10 reasons to travel alone

By Caitlin Kelly

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I went to say thank you and good-bye to one of the waitresses at my last hotel, and we chatted for a bit.

Then she exclaimed: “But…you’re alone!”

True.

I’d stayed a week at a 23-room historic hotel and I hadn’t seen anyone else there who was traveling solo.

In my time here in Europe, now five weeks, most of the travelers I’ve seen are in couples, or families, or packs of friends, whether teens or seniors.

I’m clearly an outlier, and I’m fine with that; my mother traveled the world alone for years and I spent four months alone traveling through Portugal, Spain, France and Italy at 23.

 

Here are 10 reasons I enjoy traveling solo, even (yes), while female:

 

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No one dictates my schedule

Unless it’s a travel day, and I have to meet a plane, train or bus on time, it’s no one’s business when I get up or go to bed or do anything. Total freedom is priceless to me.

No one is insisting we must do this or must see that

Again, if I want to retreat to my cool, quiet hotel room at mid-day to escape 90-degree heat, no one is having a (literal) meltdown or tantrum because they want to do something else.

I’ve missed all sorts of must-see’s and must-do’s on this trip, (all those museums! all those famous sites!), because I wanted to just rest and relax and see only what I want to see.

People can be much kinder than you’d expect

This trip has been savaged by a lot of right knee pain and right foot pain. It makes walking slow and painful. It makes stairs slow and painful. I also do poorly in heat, and everywhere people have been very kind, offering to help me with luggage or stairs.

 

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Pauly Saal, the Berlin restaurant where I met two new-to-me friends for lunch

 

Making new friends is easier

When you travel with others, their wants and needs, of course, matter to their enjoyment of their vacation. If you just want to sit and have a long conversation, sometimes even a short one, that can impede your companions’ progress.

I’ve really savored the long conversations I’ve had along the way, and have learned a lot about the places I’ve been.

I don’t want to just slide past, taking lots of photos.

And yet….

 

Silence is truly golden

When traveling solo, you don’t have to talk to anyone beyond the most basic questions. I can go an entire day without conversation, and what a relief that is.

As the waitress agreed, about having to be charming and social: “It’s exhausting!”

 

You’re present in a way that’s usually impossible when traveling with others

I’ve been amazed at how I just sit, still, for an hour. No book, no magazine or paper. No screens. Whether I’m watching someone in a cafe, or the local cats who shimmy down the garden trees, or admiring kids splashing into the Adriatic at sunset, I can pay all of it my full attention.

I’ve gotten some astounding photos at all times of day and night, able to see clearly without interruption or distraction. I spent one happy afternoon sketching and painting.

 

No fights!

I witnessed a furious mother and her mutinous little boy, (and his brother and their fed-up grandparents), at a table near me in Rovinj, a seaside resort in Croatia. It was clear they were all totally annoyed with this kid, and he with them.

Thank heaven it wasn’t me; having had some monumental arguments while very far from home — out alone with my father, my mother, my husband — I know how stressful that is since you all still have to get back into the same hotel or flat and/or the same means of transportation later anyway.

 

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Time to reflect

I’ve had all sorts of new-to-me ideas while away, for more travel, for some different ideas about designing our home, about how to work.

I’ve been reading a lot — books for a change  — and loving it.

 

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The trams in Zagreb — fast, cheap, efficient

 

You (re)-learn to be self-reliant

My favorite French words are “se débrouiller” and “débrouillard”...which means “to figure it out for yourself” and, loosely, “a self-reliant person.”

Solo travel turns you into that person, and quickly!

At 25, I won an EU journalism fellowship based in Paris that required four 10-day independent  reporting trips throughout Europe. No one was there to hold my hand or to show me stuff. I loved it!

Whether you’re madly calculating currency differences, (try 276 Hungarian forints to the U.S. dollar!) or trying to read a map in another language or making sure you’ve caught the right bus/train/boat heading in the right direction, it’s all up to you.

If it goes pear-shaped, (as the British would say), everywhere has some sort of medical care and usually someone who speaks English. Absolute worst case, you can contact your consulate or embassy for emergency help.

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The Washington, D.C. Metro

The self-confidence solo travel creates is fantastic, lasting and can inspire others to take the leap

I’ve been traveling alone since I was 17 and first crossed the U.S. border by train to attended a photo workshop — although I took my first flight alone, from Toronto to Antigua, at seven.

