Five years ago, on my 40th birthday, I made a decision. I had been waiting for most of my adult life to travel and see the world. In my early 20’s, I didn’t have the income to afford it. In my late 20’s, I had a spouse who was not as eager as me to travel. In my 30’s, my friends were having kids and settling down. I realized that, if this was indeed a passion of mine, there was no more time to lose. If I was going to do this, I was going to have to do it alone.
And so, close to my 40th birthday, I made the decision to book a flight to London, England. I went alone. And I have been going on my own ever since. It’s been five years since that first big leap, and there have been many adventures in between. Invariably, at some point in the process, someone will ask: “You travel alone? All by yourself? But don’t you…..”
…….get nervous?
……. get scared?
…….get lonely?
I understand these questions, as I asked all of them prior to booking my first international trip. I went into my initial experience thinking: well, it’s better than not going at all. But, my first trip ended up being so much more than that for me. It was thrilling and empowering. And, over the past five years, it has become addicting.
imageBut, don’t you get nervous….
Before my first international trip, I was terribly nervous. I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know if I would be able to navigate the customs of a different culture, I didn’t know if I would be able to find my way around. I picked England for my first voyage, as at least I would know the language. Since that trip, I have branched out quite a bit. I’ve moved from the safety of English-speaking countries to countries like Romania, France, Italy, and the Czech Republic.
I would be lying if I told you I don’t get nervous before each trip. Of course I get a bit anxious. But, I have found that the anxiety usually disappears the minute I arrive in the airport, make it through customs, and start navigating my way. The first time I do anything on an international trip (whether it be hail a cab, order dinner, or go to the grocery store) I get a bit timid. Will anyone speak English? Will I be able to figure out the transportation system? Will I be able to make my way around the grocery store? Will I be able to order dinner in a restaurant? The answer has always been yes.
One thing I do to alleviate my worries ahead of time, is watch youtube videos. Before my recent trip to Italy, for example, I watched a video on the train system. I’m glad I did, as it explained that you have validate your ticket prior to boarding the train by finding a small, easy-to-miss, kiosk. I also watched a video on protocols in the grocery store, where I learned that grabbing fruit and vegetables without wearing plastic gloves is a faux pas. These are little things, but watching the videos ahead of time brought my anxiety level down and raised my confidence.
So, do I get nervous? A bit. But my anxiety lowers with each trip. There is a wealth of information out there online to help me every step of the way. I have never been in a situation that did not sort itself out. Even the moment I was pulled over by Czech police on my way to Cesky Krumlov with a friend. But that’s for another blog.
imageBut, don’t you get scared……
It’s one thing to be a little nervous about social customs, but quite another thing to feel fear. And many wonder if I am not afraid traveling alone as a single woman. Aren’t I worried about being attacked, in a foreign country with no one to help me? And the answer is, yes. As a woman, I am concerned about my safety. But that concern is always there. I approach my lodging at night with my keys out in front of me, ready to quickly unbolt the door. I am wary of anyone walking too closely behind me, especially in the evening. I walk briskly and with intent after 10pm, aware of my surroundings and on alert. But this is my behavior in Heritage Hill, Grand Rapids as much as it is my behavior abroad.
And, at the risk of sounding overly dramatic, I fear for my safety much more in the good ol’ USA than I ever have overseas. After all, my own physical attack was in Chicago at the hands of two all-American boys. Also, America’s obsession with guns is ever present in my mind, especially as a teacher. I breathe easier when I am overseas, knowing the people in possession of firearms are trained professionals. Regardless, there is no predicting violence. And I can’t let a fear of violence stop me from living my life.
In fact, much of my travel is therapeutic for me. Directly after my assault, I curled into a ball. I put on weight. I stopped going out. I was living in fear. It took a few years, and a fair amount of therapy, for me to get my strength back. Traveling alone internationally is a symbol of that strength for me.
My friend Chris was driving me to the airport before my Italy trip, and she said: I’m proud of you. You’re so bad-ass. And it struck me. Yes, it is bad-ass and brave traveling alone. And I’ve been doing it. I’ve been taking my life back in a spectacular way. And each adventure shapes me into the woman I am meant to be.
imageBut don’t you get lonely…..
I was eating dinner at any outdoor cafe in Bologna the night before my return to the states. I was finishing my glass of wine, people watching, and enjoying the music in the square. And I felt lonely. Sitting around me were families walking home from an afternoon of activity, walking their dogs in the square or riding their bikes. I was surrounded by tables of friends, or lovers, or families. And I was lonely. I wanted to share a glass of wine with someone. I wanted a lover to laugh with, to walk home with. I felt sad.
But that feeling came and went, as most emotions do.
Just as I recall the feeling of loneliness, I also recall feelings of extreme gratefulness. I felt grateful when I saw a frazzled woman, trying to juggle exhausted children while her husband walked a few steps ahead of her, oblivious. I felt grateful when I saw a woman staring sadly over the head of a man she no longer loved, a man she felt stuck with, a man who didn’t see her sadness. I felt grateful when I saw a woman trying to shush her spouse as he attempted to argue with her over dinner, his voice level rising. I felt grateful in the perfect silence of the art museum, or on the park bench, or walking the cobblestoned streets while lost in my thoughts.
I felt people’s glances. I felt their slight envy. For a moment, they wished they were me. They wished they were sitting in perfect peace, pouring wine into their glass, and catering to themselves and themselves only. And I have that. I am grateful for it.
So do I get lonely? Sure. From time to time. But, most of the time, I feel free. Grateful. Truly alive. And those times come more often than not. image
Will I continue to travel alone? You bet I will. Just me, my map, and a whole lot of dreams. After all, I am never truly alone. I fall in love with each place I visit, and the place and its people stay with me long after I leave.