Everyone knows that exchange students travel a lot. The typical excuse used by most non-Europeans is “Once you’re in Europe, you might as well see all of it!” which is true of course. But let’s be honest, it’s a great excuse to spend a lot of money. My friends were gone almost every weekend: Norway, Paris, Milan… you name it. But there was only one trip that I wanted to make, my dream destination: Reykjavik, Iceland.
This trip would be my own Eat, Pray, Love
You see, for some reason, I had a strong belief that going to Iceland would change my life forever. I’d meet the love of my life there. A tall Icelandic guy who loves bread as much as I do. Or maybe I would have a great epiphany about my career. Every time people ask me where I want to live when I’m older, I always say: “I’ll have an apartment in a big city and a house in Iceland where I can spend my holidays”. I had convinced myself that a trip to Iceland would be the perfect occasion to clear out everything that was wrong with me, and that Iceland was my Disneyland and I would find my happiness there. This trip would be my own Eat, Pray, Love.
And yes, I often do that thing where I create a big idea around things, believing they will change my life completely, when I actually know it won’t be that way. I spent months drinking green tea only because I had convinced myself that it would give me a flat stomach. I once got a skin infection from washing my hands too many times a day because I thought doing so would make me a better person. My trip to Iceland was definitely not a skin infection, but it wasn’t my Disneyland either.
I spent months drinking green tea only because I had convinced myself that it would give me a flat stomach
A few days before the trip, at a Halloween party in Copenhagen, I had a conversation with a very drunk friend who kept asking “Wow, are you really going to Iceland by yourself? Are you sure about that? Are you gonna have a good time anyway?” I kept telling her I was going be fine, and that I was actually really excited about being by myself on my first ever solo trip. But each time she repeated the question (and believe me, she was very drunk so she asked many times) the seed of doubt started to grow.
So I got to Iceland. I spent my first night in town in my hostel bar, spending happy hour by myself sitting next to a creepy old guy. I went to the supermarket to get myself some chocolate, and I sat looking at the mountains in the freezing cold. As much as I wanted to find that happiness I had been dreaming about, I felt only sadness. I told myself: “Seriously brain? Am I going to be depressed in Iceland?!”
My experience with solo traveling is that it’s great and everyone should try it. But it’s also really sad. To me, the worst part is when you eat at a restaurant. You’re surrounded by tables of families, friends and couples. Meanwhile, all you can see in front of you is an empty chair – a reminder that you’ve ‘failed’ as a person. Unfortunately, and as much as we want to change it, being alone is still perceived as failure: failure to relate to others or create meaningful relationships as a human being. So being alone in Iceland turned me into a strong and courageous woman… as well as a very lonely one.
Seriously brain? Am I going to be depressed in Iceland?!
Chasing the Northern Lights in a tour bus with four other couples was heartbreaking. I remember standing in the freezing cold (they call it Iceland for a reason), listening to the conversations of these couples who were very excited about waiting for the lights to show up. I thought to myself, “Maybe if I did have someone, I’d be sick of seeing their face all the time, or I’d need to have some time to myself”. But I felt so empty not having anyone to share this with, no hand to hold, not even someone to take a nice picture of me (I got a very expensive tripod that actually did the job fine. Who needs friends when you have a tripod?).
And maybe I should have gone out there and tried to talk to someone, instead of pretending to be asleep every time my hostel roommates showed up. But it was very hard – it felt like everyone had someone already, so there was no space for me.
I got a very expensive tripod that actually did the job fine. Who needs friends when you have a tripod?
But looking back now, even if I didn’t meet the love of my life or have my epiphany, the Iceland trip ended up being a great way to confront my demons. To know who I am, appreciate my strengths, recognize my faults and start to change them. Don’t get me wrong – there were happy times. But there was an overall sense of sadness. The good kind of sadness – like when moms get sad because their kids are growing up.
So it’s definitely a yes to solo traveling. Everyone’s experience will be different and we all handle things in a different way. But there’s so much value in deciding to travel hundreds or thousands of kilometers on your own. It’s as brave as it gets, and it’s definitely worth it.