Once you realize how to navigate the world, and see that many people — like us — just want to make a living, help their kids and grandkids thrive, and to enjoy their lives as much as we do — it’s a much less intimidating place.

Yes, some spots are tougher than others, and some truly no-go zones for women alone. But fewer than you’d think.

 

Have you traveled alone?

 

How did you enjoy it?

 

Failure is not an option

We shall go on to the end

We will fight with growing confidence

We shall never surrender

— Winston Churchill

Prime Minister Winston Churchill gives the &qu...
Prime Minister Winston Churchill gives the “Victory” sign to crowds in London on Victory in Europe Day. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been asked many times why, when faced with challenge, I don’t just give up.

Fortunately, I’ve never faced sexual assault, chronic or terminal illness, war, famine or poverty. Some of the people who read Broadside have faced these very real traumas, so I don’t begin to suggest my First World problems are terribly compelling, but resilience and tenacity do interest me.

Who cracks and crumples, hysterical, and who soldiers on?

While at university studying Spanish and starting my journalism career, I volunteered as an interpreter for Chileans who had suffered, and/or witnessed, the rape, torture or death of their loved ones, neighbors and fellow citizens, who had fled to Canada and who were claiming refugee status. In that role, I listened carefully to stories so soul-searing I’ve never forgotten them, even when I wanted to. I went to the dentist with one man to see if the X-rays could prove, (which they did not) that his jaw had, in fact, been smashed by a rifle butt. Another told me, in the detail he had to to prove his claim, about watching his wife and daughters raped in front of him.

My personal challenges have included:

— being the only child of a divorced bi-polar alcoholic mother who suffered multiple breakdowns and hospitalizations, some overseas

— her multiple cancer surgeries

— the loss of both grandmothers when I was 18

— putting myself through college, living alone for three years of it

— being attacked by an intruder in my apartment, at 19

— selling my work to national publications, starting at 19

— three recessions since moving to New York in 1989

— moving to, and adapting to, life in Mexico, France and the U.S.

— getting divorced

— becoming the victim of a con artist

— four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, including full left hip replacement in 2012; 18 months’ of pain and exhaustion before the operation

When single, I didn’t give up for practical reasons —  who would have bought the groceries or made the meals? The laundry and dog-walking? Turning to my family for help was rarely an option, for a variety of reasons.

If you fall to bits, who pays the bills?

I’ve always had health insurance — even paying $500/month for it when I lived alone for six years — and with it, access to medical and mental health help when necessary. I know that’s been a huge advantage for me, as has the freedom from the pressing financial and emotional responsibilities of children or grandkids.

Sent to boarding school and summer camp from the age of eight, I learned young to take care of myself, not to ask for help, not to rely on others for aid or comfort. The hardest part has been learning to ask others for help — and being pleasantly surprised and grateful at how willingly some offer it.

At my absolutely lowest points, I still had my health, some savings, a safe, clean home I could  afford. Maybe having lived in Mexico at 14, or having traveled to a number of developing countries, helped me keep a sense of perspective — I was still deeply blessed with what I had, no matter how tough things looked at the time.

And some people still dearly loved me; their faith in me, and their generosity and kindness, helped me keep it together. One woman, after the con man scared the shit out of me and I seriously considered moving back to Toronto, gave me refuge in her home for three weeks there.

The only time I really gave up, and my body made clear I had no choice in the matter, was three days on an IV in March 2007 , hospitalized with pneumonia. I had never just collapsed, (even when I really wanted to), and allowed others to take very good care of me while I rested and recovered.

Here’s a powerful post by tech entrepreneur Brad Feld about his own physical burn-out:

Finally, I do have a full time job and spent the bulk of my time working on that, so all of this other stuff was the extracurricular activity that filled in the cracks around the 60+ hours a week of VC work I was doing during this time.

I had a lot of time to reflect on this last week after I came out of my Vicodin-induced haze. At 47, I realize, more than ever, my mortality. I believe my kidney stone and depression were linked to the way I treated myself physically over the 90 days after my bike accident. While the kidney stone might not have been directly linked to the accident, the culmination of it, the surgery, and my depression was a clear signal to me that I overdid it this time around.

