In the summer of 2014 I was awarded what can only be described as a dream grant: $6,000 to travel around Europe and look at art. That was basically it. I will say that it was, primarily, a “work” trip, even though it ended up being much more than that. Art historians have to travel, it’s just one of the reasons I like the discipline. I study the history of American art, so the purpose of this grant is to allow Americanists to travel abroad since it’s not necessarily something we get to do. Our colleagues, depending on their field, are more likely to travel internationally.
This grant would mean three months of solo travel through much of Western Europe. I’d never done anything like it before, but at 28 years old, I finally felt ready. So at the end of June I left LAX with just a backpack (this one, which I highly recommend) and 36 hours later I found myself drinking an Aperol spritz in a cafe in Heidelberg.
Here are some things I learned along the way. Some of the advice is more practical, and some of it more, “existential,” I suppose you could say. Part of the fun of such a journey is finding out all of this stuff on your own, but if you’re a super planner like me, sometimes it’s nice to have a preview of coming attractions.
1. You will get lonely, but not as much as you think. My accommodations were a mix of hostels of varying quality and Airbnbs. The Airbnbs were a treat, interspersed throughout the trip to give my myself some reprieve from hostel life. Because when you stay in hostels, you’ll invariably meet people, I met many solo travelers who I’m still friends with today (and somewho I am definitely not). In a hostel it is perfectly normal to start chatting people up, as I shared many meals and drinks with fellow travelers, and even went on some little day journeys with them. I like hostels because they are generally open and accepting environments, and I enjoy meeting people and hearing about their journeys. It’s not all young people, either, people of all ages stay in hostels, especially in expensive places like Switzerland or Paris. After a while though, you’ll begin to relish your alone time. You will become your own best friend and truly learn to enjoy your own company. It’s a luxury to be alone with your thoughts, doing exactly whatever you want. It sounds cliché, but you really learn a lot about yourself, spending time sorting out your mental clutter and appraising your life options. You’re taking in everything around you without distraction. Trust me, after it’s over you’ll begin to crave that kind of peaceful solitude.
2. Do not bring a bunch of stuff, you will not need it. Unless you are into slowly throwing away your belongings, I’d suggest that you pack as lightly and intelligently as possible. Of course, it’s easier in the summer months when clothing is inherently lighter, but in any case, create a wardrobe where every single item can be worn with any other item. By this I mean make sure all your tops complement your bottoms, and that no articles of clothing have only one possible outfit iteration. If you do this, you can get your wardrobe down to 20 pieces or less (not including undergarments). Bring one reasonably nice dress that you can wear to an event or nice dinner (hey, you never know what could happen!). You’ll be surprised at how chic and easy a minimalist wardrobe can be. There are less decisions to make and you know that anything you put together will look good anyway. Pick clothes that can air-dry easily because you’ll be washing them in the shower with you. I think only used a washing machine a couple of times that summer.
I got myself a collapsible water bottle (this one) because it can be easily stowed away when not in use. Bring a portable USB charger so you never get stuck without your phone when you need it. Bring only travel-sized versions of everything and refill along the way. My pack weighed around 35 pounds which was about as much as I could handle because I knew I’d be walking around with it for long stretches of time. That’s it. The less you have to lug around with you, the freer and more mobile you will be.
3. You are not obligated to do anything. One of the biggest perks of traveling alone is that it’s perfectly fine to be completely selfish all the time. You get to do exactly what you want to do, when you want to do it, and how you want to do it. You don’t have to see all the major tourist sites if you don’t want to. This is the time when you’re not beholden to anyone or have to plan around anyone else’s particular desires or interests. If you want to go to the Louvre four days in a row then by all means, do it. If you’d rather just spend an hour there, don’t feel any guilt because you think you are supposed to be there a certain amount of time in order to fully appreciate it. If your idea of a good dinner is eating an entire wheel of brie and drinking a whole bottle of wine (which I recommend, by the way) then just do it. Who cares. There’s no one there to judge you. The point is you should focus on just enjoying yourself as you see fit. Don’t forget to treat yourself
4. On the other hand, try to say “yes” to as much as possible. Within the bounds of good judgment and safety, I said yes to almost everything that was presented to me. You should be fearless within reason, so as long as no big alarm bells are going off or you really don’t want to do something, try to accept as many invitations as possible. My first hostelmate in Heidelberg asked me to dinner my second night and we had a great time drinking different German beers and eating sausages together. If I hadn’t said yes, I would not know this wonderful person who lives Australia. And you know, it’s always good to have connections around the world, because you never know what your next travel destination will be. Saying yes to other people’s invitations will take you to places you might never go to on your own. That is the beauty of it. Even though I had most of my days planned out because of my research needs, I left pockets of time open to do whatever. The thing is, no one knows everything, and sometimes other people have really good ideas. So embrace that. By consistently pushing yourself to the edge of your comfort zone, after a while you’ll become comfortable with almost anything.
5. Bad things might happen. Don’t panic. About halfway through my trip, my purse, which contained my wallet, passport, phone, train pass, medication, and any form of identification was stolen. I normally don’t carry all that stuff around with me but of course, I just happened to be that very day. I was in the south of France and I let my guard down. It was late at night and I was sharing a bottle of wine with some friends, just having the time of my life. It happened in a matter of seconds and I immediately blamed myself. I felt like a stupid, novice traveler who should know better—this, by the way, is not a helpful line of thinking. So something like this might happen to you. Just deal with it. Freaking out and letting yourself fall into a dark spiral of terrible thoughts (which is something I am very good at) is a waste of precious travel time. What you want to do is get back on track as soon as possible. In order to do this, just take it one problem at a time. For me, first, I needed to find a way to get money. Then I needed to get myself from Nice to Paris so I could get an emergency passport at the embassy, then find a doctor to re-prescribe me my medication, and so on and so forth. With the help of wonderful friends, countless phone calls, and tenacity, I managed to get my shit back together in about five days. And you know what? After you go through something like this you will feel like a total boss. You will realize that you can deal with whatever might come at you, and you won’t be scared anymore. You will build up this amazing sense of trust in yourself which is a wonderful, empowering feeling.
Finally, the last thing I will say is this: if you have any reservations about going on a trip like this because you think you won’t be able to handle it, well, you can. I feel extremely lucky that I was able to do this and I wish everyone could do the same. So if you have the time and the means, then I cannot say this more emphatically: JUST GO!
About the author:
Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander is a PhD Candidate in the History of Art and Architecture at UC Santa Barbara. She has lived in British Columbia, Thailand, various parts of the U.S., and most recently the U.K