Photo by Brent SmythJune 1, 2021
What I learned from travelling solo
By Brent Smyth
I wasn’t quite sure the best way to start this piece. It was left open to my interpretation, as long as it centred around my time spent circling the globe alone. But with an adventure such as that one, where do I even begin? Do I tell the story of how I spent 10 days in a town in the middle of the Swiss Alps creating a short documentary, or the time I drank a questionable beer (the questions were definitely warranted) and FaceTimed a friend during their dance class from a random alley in Budapest? Or maybe how an Australian hostel friend got me to slap him every five minutes so he would finish his beer before we headed to the bar? Or even how I wandered Athens alone after the city had gone to bed, only to stop and sit on a forgotten rock and think of how many people throughout history had also taken a breather on this same rock — their stories and lives lost in time.
In truth, there wasn’t one story I felt would aptly encapsulate my relationship with solo travel. The stories all seemed so...personal. They were so specific to me; writing an article in hopes of a reader relating to them seemed like a fool’s promise to attempt. But then again, that’s the beauty of what it means to be alone when exploring where you’ve never been. It’s really the only experience possible in life that exists as — and remains — truly our own.
That is not to say that nothing else counts as an individual experience — it’s just that travel is the only one of which we can really be the sole proprietor. We love sharing our lives, going places with friends and family, telling our stories, creating moments as bonds. But I challenge you to ask yourself: What memories, moments or experiences do you have that exist entirely to you? Maybe you have some; perhaps you don’t. That is part of what calls me relentlessly to travel alone.
It only expanded further when I returned from a six-month European excursion. When I reconnected with all the people in my life, I noticed a trend that hurt me at first, but became entwined in my personal philosophy very soon after.
It’s fairly simple: No one asked to know my stories.
Sure, I got the usual questions — “How was your trip? Did you have fun? Get into any trouble?” — and I answered all as adequately as I could. However, there were never any follow-up questions. Never inquiries to expand on stories. I’d hint at exploring a hidden cove in Santorini, or stumbling upon a competitive darts tournament in Krakow (and playing fairly well despite never having played before, and being very inebriated). People never really cared. I was back, and for them, life with me in it was to resume. They had no idea of anything I had done, and that was the end of it. And so, my stories became my own.
Soon after that, I realized that was my favourite part of seeing so much of the world alone. Everything I saw, everything I did, did not belong to anyone else. To them, it didn’t exist.
And so you, too, can travel that same way. Because if you’ve ever travelled with someone before — whether for a full-fledged vacation, a cottage weekend, or even a wine tour — you’ll know that everyone travels differently, and everyone has their preferences and travel style. Maybe they only want to party, or they don’t at all; they could be early risers or deep sleepers; they could want to cram as much into the time as they can, or perhaps they’re a leisurely explorer. And whether knowingly or subconsciously, the way you travel is also altered by the company you keep.
To that end, while travelling by myself, I discovered more about myself and understood who I truly was more than I would have ever thought possible. Being away from everyone you know leaves you no choice but to reflect on the people in your life. You realize the people you miss, the people it wouldn’t bother you to never see again, perhaps the person you would actually want with you, and the person you want to be when your travel ends.
These realizations hit me at purely random moments throughout my trips. Watching the sunset over Rome, surrounded by couples, made me realize feelings for someone I had never really thought of before. Singing karaoke in Amsterdam led me to re-evaluate the friends I had at home and the kinds of people I wanted to surround myself with to be happy. And going for a walk at 3 a.m. to the nearest McDonald’s in Warsaw to get the rest of an Uber Eats order that never showed — passing old castles, chatting with people leaving bars and having brief moments of complete silence and solitude — forced the kind of introspective thinking that forever changed my approach to how I feel in low moments.
But even on a more surface level, you discover who you are, and how you react to certain situations. If you get lost, there is no one to turn to and go, “Oh crap, what do we do?” You’re left to your own devices, and the stakes are remarkably high; you’re alone in a foreign country. No bouncing around ideas, no one to lean on for comfort. Simply you, and what you plan to do in the face of a challenge. When your flight to Naples was delayed three hours, it’s 2 a.m. and you’re entirely lost and discouraged, how would you feel not being able to find your hostel and having two large drunk Russian men stop you in an alley, ask you to sing for them, and interrogate you on whether you know who Vladmir Putin is — all the while not letting you take a step in any direction? I mean, what would you do? I ended up having some of their vodka, doing my best Russian accent, and ultimately got two slobbery cheek kisses from them before I finally broke free and got to my hostel — only to find they were there, too. I know more about myself from that encounter than almost anything else.
With all that said, I should also add that just because you travel alone, that does not equate to you needing to spend time alone. If there’s one word of advice I can share, it’s to make sure you say yes.
My best example of this came when I had just finished a day of exploring the Amalfi Coast and Pompeii, and I was headed to the world’s first pizza place for a late dinner. While I was waiting for my food, there was a table consisting of two American guys and an Australian girl seated behind me, who had noticed me sit, order and ultimately come to the realization I was not waiting for someone — I was alone. And then I heard their thoughts begin to spill out: “Wow, could you imagine eating alone?” “Man, I could never, I’d be too embarrassed.” “Yeah, I’d take it to go.” Then, my personal favourite: “You don’t think he speaks English, do you?”
However, I wasn’t phased by what I heard. If anything, I was reinforced by it. I felt as if I was doing something most wouldn’t dare to do: Eat alone in the place pizza was birthed, and have the best dinner I could. It was a moment I would never want to have lived another way. At the end of the meal, the three people at that table came up to me, sheepishly asked if I spoke English, and then invited me out for drinks with them. That led to a pop-up €1 Aperol Spritz bar (which I never would’ve known existed without them), a hostel party, a brief Mafia run-in. I even met up with the Australian girl in Rome a few days later for dinner and gelato.
I truly shiver at the thought that, had I travelled with anyone else, those people wouldn’t have made the comments, they wouldn’t have approached my table, and those things I experienced would never have happened. Because even when travelling by yourself, there are moments the universe reminds you: You’re not really alone.
Of all the things travelling solo can teach, I truly believe that is the biggest takeaway. You can go as far away as possible from everything you know. You can explore at night while the world around you sleeps. You can visit places thousands of years old, or that are brand-new. And you can leave all means of contact behind.
But everything you come to experience from travelling alone belongs only to you. It changes how you see the world, how you cope with challenges and how you see yourself. And it’s best to keep those moments you feel truly connected to the world to yourself — because you’ll love who you discover you are, and you’ll realize that, yes, sometimes you’ll feel the loneliest you’ve ever felt. And yes, some places aren’t worth the journey, but that’s part of it, as well. Even if it fails to live up to expectations, you made it there. And the moments of self-discovery forever change who you are meant to be.
And when you realize all solo travel can do, you’ll know, we never truly are alone. After all, we have ourselves, the path ahead, and the wanderlust to discover more.