Getaway Brigade

Two summers ago, fresh from my junior year of college, I found myself utterly alone in the Munich airport. I didn’t have a single euro on me and the currency exchange was closed, I didn’t speak a lick of German, I had no phone or internet, and I wasn’t sure if I’d given my luggage to a shuttle driver or a random stranger. I realized that I was as lost and helpless as a person could possibly be in the middle of civilization.

It was the beginning of my summer abroad in Salzburg, Austria, and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

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Before that summer, international travel had always scared me, and I never thought I’d be able to travel anywhere on my own. There seemed to be so many unknown factors involved in traveling—itinerary-planning, currency-exchanging, visa-wrangling, language-learning—and it never quite seemed worth the trouble. Add my own paranoia to the mix and it was a perfect recipe for sticking to my comfort zone forever.

But when I talked to anyone who’d gone to college, I noticed a curious pattern. No one ever regretted studying too much or partying too hard or any of the things you’d think college students would regret. The only big regret that came up, again and again, was “I wish I had studied abroad.

When ten zillion people tell you that you will regret not studying abroad, you take notice. So I swallowed my own fears, applied to a summer study abroad program, and took the leap. Here’s how my summer going solo across the Atlantic changed me.

1. I faced my fears.

And I crossed the street!

And I crossed the street!

I was afraid of flying on my own, but I had to do it. I was afraid of public transportation, but I learned how to take the bus or subway. I was afraid of talking to strangers, but I had to in order to ask for directions. I was afraid that I wouldn’t make any friends, and I found that making friends is not so hard.

Fear is just a part of life, and you can either let it paralyze you, or you can face it. I came back to America with a lot less fear than before, and as a result…

2. …because I faced my fears, I became more confident in myself.

lion

I used to be afraid of public transportation, even in America. The whole system of subway lines and bus lines and what-have-you just seemed daunting and scary and I always relied on other people to figure it out for me. But in Austria, I had to take the bus myself, and I discovered that public transportation isn’t scary at all. And once I realized that I could understand the system, even with my limited German, then I felt like I could do anything. I became confident in my ability to figure out how to get from point A to point B via public transport, and now I’m not afraid of taking the subway. For that matter, unfamiliar situations no longer frighten the pants off of me anymore.

3. I learned that the world is not so scary.

Sketch Bar Salzburg Austria

Sometimes it even comes with labels.

There’s a great term, “Mean World Syndrome,” which is basically the idea that the world is a lot less scary than what we make it out to be. Thanks to fear-mongering, negative news coverage, word-of-mouth horror stories, and well-meaning concerned relatives, we end up thinking that outside of our communities, there’s nothing but endless danger. It’s why we think that the entirety of Mexico is crawling with drug cartels, or that every street in a major city is lined with gangs and rapists and murderers. It’s why xenophobic bloggers can get away with telling everyone that the non-American world is nothing but food poisoning and terrorist attacks.

It’s also why we like to blame the victims of misfortune when bad things happen—we tell ourselves that these people got in trouble because they dared to travel in a dangerous world, and it confirms our thinking that bad things won’t happen to us if we don’t travel ourselves.

I’m not saying it’s all bunnies and rainbows out there. Yes, there are dangerous places you shouldn’t explore, yes there are people who will do you harm, yes you should always be vigilant, yes bad things may happen despite your best efforts. But most of the time, the world is not as scary as people say it is. In fact, you may find that the world can be a very friendly place—Mean World Syndrome just prevents us from discovering it.

(Stephanie at Twenty-Something Travel, by the way, has a great post about this scary world nonsense and female solo travel. It’s a good read.)

4. Traveling made me more resourceful and aware.

Pacman graffiti on a wall in Salzburg.

Pacman graffiti on a wall in Salzburg.

When I’m in a different country, I feel like I’m in survival mode—not “how to forage for berries and fend off bears” survival mode, but “how to order food without sounding like an idiot and figuring out what that sign says” survival mode. When I’m in unfamiliar territory, I find myself a lot more aware of my surroundings and a lot quicker at figuring things out. In a foreign country, I get better at remembering directions or retracing my path, and in Austria I got really good at figuring out and using German words after only hearing or seeing them once. I’m pretty sure traveling makes your brain smarter and faster that way.

In a similar vein, I also found that traveling made me more resourceful. I’m not just talking about resources like money, even though I did learn how to stretch my euro during my summer abroad. Language is a kind of resource—I had to figure out how to communicate with the locals using my limited vocabulary. Not having the stores, products, or foods I was used to in America also made me resourceful, either through figuring out where to go or figuring out how to make do with what I could find.

