The first time I took a trip alone, my father had just died. I wasn’t really thinking, I just booked a solo trip to Paris for the weekend to escape the stagnant air of my bedroom – much to the disdain of my then-boyfriend.
Like everything, I approached it with meticulous care and attention, outlining all the sights, wine bars and eateries I was going to visit. Of course, it wasn’t so much about the City of Light itself at that point, but, rather, the distraction from the monumental loss I had just suffered.
It was only when the train pulled away from King’s Cross that it really sank in that I was about to do this alone. To take my mind off of all the worries one can so easily have about lone travel, I got my book out and popped open the mini bottle of prosecco I had purchased at M&S moments beforehand (I’m nothing if not classy).
In between pages and sips, I watched the British countryside flash past me, before me and my fellow passengers emerged the other side. My phone lit up with messages from my mother and my siblings, asking how the journey was going. I took a quick picture of an electricity pylon and told them I had already spotted the Eiffel Tower.
Much of the weekend passed by without any hiccups. I stayed true to my plan and explored almost every nook – so much so, my poor feet were in ruins. But then, as I was walking down the Seine, past the Shakespeare & Co bookstore, it started to rain (as it so frequently does in Paris). I ducked under cover and watched merchants tackle with tarpaulin to cover their wares.
When the rain eased off, I continued my stroll, up towards the Père Lachaise cemetery; I was on the hunt for Albert Camus and Oscar Wilde’s graves. While I have a macabre interest in burial grounds, it never once occurred to me that my desire to see this place was motivated by something else.
I climbed the steep hill as the rain started to come down again, determined to not let the weather get in the way. After hours traipsing around mausoleums and gravesites, I perched on a sodden wooden bench, overlooking the sea of tombs. Before I understood what was happening, I lurched forward and let out a guttural noise. I knew, then, why I had come.
The years that followed my dad’s passing were tumultuous; I suffered with my grief, my pain, my depression. Relationships deteriorated and I retreated into myself – it was easier to cut myself off than to trust others, or so I thought.
So, when my next solo trip was on the horizon, it didn’t seem to me that anybody would mind my absence. I quit my job, packed up my belongings in an overpriced storage unit and departed for America for two months.
Just before I left, old friends, with whom I had not spoken for some time, slowly started filtering back into my life. There was no question about my going away, but the irony of the timings was not lost on me. My mum questioned whether I’d be safe, why I did not want to share my experiences with someone else – and a lot of people in my life had the same view.
“But why are you going by yourself? Don’t you want to go with someone? Are you going to be OK alone? What if something bad happens and you’re out there by yourself? Oh, you’re so brave for doing that – I could never!”
I wanted to tell them that for so long I had been out here all alone, with only myself to rely on. But instead I swallowed my words and shrugged off their concerns. I was going, and that was that.
Now, I won’t bore you with the details of my journey around the US, that’s not what’s important here. But I will say that it gave me a reinstated sense of independence, of purpose. Thanks to the people I met along the way, I discovered that, in spite of everything I had been telling myself all those years, I had something about me that was worthy of love, of kindness, of adoration. My sense of self-loathing started to peel away, as I realised that there must be something likeable about me, if so many people wanted to stay in contact, and to meet up again at different points of my journey.
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When I returned to the UK, it was right before the pandemic struck. I was hopeful and felt like I had the tools to help me combat the dark thoughts and feelings that so frequently seeped into the everyday. I made peace with my past, reached out to old friends and felt committed to my future.
After two long years of lockdowns, my latest holiday alone was to Italy, to celebrate my 30th birthday. In all honesty, I cannot say I was truly alone, as my best friends gatecrashed the beginning of the trip, but, nonetheless, it was something I did for myself, by myself.
Again, before I left, I heard “oh, you’re so brave for travelling alone”. Again, I chose to ignore it.
There was something different about this time; I was no longer fleeing in desperation, I was celebrating and rewarding myself. I seized every opportunity – I ate my body weight in food; I went to the opera; I hijacked a guy’s set and sang with him in front of a bar full of people; I learnt how to make pasta.
To me, solo travel has nothing to do with bravery. In fact, I have to be far braver in my normal life. I have to put on an appearance, I have to compartmentalise and put aside my inner conflicts, just so I can survive. But when I am away, I am the best possible version of myself – I thrive on the unknown and positively shine when I force myself to take on these adventures. I learn I am capable of far more than I ever thought imaginable.
It is in these moments I feel free, and remember what it is to feel pure, unbridled happiness. I am not brave, I am alive.