I'm pleased to share with you an article by Elizabeth, a friend and member of the Solo Travel Society. Elizabeth recently returned from her first big solo adventure: nine weeks in multiple destinations in Europe and North America. Here she shares the story of planning, executing, and reflecting on what she learned about herself and the world on this life-changing trip. ~Tracey
When my father died in November 2016, I was grief-stricken.
He was the first man I’d ever loved and we had become quite close after my mother died. I had recently been divorced, so I felt quite alone. It was not a comfortable place to be at 60 years of age.
I looked for a silver lining. It was also the first time in my life that I didn't have anyone who depended on me. I had been 13 years old when my mother went back to work, and I had been taking care of people since that time. I was now free to do as I pleased. My grown children each live 6 hours away from me. I felt untethered. No one to take care of but myself? Imagine that! This was a new feeling for me.
Then, within months, several of my friends were diagnosed with cancer. I felt that I had to mark my new freedom as it could be a time-limited offer. I looked at my finances and decided that I had a budget of C$10,000 to put towards my Grand Solo Adventure. It would be my first big trip on my own!
The Planning Process
In January 2017, I made a travel bucket list. It included a mix of places I had never been and some places I wanted to revisit on my own. I estimated how long I wanted to spend in each place and it added up to a 9-week trip. I had a hard stop date to return for a wedding, so I saw that I needed to hit the road quickly in order to squeeze this trip in before the end of May.
I looked online to book my flights. A friend told me about Flight Network and it looked like a $4,200 trip. When we got together and she shifted dates and travel times, we were able to bring my plane travel costs down to $2,400. That covered my ten flights! I would take buses and a few trains to fill in my travel plans. My transportation budget was set for C$3,000.
I would fly to Kauai first, then to Los Angeles and Seattle. I would take the bus up to Vancouver and then fly home to Toronto for Easter weekend. I would continue on to Europe for five weeks after that: London, France (stops in Paris, Vichy, and Lyon), Holland (plus visits to Belgium and Germany), and then to Athens and the Greek island of Zakanthos. I hoped to return home to Toronto refreshed and recharged.
I read about Women Welcome Women World Wide on Solo Traveler and decided to join and reach out to women in some of the cities I was visiting. They were open to meeting me for tea and a few opened their homes to me. I will write a separate post about this delightful organization very soon.
The Grand Solo Adventure Begins!
I felt like I was about to embark on the bravest thing I’d ever done. As it turned out, it wasn’t a big deal. Well it was, but not in the way I expected. I thought it would be tough, but it was not. I learned so much, and discovered that I am far more capable than I ever realized. My self-talk has become healthier.
A friend had offered to loan me her backpack. I was hesitant, but she assured me that I would feel much cooler traveling with a backpack, and she was absolutely right! Other women would look at me, and then at my backpack, and say to the backpack, “Where are you going?” I’d respond, “I’m taking my backpack on a Grand Adventure! This is week X of 9 weeks.” It opened many delightful conversations.
Younger people thought I was much cooler than I really am. They asked me many questions and we had some in-depth conversations about life. A few of us are now connected via social media. One couple from Singapore asked me if I'd asked my children if I should go on this trip. I got the feeling that they did not think it was a good idea for me to travel alone. I laughed at the thought and told them that I had sent them my itinerary after it was set. They were quite surprised.
I found Rome2rio very helpful in guiding me to get from A to B, and it introduced me to discounted pricing that I was not familiar with in new countries. For example, I used it to book a bus ride from Seattle to Vancouver for only $10.
I drafted a budget of C$40 per day for food and $50 per night for accommodation. I stayed in hostels or used AirBnB. I also stayed with a few friends and acquaintances along the way. I found ways to eat for $30 per day, so I had even more wiggle room in my budget. I spent the extra money on seeing the sites. I googled free things to do in the cities I visited and saw tons of exhibits.
Before going out in a new city where I didn’t speak the local language, I would use Google Translate to learn key phrases before I needed them. I can't eat wheat, so I have translated “no wheat or flour” into many different languages. I'd show it at restaurants and they'd show me what my options were. I couldn't risk a misunderstanding with this particular challenge.
I was proud of myself for figuring out how to navigate the London tube and the Paris Metro systems as well as the high speed OuiTrain from Lyon to Charles de Gaulle Airport. I saved a lot of money by taking the 7:30 am train (10 euros) instead of the 9:00 am train (56 euros). I didn’t mind having time to spare at the airport, as a few days earlier, my train to Vichy had been delayed by 2 hours.
