Before a trip I took alone through Sweden this summer, I began to have a strange recurring nightmare.
I show up to a fancy restaurant—the waiter asks pointedly if anyone’s joining me and smirks at my mumbled no, seating me in a dim corner where they keep the bad wine and loud children and nobody pays very much attention to the fact that they’ve forgotten to bring me the bread I’ve asked for but I’m afraid to keep bothering the service as I don’t want to draw any more attention to myself because people are already staring and whispering, (is she by herself?), and so I pass the dinner in a mortified silence, looking rather intently at my fork and knife counting down the minutes until I can ask for the check and go hide in my bed.
The week before I left I had the dream three times. Meanwhile, friends and family were asking if I was scared to be traveling alone. “Not really,” I’d say. Which was somewhat true—I wasn’t worried about the things they seemed to be worried about—that I would get kidnapped, or robbed, or just really lost. What I was scared about was eating dinner by myself.
I had ended up traveling alone for a week out of practicality rather than preference. After finishing a Spanish program in Barcelona and traveling with my friends, I had one week left before I began my internship in Stockholm. Rather than go all the way back to the states just to come back a week later, I decided to spend the in-between week exploring the city solo.
I had a host of concerns about the trip, all of which could be summed up by why I didn’t want to eat alone. I anticipated being lonely, embarrassed to be alone and deeply bored. I wasn’t sure I could entertain myself. I was scared to be left alone with my own thoughts. I didn’t want to be mortified for being by myself.
While I was busy worrying about judgmental waiters, people started to give me a lot of (somewhat unsolicited) advice about how to meet people. One friend suggested Tinder. Another directed me to a trendy café. My mom tried to set me up with a colleague’s 20-something summer intern. I anxiously Googled “traveling alone tips” and found detailed instructions on how to adjust my body language to appear approachable when dining and attract potential partners.
It didn’t seem that my friends or my parents or Google considered that maybe the key to having memorable adventures traveling solo wasn’t meeting other people but actually spending time alone. The thought didn’t really occur to me either.
The second night of my trip I went to a bar in central Stockholm, perched myself on a tall outdoor stool, (adjusted my body language accordingly), and waited for potential dinner partners to materialize.
At first all I could register was the gnawing feeling of being alone and being watched. I was hyper aware of every stranger that glanced my way, convinced every look contained secret mocking. But I began to relax. A guy on my right tried to strike up a conversation. A blond girl with a big, gap-toothed smile invited me to play a traditional bar game with her friends that involved throwing a metal ball into a sand pit. It looked complicated and probably not for the non-athletically inclined. Sure, I told her anyway, trying to be adventurous.
But as I walked over to join them, I noticed my disheveled, coffee stained guidebook with its highlighted pages peeking out of my bag. I saw the brightly colored sticky notes signifying all the places I wanted to visit.
There was the old amusement park; the Swedish history museum (apparently on Tuesdays kids came to dress up and act out Viking skits); a series of islands with uninhabited forests and tall pine trees a short ferry trip away; an old warship docked near the city center; the summer palace and greenhouse.
Suddenly, I was more excited by the prospect of doing these things than making small talk.
It was a rather sudden, split second decision. Giving the girl a hasty excuse that I suddenly felt ill, I snuck out of the bar.
I felt immediately released, invigorated by my new freedom. I pranced toward the historic City Hall building humming Ridin’ Solo. But shortly after I began to worry. I wondered if I would still have life-changing experiences, real adventures and riveting stories if I were alone. Would I be wasting my trip if I didn’t spend it with other people?
As the trip continued, I started worrying less about this—I was too busy enjoying myself. The truth was that I found not having relationships or connections with anyone to be liberating rather than limiting.
In my experience, trips with friends are as much about friendships as they are about traveling. I’m concerned they’re hungry or tired or find my museum taste boring. Relationships require compromises, sacrifices, focusing on others’ preferences as much as our own. This makes traveling complicated. You go to the hip sushi place your friend wants to try. Spend an hour looking at old boats with your mom.
Alone, I had the rare opportunity to do everything that appealed to me. And, even more excitingly, figure out exactly what that was.
I had a conversation the other day that illuminated for me why traveling alone was surprisingly meaningful. A junior was telling me over dinner about her sophomore year—the best year of her life. She spoke of endless parties and pre-games and hang-outs and formals. “I met so many interesting people!” she raved.
My other friend asked if she had found time to be interesting herself amidst all these parties. She replied that she hadn’t really thought about it like that. Neither had I.
While traveling alone I felt the pressure to be social. My parents texted daily, concerned that I was withering away by myself. Everyone gave me the same advice; I should meet new people so I could have more adventures. It seemed like I wouldn’t really be living if nobody witnessed it. Our culture is so fascinated with being social, charismatic and charming, but often fails to take into account the importance of self-cultivation.
If the emphasis is on how we’re appearing to others, we fail to reflect on who we want to be ourselves. If we’re always catering to others’ interests then we don’t get to discover our own. Not to imply that I’m advocating for unchecked selfishness. But cultivating a sense of self allows us to ultimately be more caring, giving, thoughtful and genuine friends.
There’s an important distinction between being lonely and being alone. Being lonely is not so much about literally being alone as it is being attuned one’s alone-ness. There are triggers that alert us to the fact that we’re alone—feeling self conscious, concerned about the implications of not spending time with others, general FOMO—but if we learn to tune these out there’s potential for invigorating self-learning.
This summer was my crash course in self-knowledge. I learned little things; I’m a horrible cook; I like weird art in small doses; I lack practical knowledge; I like exploring strange, unfamiliar neighborhoods and hate eating strange, unfamiliar food. I learned big things as well, but those are for another essay. For now, I’ll just say this.
One night I walked through a little trail by the Airbnb apartment I was renting into a park that used to be an old prison. The Swedes, always practical, had converted the old jail grounds into a playground and well-groomed beach.
I wandered down by the bridge to where rocks grazed the river. I scampered down the sandy hill, submerging my ankles in the water, and kept trudging forward until I was knee deep. It was 10pm and freezing. The beach was empty—no witnesses. And in that moment, I wasn’t worried whom I was with or who was watching or whom I would tell this to, I was just aware of feeling spontaneous, cold, a little bit foolish and alive.