The sky was nestling into velvety sapphire, the sun slipping behind rolling hills, and the red tile roofs stretched out like a doll village below. The bell tower was silent and empty around me.
Being alone gets a bad rap sometimes. Indisputably, we all need those close, two-peas-in-a-pod friends. But going solo can be an amazingly enlightening and strengthening experience. I remember a time when I would skip an event I really wanted to check out if I couldn’t find a wingman (or wingwoman). The idea of venturing around Eastern Europe alone initially seemed at best a pipe dream, at worst just plain stupid. Yet it was also a fleeting chance: recently graduated, “real life” waiting on the horizon — when else would I be able to tackle my bucket list head-on, on my own terms? As I booked a flight to Berlin, for once I didn’t allow any overanalyzing or second-guessing. Unsurprisingly, it was an incredible three weeks. It was also a series of ups and downs, but taking the plunge and doing it on my own left me with a few insights.
You’re tougher than you think.
The minute you’re lugging a suitcase alone across a cavernous Hungarian train station, or faced with a dinner menu that might as well be written in astrophysics equations, traveling solo begins to seem like a questionable idea. There’s no one to follow, no one else to bravely ask a stranger for help, no one to chuckle ruefully with over your hopeless sense of direction. But you figure it out. You stumble a bit, bruise your pride, waste some time, but you get where you’re trying to go, find something edible to order, and often stumble across something incredible in the meantime. And when you do, a delicious satisfaction arises in knowing you had the guts and smarts to figure it out on your own.
You will get lonely (and that’s ok).
As much as I loved being on my own, there were moments when something reminded me of home or a friend, and I suddenly felt a million miles away, stranded in Timbuktu. No matter how many awesome people you meet or amazing places you visit, at some point a familiar face would be a welcome sight. But feeling lonely doesn’t mean you’re any less self-sufficient or strong. It’s all about finding the things that make you happy, not being afraid to enjoy them, and knowing when to put FaceTime to good use.
It’s the unexpected moments that mean the most.
I’m a planner. And traveling alone, it seemed like a good idea to be prepared. But some days, like my first in Prague, I just picked a direction and started walking. Here’s the thing about Prague: all the streets resemble the twisting cobblestone paths found in fairy tales. One minute you’re passing a tourist-packed bakery, and the next you’re in a misty forest scaling steep stone and dirt steps (or does that only happen to me?). You somehow end up at a hilltop observation tower, and then all of Prague is magically laid out below you. With no one to plan with, it’s easier to simply wander (and get lost) by your own whim, and there’s something sweet about not having to share that discovery moment.
The best encounters are the random ones.
Random encounters occur, well, randomly (shocker), whether you’re alone or with a friend. But when there’s no one with you to puzzle over nonsensical train schedules or exclaim at stunning views, you’re more likely to strike up a conversation with whoever is nearby, however random that might be. I probably would have whispered to my companion over the doodads in a Prague antiques shop instead of chatting with the banged-up shopkeeper about the perils of biking home from the pub (take his bandaged arm as a lesson, folks). Or missed bashing the Hungarian train system with two British guys as we sat in the luggage compartment on a train with fewer seats than passengers. Obviously this calls for common sense, but it’s also an opportunity to meet some of the most interesting people in the world (literally).
It’s about finding the place that clicks.
For each city I visited, there was that neighborhood or café where everything slid into place and I felt like I belonged, like that was my place. From the funky hipster markets of Berlin’s Kreuzberg to the vibrantly graffitied, café-lined Jewish quarter of Budapest, I only had to set foot there to feel more content. That discovery of the spot where I feel more like a local than a tourist is one of the best parts of traveling in my book, and wandering the city streets on my own left my way open to find it.
It’s ok to be selfish sometimes.
Let’s be real here: part of the reason I wanted to travel alone is so I could go wherever and do whatever I wanted. Maybe that’s a bit selfish and inflexible. But we have a right to follow our own hearts and guts sometimes, to do something completely our own way. To do something just because we want to. Pure and simple. There’s plenty of time for obligations and compromises. I wouldn’t have had the same experience, discovered the same wonders, had the same insights about myself, if I had been traveling with someone else. It’s like that double chocolate cookie you know you want — we all deserve a little self-indulgence every once in a while, right?