I am wrapping up the end of a 17 day solo adventure around Europe and reflecting on my experience. I learned quite a lot on this journey, most of it not what I expected, and I am excited to share what I learned. Disclaimer: these thoughts pertain to me as a person and my preferences so you may disagree.. that’s okay! If you are looking for general things I learned about the world while traveling or things I learned about solo travel aka travel advice see my other posts!
I want to start this by tell you a little about me. I was born in the beautiful state of Montana. We were not a very outdoorsy family growing up. Over the past year or two I have fallen in love with the outdoors and at the young age of 30 I am trying a lot of things for the first time (hiking long distances, backpacking, paddle boarding, fly fishing, etc). In 8th grade I took a trip with my mom and my classmates to Italy and Greece. My mom and I stopped in Germany to visit family on our own. In 2007, when I graduated from high school, my mom, dad, and I went to Spain, France, and Germany again to visit family. So I’ve been to Europe twice before but never alone. I spent about 8 years of my 20s in college and residency - (I have a doctorate in pharmacy). I went to college in Montana, did a residency in Idaho, and moved to Nevada for a year and a half before moving home. So I’m no stranger to moving to places where I know no one. I’ve been home 2 years now, one of them working full time and living on my own. (I lived with my parents while I was figuring things out). Over the years I’ve done a good amount of solo traveling, at least 1 new place (via plane) per year, but only once internationally to Canada. I am not married, I don’t have any kids, pets, own a house… I’ve kind of lived a nomadic and busy life the past 10 years and had very little interest in settling down.
I am no stranger to moving or traveling alone so a lot of the things other people may face on their first solo adventure I didn’t. I had very little problem getting around (mostly it was just annoying because nothing was in English and people were rude sometimes), booking hotels, going out to eat or sitting at a bar alone. Being alone, doing things alone, doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.
When I booked this trip I had a few things in mind. First it had been 12 years since I had been to Europe last, which is way too long in my mind. All of my friends and family have done so much traveling (while I was in never-ending college) that I just booked the tickets with no real plans because I couldn’t wait any longer - I was definitely jealous of their travels! Second I wasn’t sure where I was going or what I was doing or what I hoped to find. I found a very cheap ticket to Amsterdam so I decided to visit the Netherlands and Belgium because they are so close. My family ended up having some time too so I made my way down to Germany, which honestly I would not have done if it weren’t for them. I think maybe Ireland, Norway/Sweden, and the Alps (Switzerland/Austria) would have been more preferred by me but I really didn’t want to go to those places alone. I knew I would likely have to rent a car, wanted to hike more so I would have to pack more, and I would be more isolated. I didn’t feel like hiking around the Alps alone - I want to share that experience with others. This is where you say I could have booked a group tour. Yes, I could have but I didn’t want to (at that time) because of cost and the freedom of doing what I wanted. (Yes I change my mind about this now). It had been 12 years and I was going alone so trains and closely located cities felt safest for me. Third, I made no real plans. I’ve traveled enough to know expectations will ruin a trip 100% of the time so aside from knowing where I was going and where I was going to stay, I barely looked into the towns I was visiting. Plus my phone kept dying/not working so I wouldn’t be able to find where I wanted to go anyways. PS I am going to create a photo album of my travels and contained with within this book I am going to write the history associated with the places I visited so that way it will be half a history book, half my travels. I do think knowing about the place makes it more rewarding. I found this out quickly but knew I would spend my whole trip researching if I tried to catch up so I am going to do it after - it’s okay to enjoy a trip after the fact as I will do once this book is made!
I labeled below with one word the basis of what I learned. I wrote the complaint if I maybe didn’t like something and admiration if I did, and the lesson I learned or what I will take away because always something is to be gained. I think it’s important when you love or hate something to think about why and use that to make your life better.