Do you ever just want to give up?

Have you?

What keeps you going?

Here is Winston Churchill, in his own words.

If I were Queen…

The Sceptre, Orb and Imperial Crown of Austria...
The Sceptre, Orb and Imperial Crown of Austria in the Schatzkammer, Vienna (Photo credit: David Jones)

Oh, the possibilities!

As I get older and crankier, (OK, even crankier), I have a growing desire to enact sweeping changes.

Because: 1) I’m right; 2) you’re wrong; 3) if you disagree with me, I can have you drawn and quartered.

Ooops, sorry. Not queen just yet!

But in the deluded if pleasantly optimistic fantasy that I will soon awaken to the news that I am, in fact, in possession of: 1) ermine robes; 2) an orb and sceptre; 3) a big shiny crown; 4) power; 5) a throne…Look out.

I would:

Make every single person of able body work retail for a month, during the holiday season. You might be bagging groceries, or using one of those nifty folding boards to make a pile of T-shirts all tidy or stocking shelves. But you will definitely be exposed to the rudeness, demands, in(s) anity, germs, badly-behaved children, dumb questions and finger-snapping of shoppers. (If lucky, you will also have amazing moments of connection with some very cool people.) Only then can you possibly understand why “They’re so slow!” and learn to control your eye-roll and sighing when service fails to meet your needs. That low-paid, physically-grueling, intellectually-deadening job most likely doesn’t meet much of theirs.

Show every child, at age 12, (or earlier), the tools necessary to care for themselves and their home — and teach them to use them. Then make sure they do! Gender-free training, this would include household appliances, clothing and dish detergent, cleaners, polishes, dusters, brooms, mops, toilet bowl scrubbers, Windex, an iron and ironing board, a needle and thread, shoe polish and brushes and shoe trees, a lint roller.

Toilet bowl swab.
Toilet bowl swab. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Make sure every child over the age of 12, (or earlier), knows how to shop for groceries, compare prices and make wise choices on their own. When is a melon fresh? What can you make with a mushy banana? Is that cut of meat really cheaper?

Make sure every child over 12, (possibly quite a bit earlier), can read a food label, read and follow a recipe, prepare food safely and cook meals from scratch, using no canned, frozen or processed ingredients. I’ve never owned a microwave; you can make a great meal in about 6 minutes if you have the right ingredients.

Insist that no child be allowed to leave high school, (drop out or not), without passing a mandated financial literacy test. They would fully comprehend how to balance a checkbook (or ensure they are not spending beyond their means without full awareness of that); apply for a loan; understand an APR, a FICO score, a SEP and the value of a low-interest line of credit. The complex language of a vehicle loan, home mortgage or other major commitment — like college debt — would be familiar and accessible to them as they move into the larger world.

Factors contributing to someone's credit score...
Factors contributing to someone’s credit score, for Credit score (United States). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Repeat this test — like renewing a driver’s license — every two years, as the economy changes and people forget, become distracted and/or their needs change.

Make sure everyone knows the essential importance of prompt, sincere and personal thank-you notes. On paper, with a stamp.

Give every teen leaving home a toolbox with hammer, screwdriver, cordless drill, screws, nails, a level and a tape measure so they they can use them safely to maintain, repair and improve their homes.

Make every designer of every public space — especially the enormous expanses of American grocery stores — much more aware of the 47 million Americans who suffer from arthritis. Many shopping environments completely ignore the needs of those living with chronic pain and impaired mobility.

Create quiet zones in every possible public place, with severe fines and enforcement, to reduce cellphone abuse, earbud leakage and the blaring televisions that now assault us in airport departure lounges to (yes, really) hospital emergency rooms. When I am jacknifed in pain with a 104 degree temperature, television only makes me feel even worse. Surely people can distract themselves quietly and privately in shared space. Research increasingly shows that constant exposure to noise is extremely detrimental to our physical and emotional health.

Make every affluent teen spend a month, alone, in a developing nation — or zone of extreme poverty within their own country. Only by living among people earning pennies per day can someone understand what poverty is really like, what wrenching choices it imposes, what family damage it inflicts and what decisions, personal or political, perpetuate it.

Require every graduating college student, no matter their field of study, to learn a second language. We live in a global society. Insular thinking is dead.

