10 days, 6 cities, 4 countries, and 145 miles of walking later, I’m back in London.
It was an incredible whirlwind of travel days— from Denmark to Sweden to Belgium to Italy— so much so that when I’d tell people in hostels about my travels they’d make fun of me for never staying in any place for too long. Each day worked quite similarly, though I was displaced and in a new city almost every 48 hours; wake up before the sun rose, get coffee, put some gangster rap on my headphones, and get right down to it.
In Copenhagen I wanted to see (1) the Nyhavn Canal and (2) The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, as well as what I was told was the *second* most disappointing tourist attraction in all of Europe: (3) The Little Mermaid Statue.
In Sweden, I went straight for (1) The Meatballs. (Yes, Swedish Meatballs are an institution and deserve to be in capital letters).
In Brussels I wanted to see the (1) The Grand Place, (2) The Musée Magritte Museum (department of redundancy department?), and what I was told was the *first and foremost* disappointing tourist attraction in all of Europe: (3) The Mannekin Pis. I also, naturally, came for the (4) waffles and (5) chocolate at the legendary Mokafé.
In Florence I managed to check off (1) The Duomo, (2) Michelangelo’s David, (3) The Uffizi Gallery, (4) Piazza Michelangelo, and (5) (possibly the most important of them all) my first ever cannoli.
In Venice it was all about (1) Carnevale and (2) gelato. My personal favorite, however, was (3) the view from the tower of San Giorgio Maggiore. That was (4) euros well spent to get to the top.
While I had originally planned this journey to be a solo-trip, I was overjoyed to find out that I would have friends along the way in Copenhagen and Florence. In Copenhagen, we explored every frigid corner of the city and tried donuts galore…
While in Florence I enjoyed the sunset wine-drinking and photoshoot at the astoundingly beautiful Piazza Michelangelo, among the hundreds of other instances where I got to soak in the Italian wine, food, and culture.
However, there were a few days where traveling by myself was a necessity. I have no problem with this— I’ve traveled solo before, and to be honest, these trips have been some of the happiest times of my life. I believe that everyone should take a trip by themselves at some point. I always like to reflect on the notion that, “When you’re traveling with someone else, you share each discovery, but when you are alone, you have to carry each experience with you like a secret, something you have to write on your heart, because there’s no other way to preserve it” (Shauna Niequist). I love the solitude in a strange place, I love the mystery of city streets, and I love trying to figure them out by myself as well as with the people I meet along the way. But no matter how freeing the experience, I found out recently that there are limitations to women traveling by themselves.
I’ve been listening to all the preventative babbles for years— “wear a fake wedding ring!” “never smile in public!” “always travel with a man!”— but had determined it to be something that would never concern me unless I went looking for trouble. I was street-savvy.I never strayed from public places or populated squares. I knew what I was doing. Yet among all the confetti and the music and smiling papier mâché masks of Carnevale was the first time I truly felt like an outsider, an easy target.
Several times an hour I was approached by tourists and local men alike; “Sweetie, are you alone? Where’s your husband? Let me show you around…” and every time managed to escape with an on-the-spot plan; “Je ne parle pas Anglais,” “No English, sorry,” “My friend is waiting for me…” I’d always push away and into the celebrating throngs. Although with one or two persistent followers (one, in fact, who briefly tried to pull me into his car on the street), I managed to befriend a few members of the Italian Carabinieri to send the message across. ‘Safety’ had to be perpetually activated at the back of my mind, and it was exhausting.
I haven’t let this negative female travel culture color my experience of any of the cities that I’ve been to— after all, London or New York City isn’t very different in this respect. As Shirley MacLaine once mused, “The more I travelled the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends;” and I truly don’t want this to become the case as I continue to travel. It’s important to find a balance between being social and being safe, and every city is different. While I was aware of this before, I’m even more so now. It’s something I’ve learned on my solo journey, which is arguably the whole point of traveling to begin with; in other words, “I learned courage and I learned it myself” (Ann Stirk).
I guess the point of this post is just to vent my frustration that it is a shame this stigma for solo female travelers still exists. As long as women are confident, prepared, and aware of their surroundings, being alone should simply not be an issue (at least in most of Europe’s tourist destinations). Men travel alone. Women travel alone. It shouldn’t make a difference, but society tells us that it does. And that’s only something that will bother you if you let it.
I’ll just leave you with this to help you navigate the choppy waters…