Nature. Throughout the trip I had difficulties but very few what I expected. Above all this trip has taught me that I am not a city girl. I knew this, moving back to Montana and loving the outdoors, but I have traveled to cities in the past and really enjoyed it (Seattle, Vancouver, Miami, etc). During this trip I found myself happiest sitting in a park, at the beach, or even in my host family’s backyard over spending hours in lines, crowds, and on public transport. I wasn’t ready for how much I didn’t enjoy city life and unfortunately a lot of this trip involved cities. Complaint. Each day I made my way into town, visited the sites, walked around, ate alone, and went back home. After awhile it felt bland and isolating. This is not to say I didn’t appreciate the beauty (gosh every canal in The Netherlands and Belgium was my favorite) or I wasn’t a trooper (aka even if you aren’t loving something you need to do appreciate it and make the best of your time). Every day, despite being exhausted, I got up and forced myself to explore. It was enjoyable for sure, the buildings beautiful and the food delicious, but it made me miss home, nature, wide open spaces, etc. The buildings within each country, and even within neighboring countries, started to the look the same. I would recommend hoping if you can. Flights are cheap. And the art, while beautiful, well let’s just say I got burned out on it. I used to LOVE art, and I still do, but to me a photograph of a memory, good times with friends, or a piece of art I make myself, means more than something someone else made. Lesson. One thing I learned about myself is that I would prefer more of an outdoor experience, such as settling into a cabin by a lake, hiking in the mountains, visiting a beach (although more of cold weather one than a warm one - think Oregon coast). I thought the goal of Europe is the food, buildings, history, etc but I learned there is more than just that. It’s okay to have a different idea of fun than everyone else. For the future, I am excited to go home and visit my home state, Yellowstone, Beartooths, Wise River - gosh I love Montana! I am excited to throw myself into winter (it’s snowing back home) and ice fish, snowshoe, etc. It was actually surprising to most people when I told them I try to hike at least once a week… but if you live in such a beautiful place you have to take advantage of it. I have even been planning some trips to Canada, others parts of the US (Alaska!), and Europe (as a part of an eventually list) that I may enjoy more. I think it’s great that I learned what type of travel I like and gained even more of an appreciation for where I live. I’ve also allowed myself to be okay with the change in my travel desires (as I said above). A younger version of myself would have loved the history and the cities; now I love peace and nature more. It’s okay to evolve! I am more appreciative of the sleepy small town vibes of Montana - crowds are rarely an issue, half the time the issue is the place being open! And as much as I want to advocate for better modes of transport aka environmentally friendly modes I miss the flexibility of having my car. The bus coming once per hour left me stranded a few times! But I do plan to buy a bike when I get home and bike more! I fell in love with biking here.
Confidence. This is a funny one. Over the past few years my confidence has definitely taken a dive. I was mistreated by some people I should have been able to trust and that was hard. I’ve spent a lot of my time the past 2 years learning to trust again. Now I am trying to learn how to be 100% myself again. I got in a routine back home of going to my same places, minimizing my time outside the house, etc. But in Europe, if you aren’t a little pushy sometimes you don’t get served. Admiration. I talked to a Finnish guy who had quit his job and was biking around Europe. He said he grabs a book and goes out to eat by himself all the time even if people seemed annoyed. He was confident in this, even grabbing a few beers and reading books in the park. And I thought, “Why is my money, time, and experience less valuable than a groups?!” I used to feel like a jerk holding up a table, sitting there alone and taking my time. Lesson. I learned that it’s okay to try new things, even within my own town. It’s okay to hold up a line, be a little aggressive, or even grab a book and sit at a cafe outside and enjoy a cup of coffee. People around me may look at me funny or shuffle in line because everyone in America is in a hurry, but that’s okay. Traveling to places like The Netherlands, where every meal is an hour or two experience, I learned the value of time and need to have the confidence to live the life I want, proudly.
