On She Goes

Going Solo: My European Traveling Experience

When none of my tried-and-true travel companions could join me, I decided to embark on my first solo travel experience.

Mary Alice Daniel
Mary Alice Daniel
May 15, 2017
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Travel can strain even the strongest relationships. The common wisdom is to travel only with people with whom you’d gladly spend a night in a filthy bus station—friends who can lift your spirits even when everything goes wrong far away from home. I’ve been lucky enough to find a few ride-or-die traveling buddies, and, for a long time, I was content inside this comfort zone. However, last summer, none of my usual partners in crime could hop on a plane—so I impulsively decided to travel solo for the first time in my life. On my pioneering solo travel experience, the relationship I hoped to test was the one I had with myself. Could I be self-reliant and responsible? As an extrovert, would I go crazy on my own? Could I be alone with myself?

My itinerary took me through nine European countries in 77 days—on eight planes, three ferries, and two buses. I began in Iceland and continued through large cities and small villages in Portugal, Malta, Greece, Serbia, Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria. With the exception of Croatia, all these places were totally new to me. I chose these destinations through a combination of cheap flight deals as well as more unorthodox methods:

  • Malta—I went to this small island nation in the Mediterranean because I once saw its gorgeous pictures in an in-flight magazine. (This confession answers the question of who actually goes anywhere because of those glossy marketing features.)
  • Bucharest—A good friend’s advice took me to the capital of Romania. Since I’m only ever half paying attention when anyone is talking, I misheard and thought my friend had actually suggested Budapest. I then visited Budapest on her “recommendation” soon after. When she informed me of my mistake, Bucharest became an embarrassing but necessary addition to my bucket list.
  • Slovenia—One of its natural attractions, Lake Bled, looks so peaceful that I Google pictures of it when I can’t sleep. I simply wanted to see how this dreamlike place appeared in reality.

During the trip, I rarely felt lonely, but I sometimes felt ostracized. I traveled to places with very few Black people around, and the novelty of my race attracted unnerving attention. Near Dracula’s strange castle in Romania, locals gawked at me as though I were the real curiosity. I learned to handle these uncomfortable social environments—I’m the queen of culture shock, after all (having grown up on three continents). A favorite coping mechanism: listening to the Beach Boys as I walked around unknown, foreign geography, comforting myself with California Sound.

photo by Mary Alice Daniel

I soon stepped outside of myself and began coping by making human connections. I made friends by inserting myself into conversations I wasn’t supposed to be eavesdropping on. I learned that people in Eastern Europe sometimes think that if you smile for no reason, you must be unbalanced or a fool—so in Serbia, I took great pleasure in smiling extra hard at everyone I crossed paths with, just to see if I could disarm them with a wide grin. It worked! People often smiled back and engaged me in small talk—and once, in a fast-food restaurant, the cashier even offered me a sip of the homemade brandy he kept hidden underneath the register. In Lisbon, during a three-hour walking tour, I gravitated toward a girl because I liked her style. To my delight, I found out that making friends while traveling can be as simple as complimenting an outfit. After the tour, we had drinks, got on two wrong trains, and ate two dinners. That night, I decided that our exploits are what traveling is about. I also decided that traveling solo absolutely doesn’t have to mean traveling alone.

A favorite coping mechanism: listening to the Beach Boys as I walked around unknown, foreign geography, comforting myself with California Sound.

Before leaving, I’d made many avoidable rookie mistakes: I bought a nonrefundable plane ticket for the wrong date, I booked a ferry ticket to the wrong port, and I assumed Greece would be cheap due to its struggling economy. And when I landed in Iceland, my first Facebook post of the trip was “I’m in the airport and literally stuck in the bathroom and I have no idea how to open the door!!!” But with no other option, I soon became more self-sufficient and competent. The first time a man asked me why I was traveling alone, about a week into the trip, I stuttered and stumbled, trying to think of the safest explanation. The second time a man asked the same question, I instinctively responded simply, “Because I want to and I can.” A month into the trip, I wrote another Facebook update: “Day 31. I made it! One whole month traveling on my own! I’m invincible! Nothing can kill me! I laugh at death!!”

photo by Mary Alice Daniel

What I learned, above all? People are good. Trust them. But always trust your gut, as well. Paradoxically, I learned to depend fully on myself while also relying on the kindness of strangers. Frequently lost on the small Greek island of Paros where many streets aren’t labeled, I recall a Good Samaritan memorably instructing me: “Turn right when you smell the dead cat.” As a totally unexpected side effect, I even discovered a secret to increasing self-confidence: Go somewhere—anywhere—where you’ll stand out and thus be stared at all day. You’ll learn to stop caring what strangers think very soon. The more people scrutinizing you all day long, the less you give a damn at the end of it.

photo by Mary Alice Daniel

Since returning, people ask me about the logic and logistics of solo travel. I now see it like this: I want to be a savvier, more independent traveler. I’d like to be able to get up and go explore anything, anywhere without expecting my friends to have the time or inclination. The best feature of going it alone is being able to globe-trot exactly how you want, experimenting with various travel styles. I discovered I’m a big fan of slow travel—my favorite days are those after I’ve checked off everything on my “must see” list and can just ramble and roam at my leisure. Having no one to please but myself—no one else’s tastes to accommodate—began as an intimidating prospect, as I wondered if I could pull off such a long, lonely trip. On my custom-fit adventure, I quickly realized how whimsically I could explore and indulge myself. In Vienna, I saw seven churches in one day and then hunted the best rooftop bar to sample Austrian lagers. On Crete, I searched for the mythical Minotaur. In a beer garden in Bucharest, I contemplated eating a bear.

What I learned, above all? People are good. Trust them.

As my 11-week trip progressed, excitement replaced anxiety as my dominant emotional state. I fell in love again and again . . . and again. I gushed that a new country was “the most beautiful place I’d ever seen” so many times that it became a running joke. I discovered the remarkable hospitality of Greek people, deciding it’s the one place on earth I’d feel comfortable hitchhiking through. I found Belgrade to be a cheaper version of my favorite city, Berlin—gritty, youthful, and artistic. I can see myself living in Lisbon in its colorful Moorish buildings rising up into urban hills. Of all the places I’ve traveled, the ones I miss most viscerally—Lisbon, Vienna, and the Greek isles—are those I wandered through alone.

photo by Mary Alice Daniel

I now feel confident in my ability to cope—and thrive—in almost any unfamiliar environment. This summer, I’ll be traveling to Southeast Asia for 10 weeks—and I’m ecstatic to be doing it solo. As I barhop in Bangkok, handcraft in Hoi An, and take cooking classes in Kuala Lumpur, I wonder this: What mythical creatures will I hunt? What fantastic stories will I return home with? What magical possibilities will I discover within these places—and within myself?