Have you ever noticed on Facebook that when you post a photo, the first question that pops up is “Who were you with?”
I never noticed this until I returned from a solo vacation to Vienna and I was trying to post photos of my travels. Photo after photo, “Who were you with?” asked Facebook until eventually I rolled my eyes and barked exasperated at my computer screen “No one! I wasn’t with anyone. It was just me!”
Now for the record, I hadn’t planned to go on vacation by myself. I was originally supposed to go with my friend but she had to back out for family reasons. I thought about cancelling my trip but Vienna has always been on my list of places to visit and I felt it was silly to cancel just because I didn’t have a travel buddy. I mean, it’s not like I was going on a 5 week hiking expedition to Antarctica or hitchhiking across Mexico (kudos to you if you’ve actually done this solo). Still, I had never gone on a vacation by myself and I was definitely a little nervous. What if I got lost? What if the weather was terrible? And my biggest fear, what if I got really lonely?
Well…as it turns out, all of those things happened.
I got really lost – figuratively and very, very literally. Other than the obligatory, daily email from the hotel lobby to my parents to let them know that I was alive, I had turned off my cell phone so that I could truly immerse myself in the culture. Armed only with my trusty tourist map, I navigated the streets of Vienna the old-fashioned way and conquered the public transportation system. I even took the train from the airport to my hotel, which is not as easy as it sounds as I don’t speak or read any German (Oops. Did I mention that I’m a pretty lazy traveler and sometimes forget to look up important details such as what a country’s national language is prior to arriving?). Needless to say, I was incredibly proud of myself when I identified my correct stop. That is until I learned that train doors don’t automatically open in Vienna. You have to manually push a button. Imagine the look on my face as the platform began to move away and I held my hands up against the glass doors silently mouthing “Noooooooooooo”. By the time I got off at the next stop, it was dark, cold and the stairs leading down from the platform led to a desolate riverbank that screamed crime scene. I looked around and thought “OK. It’s fine. So this is how I die.” I was tired and scared. But just as quickly, travel can bring out a resilience in you that you didn’t know you had. I took a deep breath, collected my wits, got back on the train going the other direction and found my hotel. Just in time before it started to rain.
Which brings me to the weather. It rained every. single. day. I remember standing in line at the Sacher Hotel which my good friend had insisted that I visit and sample their “world-famous” tortes. Freezing in a line that stretched back two city blocks, I thought “This better be a freakin’ delicious torte.” And it was. But I wish my friend could have been there to share it with me.
And it was moments like that when it hit me that I was by myself on vacation. Because there’s nothing like being in a sea of couples with selfie sticks to make you feel like you’re all alone. The funny thing is, despite those fleeting moments where I did feel lonely, or freezing because I got caught in the rain without an umbrella, or hopelessly lost trying to find my next meal, I honestly had the most amazing time.
Yes, you can feel a little sheepish asking for a table for one, but when you’re a party of one there is only one person you need to cater to – and that’s you.
When you travel by yourself you get to do everything that you want to do. I love classical music and I felt so lucky to walk through the homes of Mozart and Beethoven and to stumble upon a beautiful string quartet lit only by candlelight in a tiny, old church. At my first opera, I sat next to a German woman who was also travelling solo and we watched in transfixed silence as the singers brought to vivid life the story of Rigoletto. We did not speak the same language but she looked just as amused as I was when two minutes of melodious verse that escalated to a dizzying crescendo translated to an underwhelming “Goodnight, father” and “Gute Nacht, Vater” in the subtitles of our tiny screens.
When you’re by yourself, no one judges you when you eat an apple strudel for breakfast, and again at lunch, and then why not one more time for an afternoon snack. And let’s be real – travelling with loved ones can be wonderful but sometimes happiness is sleeping in the middle of a king-size bed all by yourself.
In the end, I didn’t post a ton of photos on Facebook. Because the best memories I have of that trip – the small, solitary moments of feeling empowered, happy and grateful – are ones that I couldn’t capture on film. I can’t wait for my upcoming travels with my family and friends. But I’ll always remember my solo adventure to Vienna and that sketchy train station, the majestic opera house and the many apple strudels I enjoyed at my table for one.