Lessons Learned From Traveling Solo Around The World

Last we heard from contributor Michelle Alexander, she had just quit her job, gotten dumped and decided to globe-trot alone. Today, she reports back on the lessons she learned from her trip, with insights we should all take to heart.
Image Credit: Jordan Carlson

Image Credit: Jordan Carlson

A few months ago, after quitting my job and getting my heart broken, I embarked on my own Eat, Pray, Love adventure to reflect on life and finally answer the question, “Who am I on my own, anyway?” Nervous to travel alone for the first time and still raw from my breakup, I headed out on an excursion to the French Riviera and northern Italy for two and a half weeks – a trip I was originally supposed to take with my ex-boyfriend.

The first half of my journey was what I call my attempt at “Getting It Right.” I had the first ten days planned, air-tight – Nice, Genoa and Milan, with accommodations booked in every city, bus and train tickets printed, local transit investigated, attractions mapped out…you name it, I was prepared for it.

I now realize I was so prepared because I was TERRIFIED OF THE UNKNOWN!

I spent a lot of time Googling things like “the best coffee shop” or “the best restaurant” in any given place and just beelining to those spots with my head down. Everything was so heavily researched beforehand that none of it was surprising or unexpected. I also felt enormous anxiety when faced with talking to people in another language or walking into a situation where I didn’t know the “cultural rules.” I was afraid to stick out or get something “wrong,” so I spoke to almost no one. My hand literally hurt from clutching my phone like it was a security blanket.

Combine all of this with a very broken heart, and the only spontaneity I experienced in those first ten days was when I spontaneously burst into tears now and then, as I wandered from one TripAdvisor suggestion to another.

Don’t get me wrong – throughout the first half of my trip, I did see some amazing things, and I learned a lot about myself and the world around me, but I never felt a deep sense of satisfaction and couldn’t put my finger on why. I felt like I was just going through the motions of travel: checking places off my must-see list, snapping Instagram pics, but not really experiencing anything.

Then, on my last night in Milan, in full-blown mourning over my ex and deep disappointment that this trip wasn’t the empowering experience I was hoping for, I did what any sad, yet self-respecting North American woman alone abroad would do…I comforted myself by going to the hippest bar I could find and proceeded to get super drunk on Manhattans, while gorging myself on Apertivo and texting exes from long ago.

It may not have been my finest moment, but thank god for that pity party, because one of those exes sent me this New York Times piece about travelling alone. In a nutshell, it tells you to leave your phone behind, be open to interacting with strangers, and rather than relying on fancy websites to make your plans for you, ask for advice from REAL people who actually live there, and then a follow their suggestions. I read the article and felt a resounding “YAAAS” – this was what my trip was missing!

The next day, in my bourbon-infused hangover haze, as I was making my way from Milan, through Genoa, and back to Nice for a few days, I made a commitment to start trying this new approach to travelling. I did relatively well at first – I had a stopover in Genoa for five hours before my bus to Nice, and I ended up talking to more people than I had yet on the trip. I walked into more places that made me nervous and (other than the grabbing it for the occasional Instagram pic) left my phone in the bottom of my bag.

But honestly, it was way harder than I bargained for. And it took one really hard moment – and the insight of a stranger – to truly transform my trip. To make a long story short, I missed my stop on a bus through Italy in the middle of the night, and as I desperately wrangled with the driver (who spoke no English), pleading for him to turn around and go back to drop me off, another woman made her way to the front. I thought, “Yes! She’s going to help me!” But instead, she just came to say, “Girl, why did you not just speak up earlier and say what you wanted! Don’t assume! Don’t assume! You must ask for what you want!”

She nailed it. Why had I stayed quiet and been so afraid of sticking out, everywhere I went? Why had it taken me so long to speak up?

Thus began the second half of my journey, which I like to call, “Beyond the Comfort Zone.” From that moment, things were different – I stopped trying to “get it right” and started making a conscious effort to challenge myself every day to exist in the unknown. I put my phone away, I stopped Googling “the bests” and started having an actual adventure – I ended up renting a car, which I had never done before, and just drove with no plan for four days.

I stopped in towns just because I liked their names, or because I vaguely remembered hearing about one in a Hitchcock movie once; I got lost in the middle of the night on mountain roads and slept in my car; I had the best coffee I’ve ever had at 11pm, in a pizzeria in the middle of nowhere while everyone stared at me in silence; I hiked in the French Alps alone; I got side-swiped by a Shawarma truck; I gained five (well worthwhile) pounds in pasta, croissants and cheese; I stayed in a hotel that was decorated with creepy porcelain dolls; I cheered at a local soccer game in Venice; I jogged on the Nice promenade during the Super Moon; one day, I drove through Monaco in the morning and went to Ventimiglia, Italy for an afternoon coffee; I bought an apple from a food market in Italian and haggled over a scarf at a flea market in French!

I let conversations define where I went each day, and I allowed the flow of people into restaurants and bars to define where I ate and drank. I cried a lot, I laughed a lot, I felt extreme loneliness and also felt thankful for the time alone. I realized how much self-worth I was lacking and also realized I have the capacity and resilience to be one damn amazing, strong woman.

By the last day, my trip was no longer an act of trying to get it right and feel better. It became about existing, authentically and presently in that moment, and giving no fucks about what other people think.

In my journal entry on my last night, I wrote: “I’m still gritting my teeth, I’m still crying all the time but I’m alive and am finding moments of joy and relaxation and awe. Lonely yes, but sometimes okay. I’m learning to respect myself – and embrace those parts of me I admire and the parts of me I am working to explore.”

If that’s not an Eat, Pray, Love moment…I don’t know what is.

p.s. Did you catch Michelle's initial explanation of why she decided to globe trot, solo?