Recently, fellow Feminspire writer Nikki wrote an article about her experience traveling with a group of close friends and what she learned from it. I nodded my head in agreement practically the entire way through, having recently returned from spending a week with some of my closest friends in a city that I’d never been to before. Good friends and new places are a perfect combination, leading to a lot of laughing and being able to reflect later on the trip as being a one of a kind adventure, without being able to pinpoint what exactly made it so amazing because the entire trip was a whirlwind of unforgettable moments.
It got me thinking, though, about the times when I was away from home that I learned the most from, the days my mind revisits when I’m thinking about what I’m proud of accomplishing and how I learned to trust myself. Most of those times, I was alone.
A year and a half ago I studied abroad for 10 weeks in London. I went with a group of other students from my state, but I’d never met any of them until the day we all met up at the airport to leave. At 19, I was the youngest of the group, and the oldest was late thirties/early forties. Needless to say we were an incredibly varied group, and I’m amazed we found as much common ground as we did. We took all our classes together, got lunch together, went on various fieldtrips, and took a couple of trips outside of London. But for the most part, when it came to exploring the city and finding a hotel in London, it was just me.
At first I didn’t stray far from our group, but the lists of things I wanted to do and see were piling up and I couldn’t get anyone interested doing everything with me. Frankly, I didn’t want to try. What’s the fun in dragging someone along who doesn’t want to be there to something you’re really excited about? You’ll feel bad the entire time for dawdling and end up leaving before you’re ready.
Between my very limited social life and the fact that I only had school to worry about instead of balancing work and school which was what I had been used to at home, I had a ton of time on my hands to do absolutely whatever I want, free from other distractions or commitments. There was no middle step between deciding something would be a fun way to spend an afternoon and doing just that. I just started doing things, anything, everything. I went to about five museums alone, visited a bunch of parks, took the long route home on the bus. One day I took the tube to a station I had no reason to visit except that a song I’d loved a few years before had been written about it. Every opportunity there was to do something, and every suggestion from a family member back home, I took without a second thought.
I initially did this out of necessity, because if I wanted to do all these things I had no real choice but to do them alone. But I ended up preferring to explore this way. It’s only ever for brief windows that life is simple enough that you have complete freedom over what you choose to do before time restraints or other commitments start showing up, but I was there for a short enough amount of time that that never happened, and I took advantage of it. I knew a very limited amount of people and didn’t have much opportunity to meet anyone else. The dozen or so of us took classes taught by a professor who had come with us from the US, so aside from those people, the staff of the program we were studying abroad through, and my host mom and her friends, I didn’t have a lot of lasting interaction with people.
I can’t say being on your own is always fun, because it’s not. But that isn’t the point of being on your own anyway. It’s motivating, freeing, and invigorating, and you learn a lot very, very quickly when you only have yourself to rely on. I had never been very good at reading maps for example, and was accustomed to handing them off in frustration to someone with a better sense of direction every time we were turned around. But it only takes one time of being alone outside of a tube station you’ve never been to before holding an A-Z map guide sideways trying to figure out what direction to walk before you find you have the patience required to learn how to use it.
I spent many wonderful days with equally wonderful people while in London, and I look back on them fondly, but I am just as appreciative and weirdly nostalgic for the days I when I was so frustrated that there was nothing to do but keep trying until I’d figured it out. The May afternoon I spent lost in North London looking for a famous cemetery, all the evenings I walked walked aimlessly across bridges and along the bank, the day I spent ages looking for 221B Baker Street not realizing that the addresses were numbered strangely so that it didn’t fall numerically where I expected it to. These aren’t days I think of as times when I had a lot of fun, but they were some of the most worthwhile days of my life. It seems so simple, but realizing how much I could accomplish and make happen for myself without any outside help made anything seem possible. Eventually I stopped second-guessing myself. I was one girl with an entire city and endless possibility outside her door
Sometimes when I tell people about my time in London, they comment on how I must have been so lonely and that it’s too bad I didn’t make closer friendships. A lot of people don’t understand that when I say I did all of these things alone I mean it in a good way. It wasn’t always fun and it was almost never easy but despite all the tears and frustration and times I felt isolated, I wouldn’t want it to have been any other way.
Written by Cleo McClintock
Top image courtesy of Flickr user Sven Ericsson