Create many more affordable, attainable ways for lower-income teens and young adults to leave their homes for six to 12 months, working overseas or in a foreign country, to learn firsthand what other nations are doing better, (or worse), with their citizens’ lives. The “news media” is no substitute for firsthand experience. Trans-national friendships and experiences, whether created in high school, college, grad school or through your own initiative, are often life-changing.

Force Big Business to donate a fixed percentage of profit, (tied to CEO bonus and compensation as well), to re-patriating jobs to the United States. Call it a tax, a tariff, whatever. Just do it. Business must not be rewarded solely for raking in billions of corporate profits while stiffing millions of Americans of the chance to earn a living here.

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united states currency eye- IMG_7364_web (Photo credit: kevindean)

Require every client hiring a freelance worker to pay a percentage of their fee up front.  The shoemaker does it. Upholsterers do it. Frame shops do it. Making people wait for their payments and stress over meeting their own financial commitments is immoral and obscene. Sweeten it with some form of tax credit, but make it happen. One third of Americans do not have “a job” — they work in this manner.

If you were Queen or King, what would you decree?

Is “Help!” a four-letter word for you?

English: "A Helping Hand". 1881 pain...
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve just experienced the most dependent month of my adult life.

Having had full hip replacement, returning home bruised, swollen and sore, I needed daily — even multiple times a day — help to do the simplest of things: eat, dress, pull socks, stocking and shoes on and off, get in and out of bed, bathe.

I left my parents’ home at 19 and lived much of my life after that alone. I’d been sick as hell alone in my apartment or traveling far away where I knew no one and didn’t speak the language, in places like Venice or Istanbul. My family has never been close emotionally or physically — it was made very clear to me what, pretty much whatever happened to me, physically, financially, emotionally, it was up to me to figure out, and cope with it.

I hated being weak, needy and vulnerable. Surprise!

I finally drove this week — and showered (alone!) and tied my sneakers (unaided!) — for the first time in a month. I went by train into Manhattan, our nearest city, and saw a movie with a friend and did some clothes shopping. It was all deliciously new and deeply pleasant.

But I didn’t, as everyone expected, sigh with relief at finally regaining my cherished independence.

I loved having Jose home, to chat with and bring me breakfast in bed. Friends drove an hour to visit, bringing home-cooked meals and fresh cheer. Two close friends were kind enough to chauffeur me to physical therapy a few times, otherwise a $20 cab ride each way.

I’d never been so fussed over or cared for, and it was lovely. Our front door is covered in get-well cards. We ate dinners for three weeks cooked and delivered by members of our church.

As I’ve been walking our apartment property in spring sunshine, I’ve run into a neighbor, a single woman my age who is fighting cancer for the third time. She’s reluctant to ask for help, but she needs it from time to time.

We all do.

We are, even in our vigorous 20s or 30s, as likely to be felled by a vicious flu or a broken arm or a sprained ankle.

We need help, whether writing a better resume or finding the perfect wedding dress or learning how to refinish furniture or bathe a baby. But, for some reason, we’re supposed to shoo away a helping hand.

No, I’m, fine, really, we insist. Even when we’re really not at all fine and would kill for a helping hand or two.

Maybe we’re afraid no one will step up and be reliable and do the hard work, even for a while. As someone who took decades here in New York to make lasting friendships, this offered a huge and powerful lesson for me. We’re loved!

Do you find it difficult to ask others for help?

When you ask, do you receive it?

Does Boarding School Screw You Up For Life?

English: Students at the Old Fort Lewis Indian...
Image via Wikipedia

I went off to boarding school at eight, the youngest girl there. I went off to summer camp, eight weeks at a stretch, at the same age. I saw my mother on weekends, my father (from whom she was divorced) whenever he was around, which was intermittent as he was a film-maker who often traveled far away for months for his work.

So, there you are, surrounded by a sea of strangers, whose rules and regulations — and kindness, compassion and goodwill — will make or break the rest of your childhood and/or adolescence.

Weird? Yes.

Formative? Definitely.

Here’s a recent editorial from The Guardian on sending young kids off to boarding school — considered perfectly normal behavior by some Britons:

So I want to try once more to begin a discussion about an issue we still refuse to examine: early boarding. It is as British as warm beer, green suburbs and pointless foreign wars. Despite or because of that we won’t talk about it. Those on the right will not defend these children as they will not criticise private schools. Those on the left won’t defend them, as they see them as privileged and therefore undeserving of concern. But children’s needs are universal; they know no such distinctions.

