Cherish your solitude. Take trains by yourself to places you have never been. Sleep out alone under the stars. Learn how to drive a stick shift. Go so far away that you stop being afraid of not coming back. Say no when you don't want to do something. Say yes if your instincts are strong, even if everyone around you disagrees. Decide whether you want to be liked or admired. Decide if fitting in is more important than finding out what you're doing here. Believe in kissing.
— Eve Ensler
Stay safe. Take cabs.
This was my dad’s advice, given via text message, an hour before I boarded a plane to London for my first European adventure as a solo traveller.
“Don’t be Jessica,” he said, knowing that I don’t always think about consequences — walking home alone at night, drinking too much wine, wandering unfamiliar streets, and talking to strangers.
Apprehension is tethered to solo travel. The unknown seems far less scary when there’s somebody by your side, wandering the same streets, drinking the same wine, talking to the same strangers. I expected to feel this apprehension, alone in cities I’d never travelled to before, but I didn’t. Instead, travelling alone seemed anything but scary. It seemed natural, liberating, empowering.
My journey began in London, my eyes barely open, a side effect of the Gravol I took hours earlier as my plane left Toronto. It ended a week later at the Manchester Airport, where I boarded another plane, clad in yellow wellies and a backpack that had grown heavier during my week of wandering. In between those moments were hundreds more.
London moved quickly, and I mean this to have multiple meanings. My visit was short and the city was fast. It moved quickly around me — honking horns and anxious tourists — while I struggled to find my hostel. The first song I heard when checking in to The Walrus, a trendy hub near Westminster Bridge, was one my better half recorded.
London was all the things I expected — double deckers, red phone booths, and many things to see. My two-hour flight delay meant I had less time than I’d hoped, so I threw away my itinerary. First, I wandered past the Thames, the London Eye, Big Ben, and Parliament, and then spent much of my afternoon immersing myself in the history of Westminster Abbey. I wandered past Buckingham Palace, through St. James Park and Piccadilly Circus, stopping in bookstores along the way. My day ended at The Walrus, where I shared a room with travellers from around the world. After they went to bed, I found myself almost alone in the hostel’s bar, drinking pints and reading, until last call.
The next morning, after a British breakfast of tea and biscuits, I did what any book nerd with a few hours to spare in London would do — I rode the tube (Mind the gap!) to the British Library. Libraries often hold the best-kept secrets from travellers. They’re quiet and roomy (perfect for those of us dragging gigantic backpacks from city to city) and they often have exhibitions that are as well-curated as any museum. The British Library was no exception, among its collection were the handwritten lyrics to the Beatles’ Yesterday, surviving fragments of the Magna Carta, one of Olivier’s scripts, and a Shakespeare First Folio.
My 24 hours in London ended with a pasty and a kind elderly man asking me about Canada. I boarded the train to Edinburgh, happy to give my tired legs a break.