For as long as I can remember, I’ve had the giant dream of backpacking through Europe. I never gave too much thought when I was a teenager as to when or how I would do this, I just deep down believed that Europe was where I belonged and I needed to see every inch.
The Journaling Years
Growing up, I kept a travel journal of sorts. **Side note: I actually had about 5 different journals on the go at any given time ** In one particular travel journal of mine, I had written the name of every single country I could think of that mattered to me at all, at the top of each page.
England had its own page, as did France, Italy and Spain (the big ones, as I thought then) and I would get my fancy markers out and painstakingly, so I wouldn’t make a mistake, I would write the name of each country at the top of it’s respective page with my fanciest, swirliest, handwriting.
Whenever I read about a city or heard about a place on that old school Rick Steeves travel show I used to watch on Saturday mornings, I would write it down on its appropriate page in my journal, along with a note about what was actually there or why I should go. The reasons varied and were usually super simple. If I read an article in National Geographic about Tuscan vineyards, fantastic! I’d flip to my ‘Italy’ page and write:
– Tuscany (grapes)
If I borrowed a travel series on VHS (!!) from my local library and the host of the show spent 24 hours in Vatican city? Great! I’ll go.
– Vatican (Lots of pigeons)
If it’s in the journal, then it’s gonna happen! I was an enthusiastic 12 year old, what can I say? I kept this journal going for years, until I moved away to college.
Making It Happen
Fast forward 15 to 20 years, and I’ve done it. I’ve lived abroad and traveled on my own through country after country. I suppose in my younger years, I had some sort of vision that travelling would be the ultimate adventure and would somehow solve all of life’s problems while at the same time, surely it would help me find myself.
In fact, what I never realized until this particular trip, is that every single challenge and obstacle I’ve had in my life has helped me become the kind of person who can book a flight to a random city, pack a bag and go. It may have all started with this way deep down desire to leave my small town and have a bigger life than what I was seeing around me, but it’s all been made possible by each experience since then (and faith, SO much faith…).
All the people I’ve met, all the travels I’ve already done with friends, the cities I’ve lived in, the broken hearts I’ve had, the people I’ve missed….it has all added up and has somehow turned me into someone who can make bold, terrifying, wild choices for herself.
I went into my first solo trip without much of a plan, admittedly, but I still felt like I had an idea of what I would get out of it. Look at me, thinking I know the future. (Ha).
There were parts of this trip that I was expecting to be awful and scary: how am I going to get from the airport to my hostel in a new city? How do I take the subway? Is it called a subway in this country? Am I going to get robbed? What if I lose my passport? Will my phone work? What if no one speaks English? How do I read a map??
Those problems turned out not to be problems at all. They were completely irrational thoughts and if I had just calmed down for four seconds, I would have saved myself some serious mental trauma.
What I hadn’t planned on was the insane loneliness I would feel when walking through Barcelona, looking up at the gorgeous architecture and cathedrals and not having anyone to echo my, “Wow! Look!”. Or the strange sadness when throwing on my prettiest dress, painting my lashes with mascara for the first time in a week and taking myself to the fanciest restaurant I could find in Crete. I hadn’t necessarily planned for the solo coffee trips to the best Madrid cafes, the swims alone in the Mediterranean sea, the 8 hour bus trips between cities making faces at the baby sitting next to me that left me questioning my life choices.
I like to call this next section:
Things I Learned While Crying My Way Through Europe and Wondering Why Every Friend I Texted For Support Told Me To ‘Suck It Up’
.:: I do not like feeling lost ::.
Perhaps this goes without saying or even seems really silly, because who likes being lost? But being ‘lost’ in a place where you speak the language, people look familiar, and you have a nice, comfy bed to sleep in that night is a way different situation than actually being super effing lost in a foreign country where your phone doesn’t work, the money looks different, you can’t always ask for help and you can’t read a map to save your life.
Getting lost in London? I call that a fun Saturday afternoon.
Getting lost in Barcelona, the first day you travel alone when its 15 degrees hotter than the city you were in that morning, when you don’t speak Spanish and you certainly don’t speak Catalan and you realized you may or may not have booked a hostel in the ghetto? *Insert unimpressed face here*
.:: I need people around me ::.
I feel like I just ripped open my soul and let you guys all see my deepest, darkest secret by writing that. That is a hard thing for me to admit. On a good day, I am tough, independent, fearless and confident. I’m full of goals and gumption. On a bad day, I am fragile, sensitive, worried and filled with fear and anxiety. On my good days, I appreciate my friends but sometimes feel like I don’t know how to connect with them. I understand their love and support on some cerebral level, but don’t always allow myself to take it in.
