Foreign, Or 101 | On Traveling Alone
Updated: Feb 20
Moving across the world wasn’t the worst part.
I knew WhatsApp would be the umbilical cord strapping me to my life before, a tool to harmonically prod my friends and family and remind them of my existence. I knew the Americans would like me and I knew I had enough credit cards to pay my way out of any real crisis.
What terrified me was walking the streets with a hesitant gait, being mistaken for a blundering tourist when I was, in fact, a paid-up New Yorker in training.
My first day in an apartment not a flat was a 12-hour struggle to get out of bed. My whole life was waiting for me 15 floors below but inside my tiny studio was the internet and TV and podcasts and the quiet hum of my brain. Here, I was still plugged into society as a functioning adult. There — outside — I was a weekend freak with no friends and brunch plans.
Blundering in a group is the premise of an HBO comedy. Blundering alone is pathetic.
Because, however many articles are written on “the joys of traveling alone” — however many Elizabeth Gilberts make money and however many Christopher McCandless conspiracies are formed — you are still operating outside of the norm if you do so. Women drinking alone at bars are assumed to be prostitutes. Tour guides look pained when they cannot fill the extra seat next to you on the bus.
No-one is there to watch your stuff when you want to swim in the sea.
The world bestows a certain embarrassment on the solo traveler, heaping it on top of their already crippling foreign ignorance and fear of the unknown. My solution has been to pretend.
In the times I’ve felt judged for showing up in a restaurant sans dining partner, I tell myself I’m a business traveler, flown from Minneapolis or Miami at the eleventh hour. I act like I do this every week and exude Big Deal Energy: I want the room to know I’m far too busy with tomorrow’s merger to care that I’m here on my own.
When I’ve felt ashamed for showing up on the walking tour without a gaggle of hungover friends, I tell myself I’m a European travel journalist with a deadline to hit. At the cinema I’m a movie critic. And so on and so on, until I am able to tap into that energy without having to mentally skim through the day’s completely fictional script.
In my experience, it’s all worth it.
I don’t need to write about how traveling alone means you can wake up whenever you want and go wherever you want. I don’t need to lay out how it means you can eat in the best restaurants in the world without a reservation and snag tickets to the theater less than an hour before the curtain goes up. I certainly don’t need to use phrases like “finding yourself” and “personal growth” and, God forbid, “eat, pray, love”.
No. I travel alone because it makes me proud of the person I am. Hurtling down the highway under the Massachusetts stars I get to breathe, smile, and remind myself I did this all by myself. I get to say I’ve seen the world and I’ve seen it on my own terms. No-one booked the flight or bought the ticket. No-one’s dad chauffeured me to the airport.
I did it all and I did it all for me. I get to feed my own ego the healthiest diet there is.
And yet when I’m back in New York, facing the other side of the bed, the memories that come to me are not those of silent sunsets and strangers in dorms but of headphones shared and fights over maps and two of us collapsing, exhausted, onto unchartered mattresses. And it makes me really sad.
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