I am an anxious creature by nature. Though it may seem I tend to just fly off into doing things without thinking, I can assure you that I have thought about them. I’ve likely overthought them in fact. I’m always anxious whether it be socially or otherwise, I’m a little worrier. It’s just that I go ahead and do whatever it is anyway despite the fact that I have alarms going off in my head warning me to go the other direction.
Traveling to another country where I didn’t know the language – alone, the very thought of it petrified me. How would I get along without my fiancé and his outgoing personality and fearless attempts at a foreign language? I make him order at restaurants and ask for directions while I hide away behind him like a little mouse. Google translate or not. God forbid, I’d have to talk to people myself.
So when the opportunity presented itself for me to go to Madrid for a weekend, I had a lot of hesitation. I came to learn, this is not a bad thing, those sounding alarms in my ear. It’s the very part of my brain that keeps me alive, it’s my survival instinct. It will always go off when something unfamiliar is approaching, because somehow unfamiliar = dark and scary, you’re going to die.
So when I hear these alarms sounding off in my head so late at night I cannot sleep – I acknowledge its little existence, thank it for keeping me alive, and I tell it to sit down nicely, and shut the hell up. Parents, family, co-workers, and friends alike all seem to have the same idea about traveling alone, especially as a woman so this further fed my sounding alarms.
Regardless though of my warnings, I decided to go ahead and do it anyway. It had always been something I wanted to do and I wanted to do it before my wedding. Why? No particular reason other than the fact that I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I could navigate in a city/country/continent where I knew no one and I could do it all by myself.
There is a beauty in traveling solo. It’s something I can’t quite explain, but when it’s only you and the voices around you that are speaking a language you can’t understand, you’re left with only your own.
When I landed in Madrid early in the morning, after struggling to figure out where the exit was and where I could find a taxi to take me to the flat I’d rented out, it seemed I began to hear my own voice. It had been a long time. Especially because in my day-to-day life in the city, working in Manhattan, going onto the next thing then the next, there often isn’t enough room for one to go inward without different distractions to muffle out my inner voice. As a matter of fact, I was shocked when I came to hear mine, I thought since it had been so long that we last met, she would sound raspy, old and bitter or even angry since she hadn’t much attention paid to her in some time. The opposite was true, she was kind and gentle – like an old friend I was coming to meet up with again. This inner voice would be the one to guide me along my short journey.
When I got to my Airbnb that morning, I was let in by a young woman who was still tidying the place up. She did not know English, I did not know Spanish. We laughed at our language disparity. I dragged my suitcase up five flights of stairs to the top of the old Spanish apartment building. The apartment was tiny but filled with sunlight from its large windows and the best part, a grand terrace with a picnic table outside looking outward into the city.
“Muy hermoso” I told the young woman who was hurrying along to finish up her cleaning. I guess I remembered a little bit from high school Spanish classes which I never showed up to.
When she finally left, I sat with myself. I love traveling with my fiancé. I felt sad he wasn’t there to take in the views with me. Being alone, deciding what to do first, where I would go – it was something I had to get used to.
After resting a bit, I decided to make the trek outward. The cold of the morning had passed and the fall air was still warm enough to be comfortable in a light coat. I began walking around without a real aim as to where I would be going. As I walked, without headphones or constantly looking at my phone, I began to feel it in the air. It’s something that words cannot accurately capture, but I will do my best. The vision of the architecture, the buildings, the people going on about their weekend – the crowds outside eating and enjoying – all of it together were the threads seemed to weave Madrid together.
It’s not that you cannot appreciate the beauty of a place with another person. But it’s a different experience when you’re by yourself. If you are alone when the door opens to a place outside the one you know, it is a very sweeping sensation, it will grab you, the entirety of your soul because it’s there only you two stand. The sights, sounds, the smells became more vibrant as I became fully present in each moment that fell into another.
When I arrived in Madrid alone, I gave the city complete permission to take me away in its tide and bring me where it would. What I received in return was one of the warmest experiences of life from the warmest people. Contrary to my doubts about myself, I was able to navigate and try and speak some Spanish. There were, of course, several awkward incidents when I didn’t understand their grocery stores or a server didn’t understand English. But when faced with these awkward situations I had so worried about – I thought, Jesus – that was the big deal?
I wish I had been journaling as avidly during that trip as I do now. But having the opportunity to go on the trip to Spain changed me and changed the way I viewed not only travel, but the way I walked through life. Alone and otherwise.
I likened my very first solo weekend trip to Europe to taking a lover for a fleeting evening. I was completely enamored, lovesick, absolutely mad when I returned home on the plane. In the moments as I left the country to return to New York, I felt a sharp pain permeating from my heart at our goodbye, it was then I realized that I’d had an affair with the city. The most passionate and true, even clumsy tryst. And my soul was left reaching outward for its embrace, dizzied from the quickness of its beginning to its end.
Madrid gave more to me than I could ever give back to it. The vibrant, warm colors of the city’s walls and corridors, the sound of romantic Spanish songs being sung by a street performer that moved me to tears, the food – oh god, the paella I will never have anywhere else but Spain.
If you have the opportunity to travel to a foreign country alone, at least once in your life, I hope that you do it. Despite your very human anxieties about the unfamiliar, the rewards you will find from the silence of being with only yourself are completely immeasurable. You will get to know things about yourself that you never knew before. You will learn about how capable you are, how beautiful other cultures can be, how people can communicate beyond their words.
Your mind will expand, but likely not as much as your heart will. There is a whisper from God in every corner and in the quiet you can hear him in the form of birds singing, children playing, or the delicate rhythm of a Spanish guitar.