When people find out you’ve made plans to travel alone, they tend to say two things:
“You’re going to have so much fun,” and
“You’re going to meet so many people.”
Until our technology catches up with Total Recall, though, the outcome of such a trip is anything but certain. At home or abroad, you’re the sole proprietor of your own good time. Also, meeting people overseas requires just as much effort as meeting people downtown: you still have to approach, initiate, and risk being utterly misunderstood. If winning over strangers isn’t already your thing, a change in geography won’t automatically turn you into Bill Clinton. I had to find out as much the hard way.
I used to be the most poorly travelled person of anyone I knew. Sure, I wanted to see other countries, but I’d never made it further than making plans to make plans. I’d phoned friends up with ambitious ideas, taken noncommittal agreement as gospel truth, and then waited for months before following up. It was a wish-fulfillment strategy that made The Secret look pro-active.
Finally, I decided to stop waiting for the right permutation of schedules and bank accounts, and just get my first trip out of the way. I wanted to see as much of the world as possible, as quickly as possible. I called a travel agent and set a course for Europe. Alone. Without a more congenial friend around to ensure that we would, in fact, have so much fun and meet so many people. On March 10th, I embarked on a whirlwind tour by myself, spanning four countries in two weeks. These are some of the things I learned.
1. Sightseeing Alone is Pretty Great
As it turns out, the best part about traveling alone is that you never have to answer the question, “What are we going to do next?” When the only person affected by each decision is you, the stakes are exponentially lower. Not every single moment has to be significant and nobody ever has to find out how boring you are.
As the sole architect of your schedule, you can take as long as you want doing whatever you want. If while headed toward a cool-looking obelisk you happen to notice an even cooler looking obelisk in the opposite direction, you can just change course without consulting anybody. Plans remain forever in flux. The Coliseum will still be there after you systematically search every gelato shop in Rome to find one that carries Mascarpone and Fig–and it’s a relief to not have to explain as much to anyone.
Being alone also alters the internal experience of sightseeing. People traveling together are like new couples watching movies—if the two verdicts don’t exactly match, they’re at least informed and tempered by each other. Without another person’s words and facial expressions to weigh and factor into an official opinion, your instant reaction to any experience tends to be what you remember most. When you’re alone and the fullness of the Jardin de Luxembourg hits you in the chest like a tidal wave of hammers, it’s a feeling you own and it doesn’t go away immediately.
2. Meeting People Is Almost Easy
For the painfully self-conscious, meeting new people can feel like trying to solve emotional quadratic equations–a fumbling exercise in determining where one’s hypothetical discomfort ends and the other person’s actual discomfort begins. As intimidating and “cold call”-ish as it feels to engage strangers, though, actually talking to real, live people in foreign countries works better than the Internet for finding off-the-grid activities. It’s easier said than done, but it doesn’t have to be hard. Just shove your camera toward anyone you want to talk to and make the universal gesture for “Please take this dumb Facebook picture of me.” That should at least get the ball rolling.
People appreciate it when you talk to them in their own language without asking if they speak English first, even if you’re reading a question right out of a book. Using a phrasebook successfully is like reciting charm spells from a book of incantations. You speak these unknown words that feel unnatural on your lips, and watch the spark of recognition flicker in someone else’s eyes. Then he or she either responds in French, or switches over to English. Abracadabra. Starting off this way makes interactions go a lot smoother, even if half the time you end up hitting an impasse.
The positive side of the language barrier is that the anxiety from having no idea what anybody is saying turns out to be an emboldening motivator for meeting your fellow expatriates. The forced, sustained muteness when you don’t speak the local language is so disorienting that when you finally hear people speaking English in a café, you’ll make a beeline right over and the words will tumble out as though escaping from brain-prison.
3. Going Out Alone at Night Pretty Much Blows
The key to having a wild night out when you’re traveling alone (besides “so much alcohol,” probably) is to meet people during the day and make plans to tag along with them later. Locals tend to be much more receptive to solo tourists when the sun is still out. Alone at night, it’s a different story.
Just about any lone male traveler looking for fun is bound to bump up against a certain look at some point, one that says:
“Why is this person prowling the streets alone under cloak of night?”and
“How afraid should I be?”
It’s the cross we bear for the creeps among us. (Thanks, creeps!) The important thing to remember when someone looks at you like an emissary from Planet Rohypnol® is that you’re not a creep (unless you are an actual creep; in which case, stop being that), and you have a legitimate reason for approaching locals.
If you’re a dude in Barcelona, going out alone at night has drawbacks related to who will talk to you, rather than who won’t. The city famously has a late night culture which doesn’t really get going until 2AM or so. Upon arriving around that time at La Rambla street, the central artery of Barcelonan nightlife, you’ll be immediately besieged by a fleet of hookers who’ve attended the Dale Carnegie school of “a sale begins at ‘No.’” There’s only so many times you can politely deflect a series of sales pitches from wretched prostitutes before breaking out into a dead run toward the metro. (For me, it was ‘nine.’)
4. Loneliness Is a Gift
After spending enough time as a stranger observing another country by yourself, it almost feels like you’re haunting the place rather than visiting it. Traveling alone means you’re going to get lonely. At a certain point, you just come to crave the familiar conversational rhythms and the security that comes from being around people you know, who know you well.
Something great happens then, though: being away from your own life for a while without a friend or significant other to keep up continuity gives you the perspective to realize what’s so great about your life. If being alone in another country is like being a ghost, then coming back is like being resurrected.
It’s important to be comfortable with being alone, but nobody should feel too comfortable with it. That’s why, if you’re a person who spends a significant amount of time by yourself—say, a writer, for example—to become fully aware of what other people mean to you is to receive a tremendous gift. Re-learning the value of the people in your life brings you closer to accepting and embracing everybody altogether, which is basically the definition of grace.
Whether through meeting strangers or missing friends, traveling alone ultimately has a way of turning a solitary soul into a people-person, if only temporarily. The patron saint of introverts, Jean-Paul Sartre, famously said that hell is other people. In all likelihood, though, that man never took a vacation.