Perhaps I had to rely on myself a lot while growing up. Maybe I was forced into being a bit too independent a bit too early. Both are true, and now it’s a balancing act to let go of some of my rough edges while keeping the truest parts of myself. I always have the fear that if I rely on others a bit too much, then I will forget what I’m capable of on my own.
If I admit that I desperately need to hear encouraging words from friends sometimes, then maybe my own thoughts written down become meaningless to help me when I need them to. Travelling alone was yet another lesson to help me see that I don’t need to do life alone and that relying on people to give me a push, adds to experiences, it doesn’t take away.
.:: I am still not a party girl. I am still totally okay with this ::.
Maybe I missed the boat. Maybe I grew up too fast. Maybe I had a nerdy youth, valuing books over beer. In any case, when travelling in Barcelona and getting asked by the 19th Australian I met that day to go clubbing beginning at 3am, I can confidently smile and say, “nah, mate!” and still rest easy.
.:: I have grown leaps and bounds since moving to London ::.
It seems like an obvious thought, but on a day to day basis, I really don’t feel like life is that different. Every once in awhile though, you get a nice reminder that things happen the way they happen for a reason and that there are bigger things going on that are beyond what you yourself can see. I wouldn’t have been able to travel alone if I first hadn’t moved to London alone.
.:: A smile goes the longest way when you don’t speak the language ::.
Always true. And true even when you DO speak the same language.
.:: Travel is manageable when you know you can leave ::.
This realization is what made me say, ‘okay, just one more city…’ after my first difficult day alone. And then my second. And then my third. Knowing that at any point, I had the power to change things and that I was travelling on purpose and not because I had to, really helped.
This wasn’t a program I signed up for or a entire lifestyle change with lots riding on it. It wasn’t something that affected other people in any way. I traveled for myself and myself only, and knowing I could choose to stop travelling at any point made things seem less serious.
.:: I’ve learned what it feels like to push myself physically, mentally and emotionally all at the same time ::.
Travel can be tough. The physicality of racing through airports, sitting on cold bus station floors, sleeping on creaky, old bunk bed mattresses, being squeezed in the middle seat on a 4 hour plane ride…and doing this all while carrying your heavy luggage over your shoulder, can take its toll. Not to mention the sheer amount of walking you do when you explore a new city.
Then there is the navigation and map reading, when maybe that’s not your strength, forcing yourself to talk to strangers and to try to make friends, being WAY out your comfort zone, feeling lonely but also feeling like you shouldn’t be, experiencing insane excitement at realizing you are living out your dreams…I could go on. It’s taken its toll on me for sure, but knowing I’ve pushed myself in so many ways, when I was already getting something great of this deal (travel!) is a perk on top of a perk.
.:: I need to be way less hard on myself ::.
I travel for me, no one else. Only I know what I want to get out of my travels and some of that can’t quite be articulated and maybe shouldn’t even be shared. Travel is personal and it is huge. There are situations in this world that I was meant to be a part of, friends I was supposed to meet, seas I was meant to swim in, foods I was supposed to try…
Sometimes with travel, it’s really, really easy to forget why you did it in the first place. You have guidebooks telling you where to go, friends telling you what not to miss, suggestions coming from all sorts of sources. It’s simply impossible to see it all and I for one, can get really down on myself for missing out on the must see’s, that in the end, are just must see’s for someone else.
I’ve learned to be more clear with myself about the things I want to see and do and also the amount of time I want to spend doing those things, otherwise, other voices can drown out my own.
So I went to Greece and didn’t eat feta. I went to Barcelona and didn’t see Sagrada Familia. I only spent two days in Madrid instead of the 4 that were recommended to me. I spent 4 days in Paris, when I was told by several people that that was too many. I didn’t get high in Amsterdam! It’s easy to get overwhelmed and to beat myself up because I can’t live everyone else’s travel fantasy. I just needed to learn to come back to my own personal reasons for travel and trust that I would see and do the things that were meant for me.
Coming Home (…wherever that is)
By the end of my first solo trip, safely back in London with the kindest of friends, I can see that I’ve learned so much more than I was expecting to. There are parts of me that feel as though they’ve been burst wide open and my dreams get to be a bit bigger now, because my experiences have been bigger. Then there are other parts of me that feel as though they’ve been glued back together again. I spent a lot of time alone and a lot of time challenging myself. I purposely pushed myself out of my comfort zone and that in itself has stretched my thinking and opened my eyes to what I can do in the future.