I'm an extrovert, so it was easy for me to talk to people. I was able to initiate conversations in line-ups, while dining at restaurants, and on day trips. I also learned that I have a good eye for who to trust. If I needed to approach someone on the street, I’d choose people with children or pets. Parents and pet owners are mostly locals and not on a strict deadline.
I have become a fan of staying in female dorms in hostels and I found my AirBnB hosts were very kind in sharing information. I met much more interesting people on this trip than I have ever met staying in hotels or time share accommodation.
While I was in Holland, I visited my wasbund's (he was my husband) relatives. It moved me that they threw open their doors to me and it was wonderful to say goodbye to them as family and welcome them as friends.
People I met would sometimes share that they wished their English was better. I would assure them that it was better than my ability to speak their language. I was visiting their country and did not know the basics. When I'd ask someone if they understood English, they'd often say “No…Spanish? German?” They were hoping that we could find a common tongue. I am humbled that I only speak one language. My plan now is to work at learning more French before my next big trip. After nine days of partial immersion (visiting Paris, Vichy, and Lyon) most of my high school French came back to me! I was often shy about speaking it, but could understand a fair amount. I also discovered that others feel the same way. I had a few written conversations that worked out well. People felt capable of writing English sentences, but were unsure about the pronunciation.
And, while I was traveling, I got to try chocolate in all the best countries! I ate chocolate and ice cream on most days. When I had the chance, I tried the local delicacies. The only thing I couldn't bring myself to try were the pig’s feet in France. A week after I got home, I weighed the same as when I left. I guess all the walking helped burn off the extra calories.
The Importance of Roots
I saw tree roots everywhere. I took photos of myself near them and thought about how the trees were still being fed by exposed roots. When I looked back at my pictures, I reflected on my own family roots and how I continue to be nurtured by my parents, even though they are gone.
While I was traveling, I read a book that my father had asked me to read before he died. I could read a section and know that he would laugh at it, and I understood why he wanted me to read it. I read another book to that helped me to consider and reflect on my mother’s decline in health, before her death. I had the time and space to grieve. More alone time and fewer responsibilities gave me room to cry and sort through some of my feelings. I wrote in my journal to capture my thoughts and understandings and when I re-read them, I added to those insights.
A friend picked me up from the airport in Amsterdam and I was surprised when we stopped on the highway to observe two minutes of silence for the soldiers. I had not been aware that it was their Remembrance Day. It was a powerful reminder that my Dad had been in Holland for the Liberation. I was thrilled to witness 80% of drivers on the road pulling over to stop, promptly at 8:00 pm.
As we drove into Nijmegen, we crossed a bridge that had recently been rebuilt. Forty-eight soldiers had died defending this bridge during WW11, when it was bombed. They had installed 48 street lamps that were set to come on at dusk, one by one, to help people remember the soldiers. As my host was telling me about it, our tires hit the bridge, and the first lamp came on. It was incredible! I had goosebumps!
The next day was Liberation day. We visited a Canadian cemetery and a war museum. I asked if a tank I saw was Canadian as my Dad had been in the tanks during the war. An 80-year-old dressed as a soldier moved me to tears with his gratitude for what the troops had done to change his life, personally.
Personal Lessons Learned
It turns out that I'm more capable than I ever imagined. In fact, I'm unflappable! My self-talk reflected that as I easily dealt with the small challenges along the way.
Traveling alone seems to open up more interesting conversations. Meeting people I didn’t know introduced me to fresh perspectives. People share things with strangers that they might not tell someone close to them. Many women called me brave and a few shared that they were not happy in their current relationships.
It's quite freeing to be anonymous! Most of my travel up to this point had been for business and I would be working with a team. On this trip, no one knew who I was in many countries. I felt more carefree and even went swimming in my underwear and bra in the Ionian Sea, as I had forgotten my bathing suit. I would never have done that at home in Canada with 30 strangers on a boat!
I learned much about the kindness of strangers. In London, a woman walked me to a new bus stop and stayed to check that the new bus route actually stopped there. A man in France translated the French Metro announcement of a track change and invited me to come along with him to the new track. I asked to borrow cell phones to make local calls a couple of times and people willingly shared them with me. One sweet woman even came back to find me outside of the Metro when my host called back with a message for me!
I feel liberated. I returned feeling freer than I have felt in a long while, and lighter than I have felt since my divorce. I am new and improved, more at peace with being an orphan, and very happy to be alive!
Elizabeth Verwey owns and operates Spoken Lives: Stories Women Share. Elizabeth is a business mentor who supports women to establish this speaker series in their own city.
She is already planning her next Grand Solo Adventure for 2019.