The Ups and Downs, Ins and Outs of Going Solo
From 19 August 2010
Who knows when I’ll see my older sister next. So, when she and her boyfriend said they would be in Germany for two weeks, overlapping with the end of my European expedition, we made plans to reunite in Cologne, most known for its giant cathedral housing the bones of the Three Kings.
There are some other things it should be known for, like the Michael Jackson memorial/shrine hidden under a bridge on a wall with candles, photos, flowers, teddy bears and eloquent love poems for the deceased singer. The same bridge that stretches at least one hundred meters across the Rhine River has a walkway for lovers. Couples write their names on a padlock, lock it on the fence and throw the key into the river. I’d be curious to know the success rate of the lovers’ promise on the couples bridge.
I met two of Ashley’s German friends, and one of them showed us around Bonn, a quaint city that used to be Germany’s capital. The composer Beethoven was born in Bonn. One day, Miguel and I got separated from Ashley and her friend, and (due to difficulties of which I will not go into detail that might have something to do with Miguel not correctly dialing the cell phone numbers into the payphone) it took half a day to reconnect with them. For an hour, Miguel and I stayed in the same place we saw the two last: in the plaza in front of Cologne’s landmark cathedral. We sat down in the middle of passersby and played poker with every item in my purse.
I must admit, the sister reunion wasn’t full of as many rainbows and butterflies as I hoped. However, my sisters are my best friends. We work through our disagreements. My last night in Germany went out with a bang. The five of us ate crepes the size of dinner plates, and then had a dessert crepe to satisfy our already-full stomachs.
My last week was spent in Madrid celebrating the feast days of various saints. Food stands, concerts, dancing and parades–you name it, the fiestas had it. In Spain, it seems like there’s a holiday every day. I swear it’s the abundance of fiestas that keep the Spaniards healthy well into old age.
Ending in Madrid, I let myself wind down a bit, preparing for the transition back to this place called America. I soaked up every minute of solo time left. This all led to me philosophizing and doing more thinking than my brain can handle. I thought about the best and worst parts of my trip and pulled those together to come up with what I learned. Here it is:
Like silence, solitude can be unbearable. Like silence, solitude also can be sacred. It’s something wonderful when you find solitude to be the latter. I find it strange how sometimes, you can be in a crowded room and feel all alone. Other times you can be alone but have all the company in the world.
Reflecting on my summer abroad, I keep replaying the moment when I really set the solo trip in motion. Ashley and Miguel dropped me off at the train station in San Sebastian, Spain. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to hold back the few tears trying to push their way through, tears caused by anxiety, fear, a worry of the possibility of feeling alone. I turned to my sister and said, “Why did I do this? It would have been so much easier to stay in Ohio.” I was right; it would have been easier.
It’s funny now, looking back on what I was scared of most. Friends, family and strangers worried I might get mugged or kidnapped. They didn’t worry about me feeling lonely traveling by myself. But groups of backpackers, the only encounters I had at the first hostel I stayed at, they knew. I remember trying to overcome that fear of loneliness in Porto, Portugal, when my bunkmate, one of four German girls traveling together, said to me, “You’re going alone? Don’t you get lonely?” Having spent the previous three days attempting to convince myself backpacking solo wasn’t that bad, it was exceptionally hard to smile and say, “You learn to love it.” And learn to love it I did. I made my own plans and met many more people than I would traveling with someone else. I went off the backpacker trail, further making myself vulnerable to capital L Loneliness. Through all of it, I uncovered a patience with myself I had not known before.
In writing this reflection, I want people to know that I wasn’t fearless. In the months and weeks leading up to the trip, I couldn’t wait to get started, but when the day finally came, I wanted to pack up and haul out. It took a good week for me to get hooked. I admit to you that I was scared because I don’t want anyone to read this and pull the “Ohhh, I could never do that” card. One of the mottos I live by is, “If you want something to happen, you make it happen.” I wanted a challenge, so I pushed myself to continue and to embrace the sacred nature of solitude.
Perhaps you read these trip updates because you want to be entertained. And while I do my best to entertain, there’s a dual purpose to my writing. I also write to inspire. I think these articles are much less inspiring if 1) I don’t tell the whole truth and 2) I make it seem easy.
Knowledge does not come from accomplishing easy tasks. (Hopefully I’m not recycling a Confucius quote there.) The first step toward wisdom is knowing one’s self (Confucius?), and as I’ve hopefully relayed to you, that’s not a smooth road. Solo time is difficult, but it’s good. In my opinion, it’s necessary.
I’ve finished this journey taking with me an appreciation of others, a stronger patience with people and myself, and a reconfirmation of my belief that, first and foremost, we must be citizens of the world. There’s so much out there of which I’ve only had a glimpse, but I hope my glimpse was enough to encourage you to go outside of your comfort zone.