People. I love people, I truly do. I am no stranger to grabbing a stool at the bar and starting a conversation anyone who is willing to chat. I really should do it more back home. Complaint. I hate public transport and I love it. I hate it because everyone is on their phone or staring off into space. I come from a place where you walk down the street and random strangers say hello. I know a lot of countries get annoyed with Americans, “Hi how are you?” routine because the responses are automatic and no one really cares what is said (although sometimes I respond honestly with, “I had the worst day!” and most people will talk with me about it). But everyone is distracted and isolated. No one is talking. If this was an English speaking country I would talk to some of these people but in Germany it was impossible. So I sat there alone, trying to smile and make eye contact with strangers who had no desire. It was extremely isolating. I love public transport for the ease (don’t drink and drive, I can work on stuff, read a book, etc) but man would it kill people to talk?! I did have a few trains where people sort of chatted with me, again language being a barrier. Another complaint, one I didn’t think I would have, was the loneliness of being alone. As I said before I am no stranger to being alone or solo travel, heck I’ve even solo camped (didn’t get sad as much as I got bored) but this was harder. And on days where I could sit at a table or bar and talk to someone I did alright. But on days (sometimes multiple!) where my only interaction was a waiter, I was miserable, mostly at night. I spent a few nights crying and calling my mom. It’s so HARD to not talk to anyone or understand what anyone is saying. Even just being surrounded by other tourists and English on the street made some days better than others. I actually asked someone I was talking to why they thought I felt so alone on this trip, because alone has been kind of my baseline (although I am working on it because I became too isolated, honestly) and he said one of the joys of travel is turning to the person next to you and saying, “Look at that beautiful castle! When you are alone you can’t do that; you can’t share your experience.” He had a point. I think that, along with the fact I mentioned above, I am trying to be less of an island, made this trip a lot harder than I thought I would. Lesson. If I did it again I would go with someone. It’s hard to travel with people. I know if I went with my parents or a friend there would be days when I would want to kill them (I think!) but I think that would be better than alone. If I went alone again I would do more tours, maybe a few that involved a meal and/or a few hours so you could talk more. I would recommend staying in a hostel (well this recommendation was made by two people who said you meet a lot of great people that way!). I was nervous about that because I have heard of assault and rape stories but I could get one with my own room, do a combination of hotel/Airbnb and hostels (to shower alone), or even just stop by a hostel bar to find some people to talk with. I also think a group tour, aka the whole tour with a group, might be more enjoyable.
Food & Time. Food and time are sort of wrapped up into one because I spend very little time eating food. Admiration. A lot of time is put into preparing and enjoying food. I know I was on vacation and could spend the time; I know we all have busy lives and jobs that take up a lot of our time. But there are times in my life where I could get up earlier or turn off the TV and just eat. I had quite a few meals in The Netherlands that took an hour or more. At first I was kind of annoyed with the slowness of the meal but I got used to it quite quickly. I started eating slower, enjoying my food, and I really gained an appreciation for the slow life. I am type A and amazing at multitasking - honestly people are surprised when they give me a task and it’s done so quickly, often way before others. I think it could have led me to be very successful in a business type world but I like the slow life! Ha. Anyways all too often I am thinking about 5 other things while doing one task. Another man walking behind me was talking to a friend and was asked, “What have you learned traveling?”. His responds were the value of time and taking your time and being present, and how lucky we are compared to other places. Both of those are true… I should have asked him if I could listen to the rest but we started walking different directions. I think when you are on vacation you realize how all to often you are literally eating food and walking down the street. Lesson. Of all the lessons learned on this trip the most value to me was time. Taking the time to eat, taking the time to relax, taking the time to grab a glass of tea and sit outside (granted I had mosquitoes and grasshoppers so I barely used my patio), even just going to the park and reading a book - I NEVER do that! It was my friend’s birthday when I was gone. She took me to get a pedicure for mine, which was much needed after hiking around Hawaii. But I thought maybe for hers I will bring food, drinks, and crafts to her house and we can make some zero waste crafts for fall! How often do I bring dinner to a friend’s house? Never, ever, once. I think this trip made me appreciate home and realize that I can be a better human to those around me by giving them and myself time to be present and connect.
The Future. This isn’t a complaint or admiration but instead the excitement I have for going home. This may sound a little odd, honestly I’ve met a lot of people who didn’t feel this way, but I am excited to go home. After over half a month, 17 days, abroad I miss my work, my friends, my home, my car, and my family. Everyone else is unexcited to come home but I also think that has some to do with how much fun people have on vacation and not with every day life. I L.O.V.E. my job. I literally get up for work and count my lucky stars. Although I’m a lot more liberal than 85% of my town, I truly love home. If I get burned out it’s only a few hours to a more liberal town. Although dating is KILLING me in Billings, hey I did the app and went on a few dates but nothing stuck, I am excited to go back and give Billings 110%. There are a lot more organizations in Billings whose values align with mine and I want to get more involved with them. I want to start volunteering more and doing things that make my community better. When moving to a new town, I always made a list of things I wanted to do, places I wanted to eat, etc. I was always exploring. When I moved back home I didn’t do that as much because it’s my home state. I didn’t feel as motivated. But after this trip I am excited to almost start over. I think I settled to quickly in Billings and I want to push myself when I get home. I am excited to see all my friends, show them my history photo book, talk about my travels, decorate for fall, and transition into winter. My friends and I already have plans to visit the Boiling River, stay in a cabin during winter… we are planning all the wintertime adventures! I think this trip was wonderful, although not 100% what I wanted or expected sometimes, it was a wonderful experience and I learned SO MUCH!