Chapstick, sunglasses, receipts, metro tickets; buried among them, a napkin with inky poetry scrawled on it. My purse is full of mementos from my summer travels, but the napkin is by far my favorite: a tangible remnant of my first experience with solo travel.
My purse is full of mementos from my summer travels, but the napkin is by far my favorite: a tangible remnant of my first experience with solo travel.
After high school, I had planned to visit a friend and several family friends in Europe as a graduation gift to myself – I had stashed away money for it in a savings account since I was 17, and initially only planned to take a two to three-week trip. Those plans were disrupted when COVID hit, putting my travel aspirations on hold – that is, until the opportunity to go abroad this summer presented itself again. This time, though, it would have an extended timeframe of six weeks, and I would spend some stretches of my journey unaccompanied: four days in Paris, one day in Amsterdam, and two days in Berlin. Although I find comfort in spending time with others, I was excited to venture into the unknown on my own. This was going to be my first time going on an international flight by myself, my first time going to Europe, and my first time traveling solo.
While I was outrageously excited to embark on my adventure, I had some hesitations. I have never been geographically-inclined, and the idea of navigating new places in foreign languages was, to say the least, daunting. So, being the Type-A individual I am, I did extensive research on how to get around the cities and countries I would be visiting with the most ease. I considered traveling by airplane between countries and over longer distances, but the carbon emissions from so many trips would have been egregious, and the post-COVID spike in summer tourism would have extended travel times and inflated costs beyond what I could afford. Instead, I opted to pack lightly, taking with me only one mid-sized backpack and one purse, and rely on a 10-travel-day Eurail pass to traverse a total of 9 countries over the course of my two-month trip. Despite missing some aggressively punctual trains, frantically strategizing which journeys required ticket reservations before departure and one instance when water coolant leaked spontaneously from the ceiling of an older train car, making the train my primary mode of transportation was a decision I would make again.
It was because of my commitment to taking the train that I serendipitously met another college student who kept me company during the ride from Paris to the Delft. When I arrived at the station, I found myself getting increasingly frustrated as I strained to understand muffled announcements in French over the loudspeakers. With no written transcript of the messages in sight, I gathered my wits and approached a girl around my age standing nearby. I asked, in high school French, if she could help me translate the overhead announcement, and we quickly realized we were trying to board the same train. Its delayed arrival gave us time to talk about our reasons for spending time in Paris, compliment each other’s outfits, and eagerly ask to sit next to each other during the ride. Once settled, our conversation flowed for hours – though a little rocky at first because of the language barrier, Serena generously offered to speak slowly in French so I could practice. It was such a sweet gesture and worked for making small talk, but trying to have discourse about the healthcare system and immigration politics required a grasp of the French vocabulary I did not have. We opted to then speak English the rest of the ride, though my guilt for having inadequate communication skills still haunts me (and is the reason I now watch all my TV shows in French). Upon arrival, Serena noticed I still had a lost-puppy look in my eyes, and escorted me to where I would catch my next train. We then exchanged social media accounts and a tight hug, and parted ways. I always smile a little when I see her Instagram stories now, remembering her kindness and our serendipitous friendship.
I always smile a little when I see her Instagram stories now, remembering her kindness and our serendipitous friendship.
That said, I can’t say every person I met during my travels was a Serena. Though the majority of people I interacted with were courteous and friendly, I should note that traveling as a woman, especially a petite one with resting-naïve-face, comes with both the perks of getting the occasional free drink or harassment from creepy men (or both – these aren’t mutually exclusive). There was one instance when I was lounging on a bench by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and an older man asked to sit next to me. Thinking nothing of it, I offered him the seat, and he struck up conversation. He explained that he could only speak to me in French since he never learned English, and that he was Italian but worked in Paris as a bus driver. At first, our chance encounter seemed innocent – but within 5 minutes, he had already asked me to get coffee with him, questioned why I wasn’t married at the mature age of 20, if I was by myself, and where exactly I was staying. Sensing he had other intentions, I tried to make a polite and quick escape – but as I got up to leave, he grabbed my wrist and pulled me closer to him. In shock, I tried to pull away, but he held on; with turtle-like speed, he bent down to give me a wet kiss on my wrist. My heart racing, I determined that being cordial was no longer an option. I finally wriggled from his grip and zig-zagged through city streets, ensuring he wouldn’t be able to follow me. Luckily, this was the only frightening experience I had while I was on my own, perhaps due at least in part to the fact that I avoided walking around late at night (save for a few strolls in Berlin) or clubbing alone. Despite the brief discomfort of this situation, creepy-guy-number-one was an anomaly, and I’m grateful to report that no other interactions with strangers elicited naming a creepy-guy-number-two.
Navigating the cities themselves would have been a nightmare if I didn’t have Apple Maps as my trusty guide, but there were several times when I would embrace the chaos and stuff my phone into my pocket, wandering without a destination. I romanticized every stream of sunlight through promenade treetops, each of the many warm cafés au lait and flaky pastries I consumed, and every metro ride I took through winding underground tunnels and across picturesque bridges alike. I never got tired of exploring on foot either, despite walking almost 13 miles per day. Every stroll was an adventure: one turn, and I found myself in a crowd of dozens watching the French elections, live-streamed on a street corner projector; a few blocks down, I stumbled upon the Sacre-Coeur Basilica, just in time to catch the fading sunlight as it crept across the city skyline and retreated into the horizon. Fate has a way of concocting the best itineraries.
Fate has a way of concocting the best itineraries.
Spontaneity didn’t just make me more comfortable with maps and navigation; letting go of my lust for scheduled days also transformed my relationship with food. At first, my gut reaction to eating alone while traveling was one of stress and repulsion. I dreaded looking lonesome, however immature and ridiculous that sounds. Of course, rushing through meals could have made for a band-aid solution to the social anxiety around having lunch or dinner dates for one, but I detested the idea of not being able to savor my food. And, as I came to learn, waiters wouldn’t have it either. Whenever I hurriedly asked for a check, my request was often met with a confused look and I was told to simply “enjoy”: in other words, “no, not yet.” At one restaurant, a flirtatious waiter made me a napkin bracelet to keep me engaged, followed by gifting me a coaster on which he sketched a portrait of me, next to a handwritten “Je t’aime!” in the corner. Whatever disdain I had for solo meals before dissipated instantly – after all, it’s hard to feel isolated in cities full of culinary treasures that were cultivated just for you, delivered on plates by people who have made it their livelihoods to make eating an activity to savor, not scarf down. After that, I always found reasons to stay at cafes and restaurants for much longer than I needed to, whether that entailed scribbling poetry on makeshift paper or simply people-watching from a cozy wicker-chair perch on pavement-side patios.
Above all, I am constantly reminded that I am capable of being my own companion.
Traveling solo recalibrated my senses, allowing me to tune back into my own frequencies. The memories from my adventures are still so palpable and vibrant, I rediscover fragments of them in my day-to-day errands, commutes, and outings. I never do homework during meals anymore. Sometimes, I randomly choose to walk the long way home or wander through nearby neighborhoods I’ve never been to. I always make myself a warm latte in the morning to sip slowly before I start my day. Above all, I am constantly reminded that I am capable of being my own companion. Tranquility has always lied within – I suppose it just took going on a honeymoon with myself to find it.