5. I became a “global citizen.”

fortress

It’s kind of a cheesy term to use, but it encapsulates who you become when you expand your boundaries and your cultural understanding. Living in a foreign country gave me a good look at what life was like outside of my little bubble, and made me challenge my America-centric view of the world. I got to really appreciate a different setting and history than the one I grew up with, and I got a nuanced, in-depth look at a country’s culture outside of the stereotypes and what had only been filtered into American society.

Traveling also enhances your understanding and sensitivity. I visited a WWII Nazi-run labor camp, and no number of books or historical movies could have prepared me for what it was like standing in a gas chamber. It’s very easy to feel removed from history, but traveling can give us the sometimes-painful opportunity to understand the narrative of humankind, and to think about violence and human nature and why we commit atrocities. There are some things that just can’t be replaced by reading or watching, but make you a better, more informed person.

6. I figured out who I was, in a different context.

There’s a reason why “discovering yourself” through travel is a cliche. When you put yourself in a different context, you discover things about yourself—who you are without the familiar external factors of family or friends or work or school. What’s the same about you? What’s different? What aspects of a different culture resonate with you, and which aspects rub against your habits or beliefs?

cathedral

My time in a country I had no ancestral connection to, without my family or boyfriend or university professors, gave me the valuable chance to cut myself loose and figure out who I was. I mean, I haven’t gotten myself totally figured out, but traveling helps. I think one of the most dangerous things we can do to ourselves is to only define ourselves by our environment or our relationships to other people. If you only think of yourself in these terms, then who are you when they’re taken away?

7. I learned that traveling is more than checking landmarks off a list.

One of the reasons why traveling hadn’t really appealed to me before was that running around for the sake of seeing the things you’re “supposed” to see seemed like a silly waste of time. Eiffel tower, check, Great Wall of China, check, pyramids, check…what’s the point?

My summer in Austria taught me that sightseeing is not the only “point” of traveling. (That being said, sightseeing is still really great.) I discovered that I love trying new foods and sampling a country’s cuisine. I love living a different lifestyle than the one I’m used to. I love experiencing life at a faster or slower pace than at home.

coffee

A cup of coffee, “mit schlag,” at Mozart’s favorite cafe.

For example, I found out that in Europe, it’s totally acceptable to go to a cafe, order a single cup of coffee or glass of wine, and sit there for hours reading a book or chatting with a friend—and the waiters won’t hassle you to get out or order more food. When I look back at my favorite moments in Salzburg, they’re not all things like seeing a particular landmark or famous movie setting—some of my favorite memories are of sitting for hours in a cafe. That’s what traveling is to me—experiencing a different way of life.

8. It can actually strengthen your relationship.

It probably helped that Bryce had roses sent to me on a regular basis.

It probably helped that Bryce had roses sent to me on a regular basis.

Bryce and I had been dating for two years when I went off to Austria on my own. Like all lovebirds, we were not looking forward to being apart for so long, and one pessimistic friend warned me that Europe was where college girls went to cheat on their boyfriends and destroy their relationships.

Funnily enough though, we did just fine, and in some ways I think it made our relationship stronger. Being apart—and with me facing my fears and becoming more confident all the while—gave us the opportunity to keep from becoming overdependent on each other. Maintaining a long-distance relationship for a while also showed us what we liked about each other when we weren’t physically together, and I discovered that there’s truth in the old saying, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

Bryce himself did a study abroad program in China a year later, and afterwards, since we both had experience solo traveling, it made it easy for us to travel together. Neither of us uses the other as a crutch when we travel, and since we know our own tendencies, we can work together to maximize our travel experience—which, in turn, just makes our relationship even stronger.

9. I got the travel bug.

Obviously, I came away from my summer abroad experience with lasting stories and memories—that’s always a given with traveling of any kind. But I think one of the best things I got from my time in Austria was the travel bug. When I’d realized that traveling isn’t that scary, and that the experiences I’d had were more than worth it, I just wanted to travel more. After all, if I had such a rich and fulfilling time in just one country, what does the rest of the world have to offer?

cityview

 

Have you had similar experiences with traveling, whether solo or not? Any points you’d add to this post? Let us know in the comments!

A Compass Rose

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  • Kam on September 24, 2013 at 4:02 am.

    Great post. I’ve yet to travel solo anywhere and one of my biggest regrets is not taking a semester abroad when I studied for my degree. I guess I can try to compensate for it all now and get a secondment abroad with my job!

    Kam | A Married Couple & Their Travels

    • Sharon Su on September 24, 2013 at 6:22 pm.

      It’s never too late! College is just one of many opportunities for solo travel. Thanks for stopping by, and happy Travel Tuesday!

  • Susanne @ The Musing Blonde on September 24, 2013 at 8:50 am.

