“What a lovely surprise to finally discover how unlonely being alone can be.”
~ Ellen Burstyn
They say travel changes you. I know this is true because my travels have slowly turned me into my mother.
My 15-year old self would have been genuinely horrified to learn this. But at 35, I’m surprised to find myself actually rather proud of this fact. From my mom I got my affinity for eclectic home decor, funky jewelry, and NPR. But day by day, as my round-the-world trip progresses, I’m realizing that I’m becoming more like her in some other great ways.
My mom —a university professor, late-blooming hippie, and divorcee of 16 years who lives alone — is too busy with her organic farming teaching career, her network of friends, and the ever-multiplying number of healthy living organizations she’s part of, to succumb to negative outside opinions. She feels no need to be anyone but her real self. The only expectations she strives to meet are her own. And though she is technically alone, she’s anything but lonely.
This is the first month I’ve spent 100% on my own, not traveling with any of my friends, and I was a little concerned that I’d get lonely like I was in the beginning. But (and I say this with deep love and gratitude for my dear friends, whom I enjoyed traveling with)… I am excited to be traveling alone. For the most part, I don’t feel lonely at all.
If traveling solo is an acquired taste, I have most definitely acquired it.
And I’ve learned a lot about myself in the process.
My travels in July, the fourth month of my journey, have taken me from the Greek Island of Santorini to the Adriatic coast of Croatia and north to the breathtaking city of Budapest, Hungary, where I’m taking a travel pause and renting a cute Airbnb flat for three and a half weeks before heading to Ireland and then Asia.
More than one person has asked why I’m stopping for so long in one place.
The official reason? To save money (reckless overspending during my first three months of traveling with friends ate into my budget faster than anticipated). The unofficial reasons? To cool my heels for a bit and rest — four months of continuous travel and nonstop sightseeing in unfamiliar place after unfamiliar place, packing and unpacking on repeat, is both mind-blowingly awesome and extremely exhausting. It’s nice to have a home again, if only for a little while, where I can actually put my things in drawers, and shop and cook food that is something other than pasta and sandwiches.
But also, I was craving writing time. Bad. Like a drug fiend craves their fix.
With nearly a month to hunker down by myself and work on whatever I want, I’ve morphed into a human hurricane of words and ideas. I’m picking up more steam every single day, and funneling the energy into my travel writing and research. I now go for between 8 and 14 hours each day. I’m manning up and taking chances that I wouldn’t have dared do in my previous non-nomadic life. It’s challenging and exhilarating and draining and frustrating and wonderful.
Technically, I haven’t been totally alone.
At my hostel in Zadar, Croatia, I was invited to partake in a home-cooked meal with a sweet couple from San Francisco, plus travelers from Seattle and Croatia. After dinner, the girl from San Francisco, who had just gotten her yoga certification, treated us all to a free post-meal yoga session, followed by bottles of wine all around.
In Zagreb, Croatia, I got to know some really fascinating travelers from Iceland, the U.S. and Pakistan during a tour to stunning Plitvice Lakes National Park. Afterward, we all met up for dinner and drinks. Good conversation and beer flowed well into the early hours of the morning.
During my first week in Budapest, I took a free city walking tour (almost always a reliable source for making roadie friends, I’ve learned).
On that tour I met a super nice British girl, Becky, who was also traveling on her own. We ended up going to a pub crawl later that evening and meeting more awesome folks, including a pair of Aussies, an Irishman, a solo American, and a fun couple who had just moved to the city from Texas.
Often, the only time I feel very alone is when I’m surrounded by adorable couples, as it was when I was visiting Santorini, Greece — a.k.a. the honeymoon capital of the world. Understandably, the couples I encountered there were all much more interested in whispering sweet nothings to each other than hanging out and chatting with a solo American.
For the most part, I genuinely could not be more relieved to be free of the ridiculous drama, self-doubt and stress that inevitably accompanies modern dating. But luckily, most of the travelers I meet on the road are also single, and like me, are traveling the world to explore different cultures and meet interesting people, not to find a spouse. My friends visiting me from San Francisco had a hard time comprehending the idea that I simply don’t think about men and dating as I travel, but it’s true.
Also, before my journey, the thought of eating in a restaurant by myself sounded pathetic. It was as if I thought the people around me would somehow zero in on me and label me an Untouchable. Perhaps they’d pity me and think it sad that I had no friends or boyfriend or husband with whom to enjoy a meal.
But I’ve since perfected the art of dining alone.
Sometimes I get a double take from the maitre d’ when my answer to “a table for how many?” is, “just me.” Occasionally a look of mild panic or concern will flicker across their face and they’ll confirm, “only for one?” and when I reply, “uh-huh” they scurry off to find a table for two somewhere in the back of the restaurant.
Presumably this is so I don’t take up valuable real estate in the center spotlight, which could be used for a handsome couple. Or perhaps it’s so it doesn’t appear that their establishment is a place where sad sack singletons hang out. Or maybe they think I’m embarrassed and don’t want to be seen.
Whatever the reason, this reaction doesn’t bother me anymore. I simply enjoy the scenery quietly with a nice glass of wine, or get out my eReader and get in some Hemingway time (right now I’m plowing through The Sun Also Rises).
One of the best realizations that come from traveling alone for a long period of time is that you’re now many thousands of miles away from the expectations of anybody you know. Old co-workers and bosses, people who knew you when you were a kid, ex-boyfriends, etc. You no longer have those histories and failures and fears and judgements and expectations dictating who you are. It means that there’s nothing stopping your true self from emerging into the world. You’re absolutely free to carve a brand new path and become the purest version of yourself.
My wise mother long ago unleashed her true self on society, and as far as I can tell, most people she meets embrace her just as she is. She’s already learned that the only opinion of her that matters is her own. She does what makes her happy. And though she may live alone, she isn’t lonely.
Who would have thought that turning into your mother could be such a marvelous thing?
Stay tuned for upcoming stories from Budapest!
Categories: My Wanderings: Month-in-Reviews