07 Mar Learning to Travel Alone
In Brno, Czech Republic, a few hours from Prague, my life changed. Not in a cliché or dramatic way. I actually didn’t even know it was happening at the time. Nothing major happened, no earth-shattering revelations or near-death experiences. And it wasn’t just the travel. Leaving North America for the first time obviously made a difference in my life, but it was also how I traveled. At the time I didn’t realize anything big was happening to me, but later I saw that a tiny, almost nonexistent incident in Brno had set my life in motion to where it is now. Up until recently I hadn’t even remembered it happened at all. But I learned to travel alone.
About half of the students in my group signed up for this weekend trip months before, when we applied to the study abroad program. After meeting the other students and making friends, I learned that my new friends weren’t going. I tried to make even newer friends on the trip but the cliques had formed and I found myself stuck somewhere on the outside. Now I realize I actually didn’t try very hard to be included, but at the time it felt like I was doing everything possible. I couldn’t even default to the girl I was rooming with because she had a cold and decided to sleep during our free time.
It was seven PM on our first night. We had driven to Brno from Prague in the morning and spent the day on a city tour. The rest of the night was free to us, but of course I hadn’t made any plans with anyone. I was hungry, really hungry. I hadn’t eaten since probably breakfast and I had nothing with me. I had no idea where any of the other students were staying in the big hotel. We didn’t even have cell phones.
I left my dark hotel room, leaving my roommate to sleep, and went down to the lobby. I sat in the cool, lighted waiting area in a big armchair. I hoped to see anyone from my group come down but there didn’t seem to be anyone at all. If I didn’t know any better I would have thought the hotel was deserted. I wondered if maybe they had all gone to eat. Maybe I had missed them while I was sitting in my room, pondering what to do.
I suddenly felt so sorry for myself. Even though I was never bullied, or even left out in school, I felt like I finally knew what it was like to have no friends, to not have a single person to turn to. What was I going to do? I was starving, and all I wanted was for someone to come and find me and tell me what to do.
I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. I’d never had trouble making friends. I’d never even given it any thought before. It just always seemed to happen while I wasn’t thinking about it. Even in college, where I went knowing no one, I was on the soccer team and immediately connected with the group that I would be with for the next four years. But then, in Brno, I actually needed to try and I didn’t know what to do.
I looked out the large front doors of the hotel. It was dark and I could only see the reflection of the lobby. I couldn’t just go back upstairs. I knew I’d lie in bed wishing for food. And more than that: I didn’t want to go up to a dark room at seven PM or sit in this empty lobby. It seemed really sad.
I got up and walked out the front door. Once outside the icy air hit my cheeks. In January in the Czech Republic there wasn’t snow, but it was still cold. I went forward only a little bit, going down the three steps onto the pavement of the parking lot. It was dark and only lit up by only a few street lamps glowing orange. I could barely see past the perimeter of the parking lot where light seemed to end.
We were out in the suburbs and I stepped out to see trees on one side, and a wide highway on the other, visible only by a few lights and the headlights of the intermittent cars. Even though I was from a small town, comfortable being around thick patches of trees and very few people, it felt different. It was different. This was the Czech Republic, a place I’d been only a few days.
I was alone and I was afraid. I grew more frightened every minute and things continued to look even scarier. The wind blew and made everything feel haunted, like instead of standing in a suburban parking lot with a hotel just behind me, I was in a cemetery next to a creepy church. The only thing missing were the crows and I was sure I saw something flying around above me.
I wondered why I was so scared. I’d always felt that I was pretty independent, able to do anything. I’d left home to go to college without knowing anyone else and I’d decided to come to Prague in the same way. So why, when I only needed to walk, find a restaurant or supermarket, could I not move my feet? I grew up across the street from a prison, for god’s sake. I’d jog down the road, just yards from the huge, menacing walls or near the inmates doing landscaping and never blink.
Just like at home, where making friends was easy and simple, so was going out to get food, or going on that run. But here everything seemed so complicated. Everything seemed harder, too big of a deal. I didn’t know what made the Czech Republic so different from home but it seemed worlds apart, only in my mind.