    I love how traveling solo helped you grow in so many ways. Everybody should have the opportunity to do what you did.
    And some of the things on your list, I can totally agree with. Having traveled so much as a child, and now I notice that traveling changes your perspective on the world.
    Great post!

    • Sharon Su on September 24, 2013 at 6:23 pm.

      It’s amazing how much travel changes your perspective—it’s why I wish more people traveled, solo or no! And you are so lucky for having been able to travel a lot as a kid. Thanks for reading!

  • Laura on September 24, 2013 at 1:38 pm.

    I love this post and agree with every thing you have said – the last big trip I did was solo and lasted around 2yrs, I think because I was not travelling with anyone it made me more open to meeting people and I didn’t have to go or be anywhere at a particular time. I met so many friends and t’s surprising how you cope on your own even in tricky situations.
    Giving away my favourite travel book on my blog and popping over from Travel Tuesday

    Laura x
    http://www.sidestreetstyle.com

    • Sharon Su on September 24, 2013 at 6:25 pm.

      Wow, two years is a lot of solo travel! That’s so cool that you got to do that. And it’s also so true that in addition to making you more open, you also get really savvy at handling unfamiliar situations. Thanks for reading, and happy Travel Tuesday!

  • chelsea on September 24, 2013 at 6:11 pm.

    umm you’re amazing. enough said : ) i’m so glad that you were able to travel abroad during college. i did short trips, three weeks or two weeks but never studied abroad which i always wish that i did. traveling can change a person so much, and more times than not it’s such a positive change!

    • Sharon Su on September 24, 2013 at 6:28 pm.

      Aww shucks! Well, short trips are better than nothing 😛 and it’s never too late to do some longer stretches of solo travel even out of college (you might even get more out of it as a more mature person?) Thanks for reading!

  • Jessica | Independent Travel Cats on September 24, 2013 at 8:07 pm.

    I have never really traveled abroad solo, but I think you are right almost no one regrets such an experience! So great to hear about all the wonderful benefits and experiences, and to hear about how it strengthened your relationship!

    • Sharon Su on September 24, 2013 at 8:20 pm.

      Haha yeah, I’ve never heard someone say they wished they hadn’t studied abroad. It’s a really valuable experience and I wish more people took the leap! Thanks for stopping by!

  • Claire on September 24, 2013 at 9:53 pm.

    This is a fantastic post. I’ve done a bit of solo travelling (and am currently a solo ex pat) and can totally identify with the ways it changes you. I think that the perspective you gain, both on yourself and the world around you, is invaluable.

    • Sharon Su on September 24, 2013 at 10:00 pm.

      Hear, hear—there is no substitute for the kind of perspective that solo travel brings. Thanks so much for reading!

  • Kate on September 25, 2013 at 1:35 am.

    Sharon, you are totally singing my song here!
    Dan and I went through the same of traveling as individuals (on a relationship break) and then met up again to continue together and it did wonders for our relationship.

    Actually, to be honest, every single one of these points is exactly how I feel too! Traveling completely changed me in terms of confidence and overall personality. I am also the same as you where I don’t feel the need to work off of a tourist checklist. My best experiences in places I visit tend to come from getting lost and finding something awesome 😉 Or good food. Not gonna lie, food is a high contender.

    • Sharon Su on September 25, 2013 at 11:41 am.

      So glad to hear that you had a similar experience! (Also that I’m not the only one who doesn’t care about touristy checklists!) So many people are afraid of travel that they miss out on these great character-building (and relationship-strengthening) opportunities—and great food. Thanks for reading, and I’m happy you enjoyed my post!

  • Kate on September 25, 2013 at 11:35 am.

    I just stumbled on your blog — and this post. As a mostly-solo traveler, I have to say that I agree wholeheartedly with this list of things you’ve come to learn! Travel can teach us so much, and when you’re on your own and reflecting inwardly so much more of time… it’s a totally unique experience. Great post!

    Kate x
    http://artsyabroad.blogspot.com

    • Sharon Su on September 25, 2013 at 11:42 am.

      Travel really does teach us a lot. Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you enjoyed this post!

  • Mallory on September 30, 2013 at 7:23 am.

    Love this post! I’m loving all the things that you’ve learned while traveling solo. It also shows that being solo isn’t as scary as it sounds and it’s definitely an eye opening experience. I’ve been wanting to do a solo trip and have finally gotten up to courage to actually go and look for trips for me to take. I guess I can count moving to Japan as a solo trip, but I will definitely look into more trips I can take!

    • Sharon Su on September 30, 2013 at 12:34 pm.

      I think moving to Japan by yourself counts! But you should definitely look into doing more trips—traveling is such a valuable experience. Thanks for reading!