I’ve always been pretty comfortable being alone. As an only child raised by a divorced working mother, I learned how to entertain myself: reading, riding my bike, writing stories. That’s not to say I was a loner – report cards regularly noted that I could stand to be a little less chatty during class – but my mom encouraged my independence and taught me early on to be confident in my abilities.
When I was 7 or 8 years old, I started flying by myself: she’d would put me on a plane to spend a month in Florida with my grandparents, or off to Omaha for a weekend with my aunt and uncle. These weren’t like the glamorous family vacations friends would be whisked away on; it was more of a necessity of having limited childcare. I can’t remember ever feeling that nervous on these trips, especially when it came to the act of travel itself. I loved chatting with the flight attendants or the people sitting next to me (I’d like to think I was cute enough not to be TOO annoying!), and my backpack was always full of activities to keep me busy: coloring books, a Discman, a set of Nancy Drew novels. It seems like a silly word to apply to a eight-year-old, but I felt empowered. I felt so cool that I was traveling by myself, and my mother’s confidence reinforced that.
My mom continued to encourage my independence as I got older. When I was 16, she sent me to stay with family friends in Provence for a summer; when I was 18, she urged me to apply for an au pair job outside Paris. And when I graduated from college and couldn’t find any friends to join me on a backpacking tour around Europe – a trip I’d spent years saving for – she asked me if I wasn’t going to do something I wanted to do just because I’d have to do it alone.
So I booked the ticket, and off I went: five gloriously carefree weeks in hostels and trains and sunny city squares, where I made new English-speaking friends in every new port. I returned home to a job offer and my college boyfriend; a few months later, I quit that job and broke up with that boyfriend to move to France and start a travel blog.
Since that backpacking trip around Europe, I’ve traveled by myself to more than 30 countries: a mix of vacations and press trips, and mostly the result of an intentional lifestyle in which travel is a priority. I’ve shown up in no less than three cities without knowing a soul, and have managed to find a job, secure an apartment and make friends. My mom’s words have echoed in my ear when I’ve wavered over trying something new or wondering if I should go somewhere by myself: am I really not going to do something just because I can’t find someone to go with me? It’s seemed like a silly excuse, and so I’ve tried to not let the fear of doing something solo ever stop me.
Although I no longer “need” to travel alone – I have a wonderful boyfriend who is always up for an adventure, and my friend group is largely made up of other travel writers and photographers, or friends that I’ve made on my travels – I still try to find opportunities for solo adventures, whether it’s for work or for pleasure. There’s something about it that still appeals to me. I like being able to wake up early to watch the sunrise, to wander aimlessly through a new city with my camera, to sit quietly on a sunny park bench and people-watch or read a book. I enjoy the solitude, and I also savor being able to experience a brand-new place exactly how I want.
People often fear the social stigma of traveling by themselves: will others think they’re weird? What will they do alone at a restaurant? But there’s something satisfying to me about being surrounded by people and yet not having to prove myself: I don’t have to smile or make small talk or explain what I do for a living. I can sip a glass of wine and read my book and take comfort in the fact that I’ll likely never see any of these people again. I can do anything I want, all day! I don’t have to compromise, and because I’m so far from home, I don’t have to stress about fulfilling preconceived expectations.
Several months ago, for example, I enjoyed a weekend by myself in Quebec City, a charming escape from the chaos of New York City. I meandered through the cobblestone streets of Le Petit-Champlain and through the Vieux Ville: purposely without my headphones, to soak up the sounds of a city not punctuated by sirens. I experienced the chilly thrill of dog-sledding, and spent an afternoon relaxing by myself at the Siberia Spa. At this outdoor complex of hot tubs, saunas and ice baths, silence is encouraged—and yet, how much easier and more fulfilling when there’s no temptation of someone to whisper to. I treated myself to a glass of red wine and a steaming bowl of French onion soup at the amiable Café St Malo, and then curled up in a fluffy hotel bed to read my book.
It was the kind of weekend that reminded me how much I love to travel for travel’s sake: it wasn’t about escaping routine with my boyfriend, or catching up with college girlfriends somewhere sunny. It was simply to see and experience a new place in all its glory—all of that quality time with myself is just a bonus.
Whenever I’m on a plane by myself these days, I often think back to that little girl flying alone cross-country: if she didn’t have the confidence to get on that plane then (empowered by her mother’s encouragement), I wouldn’t have gone to half of the places I’ve visited now.