I never intended to travel alone.
On the contrary, I was convinced that my university year abroad would be one of the most sociable of my life. Scrolling through the Instagram feeds of friends in the year above me, life looked like one long party.
I didn't bat an eyelid when I learned that I'd teach English in a tiny, remote town located in the southernmost tip of Italy. Or when I discovered that most of my friends were heading to Paris and the more touristy regions of central and northern Italy. In fact, I felt a smug sort of satisfaction that I would have the authentic experience. It was only on arrival, when I texted my future landlord for the first time and received the response ‘Chi è?’ (Who is this?), that I realized how completely alone I was.
I knew absolutely nobody in this entire region, never mind the town itself. The school I worked at was welcoming and I did my best to make friends. However, I could never really shake the feeling that I was pretty much in this alone. The year that followed was undoubtedly one of the hardest of my life, but I learned more about myself that year than I did all the other years combined. The things I learned that year have translated beyond travel, and into every area of my life, and for that I am grateful.
7 Lessons From Traveling Alone
1. It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks
Wandering around a quiet community alone, I stood out like a sore thumb. At restaurants, my requests for a table of one were met with a baffled ‘una?’ from an incredulous waiter. The idea that I was alone, and alone by choice, people just couldn't get their head around.
At first it bothered me a lot. I’d avoid going out so I wouldn't have to explain why I was on my own. Pretty soon, though, I learned to shrug it off. Because you know what? It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.
Overtime I realized, I had no proof that anyone was actually thinking about me. I was probably overthinking like I always do. Furthermore, who cares if a shopkeeper, who I will never see again, thinks I am a loner? I was independent.
Throughout the year, I grew bolder with my solo travel moves, and ended up spending a whole weekend alone in Capri, a beautiful, romantic island off the coast of Naples. On a hot May weekend, it was crammed full of tourists. And to my surprise not one person asked me why I was on my own.
2. It takes time to figure out what you want
When I headed abroad in my penultimate year of university, I was overwhelmed with the choices that lay ahead of me. I had narrowed my career options to a solid fifteen and was being pulled in different directions by various studying and personal commitments.
I quickly realized, it’s impossible to stay in touch with all your minor acquaintances when you’re away for so long. If you can keep in touch with someone and still be close after a year apart, well that’s a pretty good sign that they’ll be in your life for the long haul. A year on my own gave me the breathing space I needed to figure out what I wanted and prioritize it. I learned to not sweat the small stuff. A lesson that later translated to clarity in my career.'A year on my own gave me the breathing space I needed to figure out what I wanted and prioritize it'Click To Tweet
3. Don’t overlook the simple pleasures
In my experience, people tend to feel pressured when traveling. They think every moment has to be an awesome Insta-worthy memory. Feeling stressed about cramming all the sights of a place into a short visit and worrying about sharing it all as you go, is a sure-fire way to suck the joy out of the present moment.
Being abroad for a long time allowed me to take things slow and really appreciate the small details of my travels. The taste of freshly baked brioche dipped in the creamy foam of a caffè macchiato is a memory I'll cherish more than that photograph of me next to the Coliseum.
4. Take the time to read
Seriously, the combination of roaming charges and endless six-hour train rides (like I said, this place was remote)created the perfect climate to connect with my inner bookworm. I read an insane amount during that year. Including some pretty hefty stuff like George Elliot’s Middlemarch, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are among the pile of books I devoured.
There’s nothing like reading to connect with your own voice, and it’s a pleasure that usually falls to the bottom of my priorities. By taking the time to read, those long journeys went from being dead time to an adventure. An opportunity for entertainment, self-improvement and to find out if Frodo would ever make it back from Mount Doom in one piece.
5. You will find kindness everywhere
As a young woman traveling alone, I felt pretty vulnerable at times. I’d be super careful not to go out too late and would keep my valuables strapped close to me at all times. In fact, I was so concerned about keeping myself safe that at times I didn’t see the kindness that was right in front of me.
For example, the teacher at the school I was working at drove out of her way to give me a lift to work every single day. The coffee shop owner that told me I’d lost weight and proceeded to give me free chocolate. My local corner shop who told me they’d been wondering where I was after I’d missed the last few weeks shopping (I’d been traveling).
Knowing that these strangers who I could barely hold a conversation with (my Italian wasn’t improving at quite the rate I’d have liked) had my back! Reflecting on those moments made me realize: you will find kindness wherever you go, and it’s worth looking out for it.
6. The people you love are everything
When I packed my bags to head off for the year, I knew I’d miss my family and friends. I braced myself for the first few weeks, knowing they'd be tough, but BOY did I miss them. My family and I get on, but we’re no more close-knit than your average household, and I’d actually say I’m less sociable with my friends than lots of millennials are with their support network.
Being abroad really changed everything for me. I realized what I valued most was quality time spent with my loved ones. I didn’t care if I made a ton of new friends, but I wanted to make sure the ones I had, knew that I cared about them. Now that I’ve been back in the UK a few years, I still try to see my family and friends as often as possible.
7. Making all the decisions is empowering
Planning to travel alone can be a pretty daunting experience. Having always latched on to other's organizational skills, and suddenly having to do everything myself seemed downright impossible. Once I began browsing through guide books and booking hotels, everything changed.
Here was a unique opportunity for me to do exactly what I wanted, without consulting anyone. Choosing activities based purely on my own interests, staying in hotels that I liked and eating wherever the heck I pleased was a pretty awesome experience. And suddenly the fact that I was doing all this alone didn’t seem such a big deal.
Traveling alone might not seem like the most fun way to while away a year, but I would really recommend giving yourself that space, even if just for a month or so.
Being removed from everything that made me really stop in my tracks had forced me to construct an identity for myself from scratch. I returned from my year abroad more confident, more sure of who I was and thinking that maybe this solo travel lark wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.
Have you ever travelled solo? Was it everything you imagined it would be?
Share your tips and experiences in the comments!
*Guest Post* As always, all guest posters opinions and experiences are uniquely their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of TCM. Thank you for support writers who support TCM! Be sure to check out more of Isobel's work on her blog, I Read Past Bedtime.