Traveling alone is an amazing rollercoaster of emotion. In college, I don’t think I was your typical sorority girl thirsty for perpetual social interaction. Sure, I loved my friends, but I could also enjoy my Friday nights propped up in bed reading up on my next travel adventure. Despite my independent nature, I found myself desperate for a friendly face as I made my way around Western Europe.
What was interesting was that these moments of loneliness were also associated with moments of change. Change is also something I sometimes have difficulty accepting. As a teenager, I was such a “planner” that my parents purchased for me Dr. Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? so that I might do a little maturing in that area. Yet when I set foot in Paris one day that June to embark on my two-week journey, it’s like I became a different person. Suddenly, my days became all about change, all about flexibility, and all about making it alone.
If there is one particularly lonely moment in life that I will always remember, it was on a tarmac at the airport in Barcelona, sitting on a rickety plane awaiting takeoff. I was twenty-one, on my first European endeavor, one that I chose to go at independently. The flight was delayed an hour and I was left to write in my journal, listening to the group of tweens around me laughing and conversing in Catalan, almost envying their camaraderie. I was not alone in the most practical sense of the word, but I felt heartache for something or someone familiar.
I had been so happy to be in Europe at all, and proud to have survived a heat wave and first Metro experiences in Paris, that I surprised myself that afternoon as I prepared to depart Barcelona by feeling the pangs of anxiety and yearning for something so simple as companionship. I had just formed what would be long lasting friendships with a few other travelers I met at Kabul Backpackers Hostel that week, and the inevitable departure of each one of us was the change that might have set off those feelings. I was alone once again, heading to Rome for the last leg of the trip, feeling uneasy and unexcited for the final few days. For several minutes, I considered changing plans and staying in Barcelona, a place that had grown familiar. But learning to uproot when it wasn’t always comfortable might have been a pure purpose of my travels.
Luckily, I chose the hostel in Rome well that included a common area with a bar and flat screen TV, perfect for World Cup watch parties. After settling in that evening and deciding to save any sightseeing for the morning, I meandered back to the bar to catch up on the match and attempt conversation with the other guests. Although the room was full and the wine was flowing, I found myself standing alone without a clue as to how to approach anyone. It was like the junior high cafeteria, everyone content in his or her clique and not necessarily open to embracing newcomers. Cue the complimentary Internet access. I felt socially inept and defeated as I slowly made my way through the crowded room to the computers to send a few emails and chat with friends on Facebook. I noticed two American boys around me, talking about their plans for the next day. I don’t know what it is about national pride or relief in meeting your “own kind” abroad, but I instantly felt comfortable to turn to them and say hello. Later, I met several girls that were part of their group and soon enough, we had made plans to visit the Vatican together.
Why was a moment of weakness/loneliness/change also one that I was able to seize? You might anticipate social situations during solo travel to be intimidating, but I would compare it to flight-or-fight response in human nature. Many people have told me that in scenarios of solitude, reaching out for the interaction you know you need feels impossible. However, I felt that navigating any sort of foreign public transportation was also impossible, but I was able to easily adjust when I needed to do so.
An easy answer to the question of dealing with loneliness abroad has always been “Stay at a hostel!” or “Strike up a conversation in line for that gelato!” yet not all personalities find it as easily done. How did I form friendships in Barcelona? Besides the fact that my hostel was known for parties, I was thrown into a room of other independent travelers. I suppose we just understood each other. However, if the situation does arise in a city in which you’re stuck doing everything alone, change your perspective. On that tarmac, I had to remind myself that this loneliness was temporary; that my trip was almost over and in a few days I would be back with my family and back in my comfort zone.
A sense of isolation does not have to retain a negative connotation either when you’re lucky enough to be traveling at all. I visited the Roman Coliseum and ruins by myself, and yes, it was lonely and sweaty and quiet, but I was in Rome. Step back and appreciate the experience as something that helps you grow as an individual. Those experiences made up a life bridge from an “old me” (anxiety-prone and self-doubting) to a “new me” (flexible and confident).
Three months from now, I will be returning to Spain for a summer stint working in a hostel in San Sebastian, a beach town along the northern coast in the País Vasco (Basque Country). Again, this trip has been planned with only myself in mind. I fully expect frequent homesickness, seclusion, and apprehension but now, I know it’s normal and good to feel those things. I created these moments for myself because, just like a painful workout results in higher fitness, challenging myself mentally and emotionally results in a higher mental and emotional fitness, and a greater satisfaction in my maturity as a woman.
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