By the last day of my trip I was almost thankful for the migraine that hammered behind my right eye. Wanting to be home while breathing through nausea made me sane; wanting to be home while wandering around Europe made me boring. Worse, spoiled.
The realization that I might suck at traveling alone hit me curiously hard. Before I left for London, I kept referring to my 10-day solo trip abroad as so Eat Pray Love. I’d never been to Europe. The round-trip flight was a nonrefundable remnant of an anniversary vacation that would never be, and now I was on my own. At the heart of my cynicism was a kernel of hope that it’d be unexpectedly magical (a paradox). That this departure from my comfort zone would be a catalyst for some internal shift I’d reference for years. The presumption of importance was my biggest mistake.
I’ve never been particularly wanderlusty. I think my willingness to travel alone was about proving something. I’ll never forget my mom telling me she thought me mentally equipped to live on my own when I was 10. “I could move you into your own apartment tomorrow and you’d be fine!” She’d always laugh. Certain compliments stick with you when you’re a kid; I think I might have built my entire identity around that one. This solitary trip abroad felt like a test I was made to pass.
The thing is, I should have planned more. My casualness leading up to the flight translated to oversights that had ripple effects: arriving at my hostel seven hours before check-in meant wasting an afternoon with all my luggage in hand, meant changing in the tiny lobby restroom, meant dropping my Oyster card in the toilet. Not reading hostel reviews meant a “kid-friendly environment,” meant screaming toddlers, meant little socializing. Not checking the forecast (or calendar?) meant packing only a denim jacket for 40-degree weather, meant buying a cheap coat, meant not having room in my bag for it, meant extra schlepping. Not planning meant not having outlet adaptors, meant forgetting shower shoes, meant not knowing where to go.
The litany of little mishaps that were a direct result of my incompetence became a large theme in my day-to-day. This is just what it’s like to travel! I thought to myself, shaking them off each time. Chin up, earbuds in, tens of thousands of steps clocked, my mind in a fixed state of This Should Mean Something. Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Tate Modern, the Tower of London. It sounded like heaven on paper. I certainly looked charmed — all bundled up and rosy-cheeked and starry-eyed — only I was never quite sure if I actually was. It felt, at times, like acting. My lingering sense of ennui didn’t make sense, though. I’ve always identified as an introvert who thrives on long walks and empty rooms. This should have been my element.
After a few days, I booked a $140 flight to Paris. I couldn’t really afford it but I was trying to indulge a travel bug I wasn’t sure had bitten me. In Paris I’d feel something, I thought to myself. When I got there I was gobsmacked by its beauty. The Eiffel Tower, the Seine River, The Louvre, Notre Dame, Sacré-Coeur, the Arc de Triomph. Again I felt my cheeks smiling and again I wasn’t sure it was genuine. I went to bed, convincing myself that tomorrow, November 9th, would be great. When I woke up, Donald Trump had won the U.S. Presidency.
At that point, whatever dregs of feigned cheer were left in my teacup dried up. Or rather, I threw the entire cup against a wall. I walked around narrow streets crying about America and wondering what was wrong with me. The weather was fittingly ominous, darkening every half hour, sending me rushing for cover where, under the safety of my umbrella, I thought about New York. I was so lonely. That felt like a failure.
The next day, I was sitting in the lobby of my hostel texting my friend that I couldn’t remember why I’d come. That I was worried I wasn’t doing it right. Call me, he said. Right then a girl tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was okay. Her English sounded like music. I accidentally started crying, then rambling. She started hugging me. “My name is Danielle.”
I thanked her, apologized profusely and told her I had to call my friend. Up on the roof I curled up under my coat and told him I was feeling lost. “You have to take the pressure off of yourself,” he told me through FaceTime. “Who cares if this trip means anything? Fuck it! Fuck seeing what you’re supposed to see! The best thing I did in Paris was watch a bad movie and get diarrhea! It can’t all be perfect. Stop trying so hard. You’re ruining it. Just exist. If you’re sad, be sad! Go to a restaurant with a book and cry! Then look at the pretty skyline and think fuck that skyline! Order whatever you want and if you don’t like it? Leave! Better yet, shove that shit off the table! Be like ‘Fuck this burger! Fuck it all!’”
It was an absurd pep talk and my anxious expression broke into laughter. It was the happiest I’d felt since arriving in Europe. I was free. Another guy on the roof started laughing in spite of himself.
“I’m sorry to eavesdrop,” he said. “But your friend is really funny.”
When I hung up, he introduced himself as Jamie. Another guy introduced himself as Juan. Just then, Danielle walked onto the roof and asked us if we wanted to walk around together. Suddenly I had three new friends and a plan. The day we spent together was the highlight of my trip. And none of it had happened because I tried. It was just random. Turns out I enjoyed traveling, just with other people.
On my final day in Paris I was alone again, but with a newfound sense of acceptance. Or a newfound sense of fuck it.
On my way to the airport, I stopped at a café and tried to order a coffee. Instead, I was delivered a platter of desserts. This is not a metaphor. I ate those fucking desserts. It was 11 A.M. By the time I arrived back in London I was ready for whatever shit was coming. My last hostel was essentially a three-story dumpster. My roommates were traveling students who’d set up very messy camp, going-out tops strewn about like streamers, faces so buried in iPhones I literally didn’t know what they looked like. The wifi didn’t work. My email had locked me out for some reason. I lost my headphones immediately. My period was coming. It didn’t have to mean that much, did it? That’s when the migraine set it. I lay in the lobby my entire last day in London, unable to open my eyes and yet somehow relieved to be dealing with a pressure that was so purely physical. I did not search for the meaning.
Landing back in New York was like a dream. I avoided telling people that my favorite part of the trip was a call I’d made home near tears. That I’d spent so much of my time there wondering if I was doing it right. That I’d had no epiphanies. And if I’m being honest, I’m still not sure about what it all meant. Maybe that I suck at traveling alone. That I’m boring. That beauty is just beauty. That I picked the wrong time. That I’d followed through on that Seth Godin quote I read years ago and never could forget: “Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from.” Maybe I’d done that. Or maybe it all meant nothing. Maybe none of us get to glean meaning through brute force. Maybe we just have to live sometimes.
Feature photo by Martin O’Neill/Redferns via Getty Images.