So I told myself I would just walk to the path near the end of the parking lot. I would walk there and see if I my eyes would adjust to the darkness at all. Once I was there I told myself to walk further down the path and then further, and then further. Every time I came to my new destination I made myself walk more. It was like on those jogs when I just didn’t feel like going anymore I would trick myself, saying that I would only run until the next mailbox, the next hill, the next turn, but I would always keep going.
The whole time I was on edge, holding my purse tightly to my stomach, and looking in every direction. It was quiet, the only sound being the wind, and I felt like people were going to run behind me me and tackle me or grab my purse, or any crazy thing my mind would come up with. Eventually I found a large supermarket in what seemed like a huge warehouse. I went in, feeling more comfortable in the lights. I stayed inside longer than I probably needed to, looking through all the aisles, feeling like I had just escaped some horrible fate. I found some snacks and paid with my newly acquired Czech crowns.
Outside I found a well-lit place, on a curb near the back of the warehouse, and sat and ate. I was still scared someone would jump out at me, but my back was to the building and I could see anyone coming far enough away to be able to run or scream. At least my hands stopped shaking. When I got back to the hotel, I felt better. Like after my runs when I would suddenly get a rush of energy replacing all that I’d spent. I felt like I could do anything. I was still freaked out to walk back, though. I kept my pace just under running and heaved a sigh of relief when I reached the lobby intact.
Because of this I was able to get over the fear, early on, that Europe or a place I didn’t know, would be scary and that I should only leave the safety of my dorm or hotel with a group of friends. I realized, somewhat unconsciously, that I couldn’t rely on other people. I didn’t become cynical or jaded, I just realized that if I wanted to do anything in life, accomplish anything, I couldn’t wait around for things to happen to me, for people to come get me and pull me along. I had been doing that for most of my life, whether it was my mom or my friends. For the most part, I just went with the flow. I hadn’t even realized something had changed in me until I was in Prague a few months later.
I walked into class and sat down next to a girl in my program. We were friendly but didn’t talk outside of program-related things like class or fieldtrips.
“What did you do this morning?” she asked, opening her notebook.
“I went to Old Town and sat at that café, the one right down from the Staroměstská metro?” I said. She nodded in recognition. “I had breakfast and did some homework.”
“Oh, that sounds nice,” she said. “I really need to just pick a day to get all of my homework out of the way. I’m getting so behind. Who went with you? Kirby?”
“No,” I said. “I just went by myself.”
“Yourself?” she repeated like she hadn’t heard me. “You were alone?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You go on the metro alone?” She asked, looking at me even more like I’d made some huge accomplishment. Or was wildly insane.
“Yes,” I said. “Probably everyday.” We’d been in Prague for nearly three months, had she never gone on the metro alone? I think that’s when I realized that maybe I had done something big, or at least I had changed slightly.
“I could never do that,” she said. “I’d be too scared.”
I wanted to ask her how she ever did anything. If she wanted to go to the store or get lunch and her friends were busy did she just sit in her room and never leave? The professor walked in and we had to stop talking.
It seemed crazy to me that she wouldn’t even leave the dorm in fear of being alone. I wondered if she was always like that or if it was just being here in Europe. Though I think she was overreacting slightly, never even leaving her dorm without an entourage, I wondered what my life would be like I never left by myself. After we stopped talking, and the teacher started the lesson, I forgot about the conversation. Not until I started really traveling alone, and people who knew me my whole life asked me how I could possibly do it, did I realize I had changed, even slightly.
I realize now that if I hadn’t forced myself out in Brno, if maybe I would have stayed frightened, everyday the fear growing bigger and bigger because I didn’t just let myself see that there was nothing to fear, I could have ended up like the girl in Prague. I wouldn’t have travelled to half of the places I’ve been now because I’ve only gone alone. I didn’t wait for someone to go with me. I didn’t expect someone to come and drag me along. I’m not perfect at traveling alone. It’s not like I don’t get lonely or never need people, but I know now that I can’t expect constant company. I’ll travel whether someone comes with me or not.