An excerpt from my personal journal: “Friday March 9th, 2018. JFK International Airport.”
I had no idea how long the journey from Manhattan to the airport would take and I figured it would be better to be on the safe side and leave early. Good thing I chose to do that! For starters, I spent 20 minutes standing on the wrong platform in the subway…
The first day of Spring Break didn’t find me tanning under a tropical sun, relaxing in bed, or putting on my boots for a day of hiking in the Adirondacks — even though that’s what all my friends were doing. I’m not one to follow the pack, so to speak.
Last week I threw caution to the wind and boarded a flight to Europe — alone. You read that right. Alone. Without a school group, without my parents, without even my friends.
This trip wasn’t entirely spontaneous. I don’t throw that much caution to the wind. But when my original Spring Break plans with friends fell through, I decided not to cancel my plane tickets and instead embark on a solo journey.
At times it was scary, at times it was frustrating, and at times it was definitely lonely but it was also one of the best gifts I’ve ever given myself. It’s satisfying now to know that I can be alone for a whole week, and that I can make my way safely from country to country. In fact, I think the biggest disaster that befell me was that I accidentally ordered the apfelstrudel with vanilla sauce rather than without, which was an additional three euros.
What I’ve learned about vacations is that you need to be okay with opening your wallet. Go to a nice restaurant. Pay the steep admission fee to enter the palace rather than admire it from the outside and speculate about what lies within. It’s really easy to get to your vacation destination and hold on to your normal penny-pinching ways.
Whenever I considered getting the cheaper but less tasty option on the menu, I remembered all the things I had told myself during my long hours of work over winter break. I remembered that I had earned the chance to finally relax and do what I wanted. Not what my professors wanted, not what my coaches or parents wanted, but what I wanted. Sometimes this meant going down streets because they looked interesting or paying to enter a museum even though I knew it took three hours of cleaning the creamer tank at my local coffee shop to afford it. Other times it meant sitting on a bench and enjoying the view or eating the desert course first.
It was hard to let go of certain expectations. I knew the city I was visiting was famous for its nightlife. I felt pressure to go experience it because that’s what other people had told me to do. It was hard to shake the guilt but I’m so glad I did. Instead of staying up and going to bars, I went to bed early and woke up at dawn to wander streets that were ordinarily full of people. Just as cities appear differently at night, so too are they marvelous in dawn’s rosy glow.
One thing I did pressure myself into doing was having a beer. I managed to drink the whole thing, but I won’t lie to you, like I lied to myself at the time — I really don’t like beer. If I had been traveling with a friend, I think I would have felt pressure to drink everyday. That’s a far more expensive lifestyle than my coffee habit. Luckily, after the one beer I wasn’t ashamed to skip the alcohol and instead buy more coffee for the rest of the trip.
One of the best things I did for myself was to purposefully enter into uncomfortable situations. It’s easy to hide behind your foreignness with another foreigner. It’s easy to create a bubble with your conversations and become entirely oblivious to what’s going on around you.
Traveling alone pops the bubble. I was uncomfortable every time I tried to order my morning coffee and when I went to church on Sunday. The mass was entirely in another language. If they spoke any Latin, I couldn’t understand it through their accents. During the mass I lost track of where we were and was wiping my nose right when the woman in front of me turned to shake my hand as a sign of peace. I couldn’t pronounce “brauner” correctly so the barista thought I wanted a brownie.
These experiences, while uncomfortable, are ones that I will remember far longer than which beach I didn’t go to or which mountain I didn’t climb. Traveling alone was one of the more difficult things I’ve done in my life — but I don’t think I’ve ever felt so alive.