Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of me atop a mountain at sunset, wearing a straw fedora with my arms outstretched. Nevertheless, I had a glorious time.
By no means am I one of those extroverted types who needs to be constantly surrounded by other people, but when I think about certain activities like dining, travelling and pedalo boating, I tend to get a visual of Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild; dying after mistakenly eating poisonous foliage and scrawling with his last bit of strength, ‘Happiness only real when shared’.
A few weeks ago, however, I decided that I needed to get out of Oxford. A friend once described life here as bulimic; full on for the 8 week terms when there are more classes, talks and social events than you can stomach; and then barren for the 6 week holidays when the undergrads ship out and the only organised events are MCR Settlers of Catan marathons. While the Europeans can easily flit home for a week or two, Australia is just that smidge far away. However, for me there was also the novel prospect of having Europe at my doorstep with flights costing less than a Zara parka. With my friends umming and aahing about joining me, I decided to go it alone.
I spent 9 days exploring the wonders of Copenhagen, Budapest and Vienna. Despite my misgivings, I had the most incredible time travelling solo. Maybe because these cities are not exactly the harsh Alaskan wilderness, and I didn’t have to survive on moose flesh.
- You get a better sense of the places you visit when forced to plan and navigate by yourself. I’ve always played gormless sheep in the past, relying on the excuse that I have ‘no natural sense of direction’ (eg. the first time I tried to drive myself to school after getting my license at 17, I started the ignition…and then sat there having no idea where to go despite having taken the same route to school for 10 years). But just as claiming to be ‘bad with names’ is an excuse for being lazy/uninterested in committing the person’s name to memory, this trip reinforced that being ‘bad with directions’ is just the product of not paying enough attention. Sure it was a steep learning curve and a few times I found myself boldly forging ahead into a dead-end/lake, but enough time consulting maps and exploring on foot and I came to feel that these cities were my stomping ground.
- You’ll always meet people. And the beauty of travelling solo is that you then get to decide how much time you want to spend with them. For example, on the train from Budapest to Vienna, I met this German guy Chris. We had a good chat for the 3 hour journey, and actually arranged to meet up the next day. However, when I got a flurry of messages that evening suggesting that maybe he wanted more than a museum buddy (‘Do you want to go exploring? Vienna at night is soooo beautiful.’ / ‘I would like to meet you tonight at Stephensplatz at 8pm. Will you be there?’) I bailed, saying that I was sick and not sure if I’d last the full day in the city (not because he wasn’t nice, but because I wanted to spend my limited time seeing the city itself). And it wasn’t awkward. Well, at least not until I ran into him at Kunsthistorisches the next day.
- You get to explore at your own pace and indulge your own tastes. Personally, I love getting out early to see as many museums, galleries and sights as possible, throwing in a walking tour here and there, and collapsing with exhaustion in the evening. Others might enjoy a more leisurely pace, or exploring a city’s nightlife. For example, between hammed-up phlegmy wheezes (I was ‘sick’, remember?) I found out that Chris had, in the time I’d powered through the Imperial museums, National Library and Albertina, taken a long city stroll to hunt for breakfast (ending up with a fish sandwich). To each their own.
- No one will judge you for subsisting on cake. Hey, if a poppyseed strudel is ‘traditional’ or a dessert has a name like marmorgugelhupf (marble bundt) or punschkrapfen (fondant fancies), then I’m going to claim it as a cultural experience.
- Travelling alone makes you more assertive and intrepid. With only yourself, often dubious street signs and a dying iPhone to rely on, you are forced to ask questions of strangers and make decisions. No-one else is going to respond to a passive, ‘So, what’s the plan?’. One of my best experiences travelling alone was venturing out from central Copenhagen to Hillerød to see Frederiksborg Palace. This required a little bit of extra research, and asking a few locals for directions, but was totally worthwhile, not only for the magnificence of the castle, but also for the confidence boost. Conquering little challenges in a foreign place gives you total smugface.
- There are always safety concerns when travelling alone. Before I travel anywhere, my parents like to recount the last few episodes of Aircrash Investigations and those Holiday from Hell-type TV shows that discuss people being abducted/swallowed by a hippo/encased in an ice tomb. Stranger danger has been drilled into me from a young age. Some things are obviously ill-advised, like wearing your passport in a clear-cover traveller’s pouch over your clothes (no, just because it’s called a ‘security pouch’ doesn’t mean it’s made of demiguise hair), choosing destinations that Smarttraveller red flags, or arriving/leaving anywhere late at night. But there’s no reason that you should feel uncomfortable travelling alone if you take the right precautions. For me, this meant shelling out a bit extra for central, reputable hotels, and messaging my parents with frequent updates (‘Don’t worry Mum, haven’t encountered any freaks or exotic animals yet’).
- It can be more expensive, particularly not being able to share accommodation or take advantage of 2-for-1 deals. On the other hand, every buck you spend is on things that you enjoy or value. And not having to share a bed with someone who snores like an old bear or thrashes around making snow angels in the bedclothes is always a plus.
- Some experiences are just more fun when shared with friends or family. For example, a couple of friends joined me at the last minute for part of my Budapest travels which meant that I could happily hit up the bars and the baths. I probably would have felt somewhat uncomfortable sitting in a thermal pool alone with 3 corpulent Hungarian men discussing their gout, and wouldn’t have gone out for evening drinks solo. (Also, some activities, like the top recommended one on Tripadvisor for Schönbrunn Palace ie. ‘Getting Married’, just can’t be done alone). That said, there are very few activities that require company, and there are always fellow tourists with whom you can share a conspiratorial look, rapturously gaze at amazing art and architecture, or even share a fish sandwich.
My solo adventures in Copenhagen, Budapest and Vienna really emboldened me. Where before I might have waited to have friends or family to travel with, the fact that I was able to take such pleasure in navigating these unfamiliar environments alone has given me confidence to plan future trips. Corny as it is to say, my solo travelling experience has literally opened up a world of possibilities.