salzburg while a kind person took my picture. Who cares?!
- I hoisted myself onto a lion in Trafalgar Square and barely made it up, but I had to recreate a picture of my grandfather during the war and there was no way I was not getting up there.
- I navigated via bus, bike, and train with minimal confusion.
- I finished Harry Potter 7 and Memoirs of a Geisha, read A Great and Terrible Beauty, and began David and Goliath and Yes, Please. Good sensory memories!
- I also took a bunch of short videos of me with famous attractions in the manner of Forrest Gump.
I said I would do it, and I did it. I’m proud of myself and I’ve got a bunch of great memories and pictures (including selfies galore- no shame!).
That’s one major item off my bucket list!