The Solo Traveler

It was after 11 p.m. Saturday by the time I was finally able to sleep. I had been awake for almost 24 continuous hours, barring some bad sleep on a plane. My trip back to D.C. had involved a long-distance ICE train, two planes, an airport shuttle, a bus, a subway and a taxi. I was exhausted and sore and still I’d rarely felt more personally satisfied.

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I’d spent the last week away, first in New York City for a day visiting a friend, then in Germany over Thanksgiving. It was the first time I had traveled abroad on my own, without going (back) to school or doing something for work. I’d done a European circuit in college with my best friend and had just gone to Sweden with that same friend. But this was different. It felt riskier — apart from simply wanting to go, I had no good “reason” to, no justification. It felt empowering.

I planned and booked the entire thing myself, asking some advice from friends who’d been to the cities I was visiting. I ditched my normally strict tendency to plan every day to the detail, and just did what felt right, whatever I wanted to at any given time. One day this involved eating a plate-sized Schnitzel with fried potatoes and a Frankfurt-style green herb sauce, washing it down with half a liter of beer (that was somehow the smallest glass available). I ended up visiting a modern art museum, wandering around Frankfurt’s Dom before the sun had risen, strolling through a giant food hall. 

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I went to Bonn for a day and wandered around its Münsterplatz, which was packed with stalls for the annual Christmas market. I found a present for my mother, ate sweets from the stalls and just took in the atmosphere.

Thanksgiving morning, I sat alone in an empty first-class train compartment as we zipped through early-morning fog. I saw glimpses of little villages along the river, buildings that looked ancient and sleepy. I wondered, sleepy myself, what it might be like to chuck it all in and settle down in some little burg.

When the train arrived in Cologne, my last stop, the first place I went after dropping off my luggage was to the Dom. More than any other cathedral I’ve seen apart from perhaps York’s minster, it evokes the phrase “pillar of the Earth.” Photos of it, though I took several, do it no justice. It is simply mind-boggling in its enormity and it amazes me that the people living in Cologne must just get used to it, like a stone Godzilla just sitting there.

Cologne’s Christmas market seemed to go on forever; it actually has several of them and they just bleed into each other. I had mulled wine and hot potato cakes covered in apple sauce. Everywhere there are sausages, sandwiches, cookies, cakes, pretzels, wine, hot chocolate and arts and crafts. At night, with the strung-up lights illuminating the sky and the Dom in the background, it’s downright ethereal.

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I perused Cologne’s Greco-Roman Museum in the afternoon, admiring the mosaics, jewelry and pottery on display. Later that night, I went on a date and ended up drinking Kölsch in a Brauhaus and sipping hot mulled wine in the Christmas market, snuggling up to stay warm. Thanksgiving indeed.

I’m in that buzzkill-ish period right after a trip, when it’s over and done and you just think, “Well now what?” But going on this trip, short though it was and to a place I’d been before where I more or less knew the language, gave me a lot of confidence. It might be the introvert in me, but I really believe that you have to be able to manage on your own before you can manage with anyone else. So for that reason I enjoyed my taste of solo travel (although I still plan to travel with friends, obviously), and I feel brave enough to do it again. It was also exhilarating to go somewhere just to go, because I could, without it being for school or anything else or anyone else but me. 

I think I owed myself that.