The UK Boarding Schools website lists 18 schools which take boarders from the age of eight, and 38 which take them from the age of seven. I expect such places have improved over the past 40 years; they could scarcely have got worse. Children are likely to have more contact with home; though one school I phoned last week told me that some of its pupils still see their parents only in the holidays. But the nature of boarding is only one of the forces that can harm these children. The other is the fact of boarding.

In a paper published last year in the British Journal of Psychotherapy, Dr Joy Schaverien identifies a set of symptoms common among early boarders that she calls boarding school syndrome. Her research suggests that the act of separation, regardless of what might follow it, “can cause profound developmental damage”, as “early rupture with home has a lasting influence on attachment patterns”.

When a child is brought up at home, the family adapts to accommodate it: growing up involves a constant negotiation between parents and children. But an institution cannot rebuild itself around one child. Instead, the child must adapt to the system. Combined with the sudden and repeated loss of parents, siblings, pets and toys, this causes the child to shut itself off from the need for intimacy. This can cause major problems in adulthood: depression, an inability to talk about or understand emotions, the urge to escape from or to destroy intimate relationships. These symptoms mostly affect early boarders: those who start when they are older are less likely to be harmed.

So true.

It sure ain’t Hogwarts, kids!

The very notion of daily, familial emotional intimacy — whaddya mean I’m supposed to share my feelings? Feelings?! — is as alien to me, even now, as Jupiter. It’s no accident I married a man who is very affectionate, grew up in a normal family with two sisters at home and easily says “I love you” a lot.

I have only one friend who also had this experience, a man a bit older, who has some very similar emotional patterns. At best, we can tough out almost anything without sniveling or whining. At worst, we come across as (and may well be!) cold, bossy, disconnected.

Some of what you learn:

You rarely cry. There’s no one to cry to. Bluntly stated, no one cares. There’s no one offering a comforting hug or a hand to hold if you’re anxious, ill, homesick or scared. You share a room with four to six other girls, some just as miserable, whose distant parents live even further away than yours, in Nassau or Caracas or North Bay.

You rarely share your feelings. No one in authority has the time or interest to sit with you. No one asks. “So, how was your day, sweetie?” They check your name on a list to make sure you are present. i.e. not missing, not a problem, not a liability. Your assigned room-mates? They might hate you, or use personal information against you. Best not to offer them any ammo.

A vicious tongue. Because you cannot fight physically and cannot leave and cannot find privacy from those who are making you crazy, you learn to wound verbally. Not pretty.

Television and radio are impossibly exotic treats. This was back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I got to watch television at school maybe once a week, with a bunch of other girls in the common room. I laughed really loudly — probably at a sitcom — and was admonished for not being ladylike. (You should hear how loudly I laugh today!)

Food and drink take on additional importance. Every meal, including snacks, is served on a schedule, in a pre-determined location. We were told each week at school what table to sit at. Between-meal hunger? Deal with it: sneak food out, keep some in your room. Tip: trying to carry oranges, apples or grapefruit in your baggy, saggy bloomers is not an effective strategy.

Privacy is the greatest luxury imaginable. Every waking hour, you’re surrounded by other people, some of whom you loathe and vice versa: in your bed, in the bathroom, in the dining hall, in the classroom, in classes and sports.

Your self-image is shaped by people who make judgments about you with incomplete information. I was asked to leave my boarding school after Grade 9 for being, (as I was that year), disobedient, rude and disruptive. But no one ever bothered, kindly and with genuine concern for me, to ask why. In high school, my nickname was the Ice Queen, so little emotion did I show. Go figure.

The upsides:

Self-reliance. Independence. A stiff upper lip. I know to make a bed, iron wool, tie a tie. (Part of our uniform.) Whistle with two fingers. Swear like a sailor. An excellent education with ferociously high standards. Tons of homework, as early as fourth grade. No boys to distract us. The automatic assumption that smart girls rule, that men are not to be deferred to simply because they expect it and the expectation that every girl is capable of, and will produce, excellence and leadership.

All good things!

Did you leave your family at an early age?

How did it affect you?