Years ago, I dated a man who was forever going on about the virtues of traveling alone — how freeing it was, how interesting, how much better than, ugh, going somewhere with another human. I found this mildly insulting (why didn't he want to go anywhere with me!?). I also decided it meant he was probably a mild sociopath.
Given the whole rigmarole of taking days off and buying plane tickets and paying for a hotel room and doing all the work of traveling, wouldn't you want someone to go along with you? Wouldn't it be lonely to venture off all alone? In the wild days before selfies, you'd have to ask a random stranger to take your photo, and wouldn't that be awkward? WHY IN HEAVENS WOULD YOU GO ANYWHERE BY YOURSELF?
It is probably not a surprise that I broke up with the sociopath. What may come as a surprise (well, not if you're a careful reader of headlines) is that two weeks ago I set off on a solo vacation to Italy and I loved every freaking minute of it, with the exception of about 30 minutes at Charles de Gaulle Airport when it looked like catching my connecting flight was going to be very dicey and it was extremely hot and the people next to me had not showered recently and also removed their shoes to go through security. Fortunately, being unencumbered by traveling companions, I could easily escape these terrible travelers (the best way to do an airport is always alone; please present me with proof to the contrary). "Eat my dust, shoeless strangers!" I might have shouted en route to Florence as they lagged behind (the two seats beside me, in fact, were empty). But I kept my mouth closed because such exclamations on airplanes are not generally favored.
The days that followed were a whirlwind of adventures, conducted by me and me alone. It turns out that a big part of the joy of traveling alone is doing exactly what you want, and not having to ask anyone what they feel like doing for the day, or to be at all concerned in any serious way with anyone else's mood or vibe. You might think that as a grown adult you've achieved this in your regular life, but no, vacation brings a greater sense of freedom than normal life for one key reason: You don't have to work! (Truly, this is a big deal.) While on my trip, I did some super nerdy/gluttonous/luxurious/stupid things that only I could judge, and if I was cranky, I could be cranky with only myself (and mostly I wasn't), and if I was tired, I could decide to be tired and nap (but mostly I didn't — there was too much to see). I signed up for four different walking tours, and I walked around Florence until my fitness app rolled over and died on account of the unsurpassed number of steps I'd taken. I took pictures — including selfies — whenever and wherever I felt like. I stopped and lingered over three-hour meals with several glasses of wine and then espressos, and no one looked at their watch and said, "Isn't it about time we be getting on, now?" and then I walked some more and still more, and no one suggested they might have to go back to the hotel and take a nap. Then I stopped and had more wine or maybe dinner, wherever I felt like, including randomly at one posh sushi restaurant because I liked the look of their chairs.
Of course, it's more than the simple convenience of making your own decisions that's so empowering when you travel alone. Because, truly, I am not a sociopath (I don't think), and I do like the company of others on trips. It's fun to have friends around to talk to! I was worried I might miss them when I vacationed alone — yet I felt more motivated, setting out goals for myself each day and meeting them, then I ever have on a trip, and more motivated to tell my friends about everything I'd experienced afterward. Unlike my usual five-days-in-isn't-it-time-to-get-back-to-real-life vacation malaise, I found myself counting the days down sadly, and when the time came to return, feeling really sad about that. (Now I'm counting the days 'til my next vacation alone.)
People say traveling alone is freeing, and it is, but the person you're really freeing yourself from is yourself, the at-home-self that you have put in a box of a sort, maybe without even knowing it. Vacation is a way to break self-imposed parameters, and doing it by myself, I was able to get beyond a number of rules I hadn't realized I'd set for myself — easier because there was no one there from home to remind me who I was "supposed" to be. So I stopped worrying about what I looked like, or whether I had done something truly awkward (chances were, I had — one day this involved walking into a wall), and I spoke freely to all sorts of strangers, in English and in terrible Italian, because why not? I went to breakfast early (unprecedented!) and then, with myself as my only motivator, was impossibly motivated to follow myself around based on whatever whims of the day struck. I made friends on my walking tours, and when asked, "Do you want to have dinner with us?" I said yes, because why not? I moved through the streets without ever having to look back to see if someone was catching up, or to hurry along to catch up to someone else, and moving at your own, unadulterated pace in this world is something that's so valuable, not simply because why not, but because it reminds you of who you are, and the pace at which you want to be.
I was alone in my head enough that it became blaringly clear that I knew who I was, and, luckily, that I even liked myself pretty well, enough to be okay being alone in my head for hours at a time. The things I didn't like about myself — a timidity when dealing with people, a fear about walking into new places alone — I had to confront, and I felt better, if not always chic and sophisticated, for having done so. But who cares about being chic and sophisticated on a trip around people you're never going to see again? That's why I didn't mind digging through my baggage in the lobby on my last day at my hotel in a hungover search for a ring I thought I'd lost, and then hugging the hotel staffer who found it. Chic? Sophisticated? No. But while traveling alone, I was pretty real.
Of course, if you're traveling alone, it's not like you're ever truly alone. Generally, there are all sorts of tourists like you, in groups or not, who you share something in common with, and then there's the place you go, a travel companion of its own. In choosing Italy I found one that was full of things I wanted to look at, to taste, to learn about, to hear. I was never lonely. But now that I'm home, I miss it.
Before I left for the trip I asked my mom, "Do you think it's weird that I'm doing this alone?" There was a brief pause before she gamely said, "No, I think it's really cool!" (I realize now that the weirdest part of traveling alone is probably asking your mom if it's weird to travel alone.) The only thing weirder might be tracking down your old ex-boyfriend who loved traveling alone and asking him if he wants to go on a co-solo trip with you. Because, you know, in that respect, we might really get along these days.