At a hostel bar on my seventh night in Amsterdam, I heard phrases from my home state – “you betcha” and “don’t ya know”. Lo and behold, it was a couple of Canadians from Alberta. With our shared dialect and mutual love of maple syrup, we got along instantly, spending our night exploring Amsterdam’s finest herbal activities. At some moments, it’s as if they forgot they were with a stranger, laughing about weird fetishes and inviting me to shop the Red-Light District — a hard lesson in learning my social limits.
Solo traveling can be one of the best things you can do for yourself. The first time I went off alone was the summer following my first year in university: I had lived my whole life in Minnesota. I came from well-traveled parents, but with both working freelance jobs, our trips were within the US. While I had friends living abroad during summers, my family would pack up our van and haul cross-country. For a long time, I didn’t feel as though I was missing out, because while they saw Europe I was seeing America for what it truly was. Nonetheless, I assumed Europe would happen and I would see it when the time presented itself — it never occurred to me that my first time would be without my family. I come from a humanities family, and I myself am a history major. I dreamt of me and my dad hitting all the museums London and Paris had to offer, followed by an absolute meltdown over the history of European cities.
During my freshman year, my university awarded me a grant called the Field Experience Grant. After a year in a small town in rural Wisconsin, I was restless; I craved chaos, public transit, culture and food that wasn’t fried. I decided to use the grant to study in a course that my university didn’t offer me. I created a project around urban studies focusing on public transit, and spent months planning for a trip to Amsterdam. In a short period, it became a lot of firsts: my first trip to Europe, my first passport and my first time traveling alone.
I still vividly remember walking out of the train station; no one knew my name, and to be frank, no one cared why I was there. I spent my time in two different hostels, one in the heart of the Red-Light District and the other a bit closer to the train station. Often when people talk about the value of traveling alone, they talk about the people you meet but that’s really only half of it. My first four days in Amsterdam, my hostel mates had absolutely no interest being friends. I craved human interaction in a city of strangers. The thing about the initial loneliness that comes with traveling alone is all the adjusting is up to you — you feel everything, and that burden is shared with no one. And it is exhausting. Apart from day to day transactional conversations, I didn’t speak for about two days. The last time I was silent for that long was probably when I was in the womb. As I began to adjust, I learned to find solace in my silence. You’ll be hard pressed to find many other times in life when you wake up and the whole day is yours.
From eating meals to sitting at bars alone, I realised that I held some of own preconceived notions about people. We are so quick to assume that those who do things alone must be lonely and sad. Indeed, I had held these assumptions myself until it was me. Being alone does not mean you are lonely; we undervalue the beauty and importance of spending time with ourselves. I saw this in in varying conversations with strangers with varying remarks on my bravery, my stupidity, and my gender. It became the perfect time for me to free my mind and get to know myself again. It’s all too easy to lose who you are in the first year of university in the mayhem of everything. The most beautiful part of traveling alone is you have these moments, whether big or small, that are just yours. Do it to let yourself live, and to be uninhibited.