I had dreamed, for so many years, of visiting England. I’d collected pictures of castles, Elizabethan architecture, and rolling green hills dotted with sheep, books by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and Somerset Maugham. I studied the scenery, the mannerisms, the colloquial expressions in every English movie and television show I saw. I knew England incredibly well for someone who had never been there.
And yet there I was, my first night in Birmingham, standing at the window of my hotel room, overcome with loneliness and feeling, to be honest, a bit freaked out. The jet lag wasn’t helping.
“I guess I’ll just go to bed,” I said aloud, and reached for my pajamas.
That was the moment everything changed. I stopped, my hand literally poised in mid-air over my suitcase, and laughed. At myself, at the situation, and with the complete realization that I was actually in England.
“You’re finally here, after all these years you’re finally in England and you’re going to go to bed, just because you don’t have anyone to hang out with? Are you kidding me?”
I grabbed my bag and headed out in the deepening twilight. I didn’t know where I was going, and I was still very much by myself, but suddenly I no longer saw that as a bad thing. In fact, I kind of loved it.
I found a pub a few blocks from my hotel and went in. Feeling a little self-conscious, I ordered a pint of Guinness and sat down at an empty table and stopped loving being alone. Now I was just a tourist, drinking alone in a bar. How original. I glanced around and saw a young woman alone at a nearby table. I smiled at her and she smiled back.
“So, do I stick out?” I asked.
“Well, you didn’t until you spoke,” she answered.
Within minutes, her date had joined us, and before two hours had passed, several people from other tables had gathered at our table. The beer and hilarity flowed. A nearby woman asked how long we’d all been friends.
“Oh, we’ve only just met tonight,” one of the men at our table answered.
“Really?” She looked genuinely surprised. “You all seem like you’ve been mates forever.”
“Eh, it’s the American what’s done that to us,” he answered, gesturing at me.
It was maybe the single proudest moment of my life.
When I looked back on that experience later, I realized there’d have been much less of a chance of that happening if I’d been traveling with someone else. More than likely, we’d have sat at a table for two and had a conversation for two, and studied a map and planned out what sights to see the next day, and then gone to bed, satisfied we’d had a truly English experience because we’d had beer in a pub.
And yeah, I’d still had the beer in a pub (I mean, I was in England, duh) but because I’d been by myself, I had an even more authentic, local experience than I could ever have imagined.
Traveling alone may seem weird, or even unthinkable, and there are a lot of reasons why it’s great to travel with another person or group. A romantic getaway by yourself, for example, would be the saddest thing ever.
There are also, however, plenty of reasons why flying solo is awesome. Although I’ve traveled alone before and since, my trip to England was defining for me. I’d never been off the continent of North America before, and while perhaps it was a baby step to visit a country that speaks the same language as me (well, more or less), it was still a big deal. A redeye flight, the bearded man at customs who gave me directions that ended with a cheery “Off you go, then,” my ruddy-faced taxi driver in his oh-so-British black cab who wanted to talk about Las Vegas, figuring out quickly that no one tips service personnel, strange food on the menus, tiny cars with the steering wheel on the opposite side… I was the metaphoric stranger in a strange land. And because I had no one else to lean on, I just took a deep breath and leaped. And England… well, England opened its arms and caught me.