I never intended to travel on my own. I’d left the UK in 2010 with someone I’d, at that point, been with for four years. I spent two years working and travelling in Australia with him. And then, two months after arriving in New Zealand, he was suddenly no longer a part of my life. Single and alone in a new city, I set about making new friends. I didn’t know, then, that the friends I made at this unplanned low point would become lifelong friends, but they did. I didn’t know, then, that I’d ever be able to find the courage to actually go out and see the world on my own. But, eventually, I did. Although it took some time.
I remember sitting in bed in the flat I’d rented in Auckland, watching the roads below lit up with cars in the dark, and wondering how I’d ever be able to see a new city on my own. To land somewhere new and have the confidence to put one foot in front of the other and explore without someone holding my hand. I’d been on planes on my own before, even travelled back home to the UK from Australia for a funeral. But going it alone properly? That seemed too big, for me. Too much.
I put it to the back of my mind. Concentrated on rebuilding myself, on learning how to be on my own again in a city where I was quickly making friends, quickly setting up a new life for myself. Quickly realising that perhaps I was going to be OK after all. Because sometimes I was; I was fine. During the week I worked in office, I went to the gym, I drank wine after work with people I’d only known a few months but who had already become firm friends.
We hired cars on the weekends, drove south to Taupo and Rotorua, west to the black beaches of Piha, paddled in the sea at Mount Maunganui, got our fortunes told at a market in Matakana. One weekend we were all invited to a wedding in Taupo. Only one of us knew the bride, and going to a stranger’s wedding felt, well, strange, but I dug out a bright blue dress from the back of my wardrobe anyway and we piled into the car.
We flew to Wellington, took the cable car up to the Botanical Gardens, saw the city sprawling below us, the harbour glistening in the distance. When the leaves turned brown and orange, we flew south to Queenstown, hiring a car and driving four hours to Milford Sound to see fjords rising from the choppy waters and seals resting on the rocks.
We, we, we.
I’d learned to be on my own again, and I’d always been independent. Always loved my own company as much as other people’s. Never felt like a Saturday afternoon couldn’t be spent alone reading, as a child, or playing guitar, as a teenager. But I still hadn’t travelled anywhere alone properly. I was okay with that. I was okay with being the designated driver as Gemma read the map on the way to Taupo, okay with holding Nina’s hand in the dark as we waded through waist-deep water in the caves of Waitomo, okay to have lost someone but found so many others when I could have taken my broken heart and gone home.
How I became a solo traveller
It wasn’t until I moved back to the UK in 2013, moved to London, that I went on my first solo city break. I picked Amsterdam because I found cheap flights. Because I knew I’d love the architecture and pretty canals. And because, well, why not Amsterdam?
‘Why not just choose anywhere’, I thought.
Amsterdam turned out to be a good choice. I walked for miles with my camera in my hand, capturing the unique architecture and pretty canals I’d only seen in guide books until then. I’d booked myself on a food tour where, at the end, a group of us sailing along the canal drinking Dutch beers, I was serenaded by strangers singing ‘Happy Birthday’, and a bottle of bubbly was popped to mark the occasion. I’d gotten lost a few times, but always found my way back. Eating in restaurants alone was still scary, trying to speak a language that didn’t fall perfectly off my tongue was still awkward, trying to look like I was confident (when, inside, I felt the exact opposite) was still hard work, strangers were still intimidating. I knew I still had a long way to go, but I beamed with how far I felt I had already come.
I sat in cafes, despite how awkward it felt to be eating alone. I walked into a restaurant one night, my heart pounding in my chest, the city’s alleyways bathed in light as the sun set on another day, and tried to feign confidence. Tried to look as though choosing a table, sitting on my own, reading a menu in a language I didn’t speak, came totally naturally. It didn’t, but I ordered red wine and read a book and ate a kind of Dutch stew that I couldn’t pronounce but tasted divine. I went to bed happy, feeling accomplished, feeling like maybe I could do this. No, that I could do this; this travelling alone thing.
I was surprised to realise that my fear of solo travel wasn’t because I thought the world was a dangerous place. I knew it wasn’t. I knew I had more chance of something happening to me on my daily trips across London than on a weekend city break. I knew that people were inherently good. What bothered me was whether I’d be able to get by without speaking another language fluently (yes), whether seeing the world would be as special without someone to share it with (yes), whether I’d be lonely (sometimes, but overall no).
Not all of my solo travel misconceptions were proven wrong on that first trip. It took a few more solo city breaks, a few more occasions where I felt out of my depth, to feel totally comfortable stepping off a plane in a new city. To realise that there were things I used to believe about solo travel that I no longer believed.
In Porto, I got lost. Properly lost. Seriously can’t even see where I am on Google maps lost. I’d walked too far, enjoying the sun on my skin, and found myself navigating a series of back roads, deserted apart from two older men who appeared to be drunk, who were dressed in many layers of clothing despite the heat. I continued along curving roads, checking behind me every few steps to see if they were still walking the same route, knowing that I’d never be able to run away without tumbling forwards down the ever-steepening streets.
Later, at a river-side restaurant, the water lapping at the wall beside me, a glass of wine reflecting the pink-hued sky, I knew I probably hadn’t been in danger. Probably should have known that the narrow, winding road would lead to a larger, familiar-looking main road. Probably shouldn’t have let my heart pound in my chest like I had. It was easy to scold myself in hindsight. But I learnt to trust my instincts. Learnt to keep my wits about me, instead of blindly letting my feet lead the way.
In Copenhagen, it felt as though all of my solo travel confidence had been swept from under my feet, but I eventually found my footing again, bundling up against the cold and trying to make the most of my trip. In Paris, I learnt that you don’t have to love every city you visit. In Dublin, I went to gigs on my own for the first time. I went back to Amsterdam and felt instantly at home. Went back a third time and fell for the city all over again.
And even though I don’t always travel solo. Even though I celebrated my birthday in Berlin with one of my best friends, went back to Amsterdam with two of my favourite blogging friends, my confidence in going alone has grown in myriad ways. Somehow, I did what I never thought I’d be able to do: see the world without him.