The year I graduated from university, I was a shell of a person. I was suffering from the stress of university life and it had triggered feelings of depression and anxiety. I had a lot of good stuff in my life, a caring boyfriend and good friends, I was studying a subject I loved and I lived by the sea. But somewhere along the way I had lost myself.
I was the person who waited for someone else to speak first even when I knew I had an answer, the person who followed their friends into the bar and waited to see what they ordered before making a choice, the person who went along with the crowd, who tried to please everyone, who lost the confidence to be good at things and stopped following her dreams. I’ve always been shy and quiet, but it had become more than that. I felt like I’d lost my personality, like I didn’t really know myself anymore.
The only thing I really knew for sure was that I wanted to travel when I graduated, and that I wanted to do it alone. This might seem strange for the person I’ve just described, but I’d never been more certain of anything.
So, after months of planning and booking hostels and trains, I arrived in Paris, having left a boy I loved in London and feeling like six weeks was a lifetime even when I knew it was no time at all. And all I could think was, shit, what have I done? I can barely speak to people I don’t know in England, let alone strangers in a country where I don’t speak the language. What the hell am I doing?
But then it all fell into place. Because it turns out that when you’ve given so much of your time and your self to other people, it feels really damn good to be in charge again.
And I was in charge. I settled into my hostel on the first night, already making plans with some people I’d just met, and feeling like I had the world (or at least Europe) at my feet. I had my safety nets in place, booking most of my accommodation and travel in advance because I knew the stress of being in a new place every few days would be enough for me to handle. But beyond that… Things were open.
I had plunged myself into the relative unknown and I finally started feeling myself again.
I learnt that I could talk to people I didn’t know and become friends with them in a matter of hours. This was a huge confidence boost as my self-esteem was at such a low, I wasn’t sure anyone would be interested in talking to me. I don’t say this as a pity thing; it’s simply the truth. Making new friends reminded me I had worth, that I had stuff to say, that I didn’t always need to let other people lead a conversation.
I learnt that I could make the rules. This is one of the best things about travelling alone, you can see what you like, when you like. And if you decide, actually what you really want to do is it eat your second Nutella crêpe in under an hour because the first one didn’t hit the spot, no one can stop you.
I learnt be a little selfish. This whole trip was self-indulgence, I was so lucky to be in the position to take the time off and to fund it, and I will forever be grateful for that. But travelling on my own really taught me the value of looking out for number one, because when you’re alone in a city you don’t know, you have to take care of yourself.
I learnt to trust my gut. I took chances when I didn’t know the outcomes… And even if the consequences weren’t always great, I didn’t regret it. I took chances that led to the kind of moments I thought only happened in movies. Like sitting on a hill overlooking Rome listening to Talking Heads, or running through the streets of Paris to get out of the rain, or riding a merry-go-round at midnight in Florence.
Likewise, I learnt that if your gut is saying something doesn’t feel right, to get the hell out of there.
I learnt that serendipitous moments happen and that seeing a familiar face when you least expect it feels great. As unlikely as it was, I bumped into a girl I’d met a few cities earlier as we were being shepherded into the Sistine Chapel, and made friends with someone in Copenhagen who’d briefly helped me figure out which train to get in Amsterdam.
I learnt to be curious and to drink the details in. I spent most of my time outside, wandering the streets of new cities, or inside museums and galleries, or putting the world to rights with people I’d just met. I became interested in the world again and took notice of the facets of each new city with fascination and wonder.
Most of all I learnt to like myself again. I had put myself back together and found some new pieces along the way. I don’t know if this would have happened in quite the same way without my trip and even though it has been nearly four years since I set foot in Paris on that first day, I often wonder at how far I’ve come.