This past weekend I traveled to Amsterdam, my first trip out of the Iberian Peninsula this semester! I flew there by myself, and spent two days exploring the city on my own before meeting up with another friend for the rest of the trip. Amsterdam is famous for being a liberal city, full of new opportunities, and that certainly proved true of my trip! As a solo traveler in a foreign country, I ended up with several new and unexpected experiences in my few days there:
- Getting off the airplane with no idea of how to get to my hostel – This one I could have avoided, but I wanted to see whether I could make it on my own without planning each step. I had my hostel marked on a map (I use the app map.me, and it’s saved my life thousands of times!). At the airport, I wandered until I found the train that was labeled “Central Station,” and got on. Once the train arrived in what was very clearly Central Station, I found a street sign that I recognized, pointed myself in what I hoped was the right direction, and started to walk. I checked my progress against the map a few times, and ended up walking right past the turnoff for my hostel, but I found it in the end. It was reassuring to know that I could find my way to a new place without a perfectly mapped route or the blue dot of a GPS to guide me!
- Sleeping in a hostel room with only men – I wasn’t thinking about the fact that I’d be traveling alone when I booked my hostel a month ago, and reserved a co-ed room to save a bit of money. I’ve slept in co-ed hostel rooms before without incident, but always with a friend. This time, I was on my own in the room and found myself with four men I didn’t know, most of whom didn’t speak English or Spanish. For some solo travelers this might not be an issue at all, but I definitely noticed a difference! Never did I feel unsafe in my room, but I was hyper aware of the deep snores of my roommates.
- Dining alone for dinner – Dining on my own through the day was simple; I could easily grab a snack from a street vendor or stop into a café for a quick sandwich. Dining on my own at night was harder though. My hostel didn’t have a kitchen, so I couldn’t cook for myself (nor could I join in the typical meet-and-greet that happens in most hostel kitchens). Instead, I set off on my own to find somewhere for dinner. It took me a while to find a place where I felt comfortable. I didn’t want a restaurant was too crowded, nor did I want anything very expensive. Finally I settled on a restaurant called Café Kale, which had an empty corner table I could see from the window. At first I felt awkward sitting and ordering by myself, as though the groups of chattering people were judging me for dining out alone. I pulled out a book and settled into the environment, and ended up lingering for nearly two hours over my mushroom soup and thick-cut bread. While company is always nice, I found myself appreciating the time to myself to read and people-watch.
- Biking through a city – I’m not a very good biker, but everyone in Amsterdam uses a bike to get around, and I couldn’t miss out on the experience! I rented a huge, lime-green, American-style (meaning it has hand-brakes) bike and rode around the city for an hour. It took me a while to get used to the crisscrossing network of bike lanes that weave in and out of traffic, and there were several moments where I skittered to a stop as a more experienced rider zoomed past me on their bike. Both my bike and I were intact and unbruised when we made it back to the rental shop though!
- Pancakes and waffles for every meal – Amsterdam is known for its pancakes, and the ones I tried certainly lived up to their reputation! I sampled poffertjes – puffy mini pancakes – covered in nutella, then another time drenched in powdered sugar with strawberries and whipped cream. I tried a savory pancake with bacon and cheese. I also ate my fill of stroopwaffles – thin waffle cookies with syrup inside. Of course I balanced all those sweets with a green juice, since there are cafes selling fresh juice on every corner that doesn’t hold a pancake stand. That counts as healthy eating, right?
- Speaking Spanish in a country that doesn’t speak Spanish – when I first got to Amsterdam, I spoke to everyone in Spanish. Even though my Spanish is terrible, I’d automatically launch into “puedo tener una de esto” in a bakery, or call out “hasta luego!” to the woman behind the desk at the hostel. Almost everyone there spoke English, but I couldn’t switch off the Spanish in my brain. But the problem still stands – my Spanish is terrible! A few times people replied to me in rapid-fire Spanish, and I had to give them a blank look. I tried to explain that yes, I just initiated a conversation in Spanish, but no, I don’t speak the language… Most of the time they just switched over to English. I guess my brain is now thoroughly confused about which language should be coming out of my mouth…
Traveling solo isn’t like traveling with a friend. The constant chatter, the silly picture taking, the sharing bites of street food – none of that happens when you’re by yourself. But this weekend pushed me into new experiences I never would have had if I were with my typical travel companions.
I’ve read a fair few articles about solo traveling, articles saying that traveling by yourself forces you to get to know yourself better, increases your self-reliance, teaches you to be happy with your own company. I’m not sure whether or not I agree; I don’t think I traveled alone long enough to be able to say. I do know though, that I appreciated the smiling face of my friend approaching from across Central Station all the more after two days on my own. And, as we walked out of the station, I appreciated being able to take her to the best pancake stand around and saying “I found this by myself.”
Photo credit: Riley Abeles