The first time I traveled solo was during my second year of grad school.
By that point, at the age of 24, I'd already driven across the country by myself and flown within the United States on my own, but I'd never gone abroad without the company of friends or family. Given my small town upbringing, I never fathomed I'd even desire such a thing; as a senior in high school, I was afraid to drive on an interstate by myself. But each small step built my confidence, and eventually I moving across the country for an internship, a job, grad school. Now all I needed was a reason to go overseas, and I unexpectedly found it at the restaurant where I was working.
One evening I was standing at the line waiting for food to come out when the hostess joined me, bored because of the slow night. Even though we'd worked together all summer, our only conversations had involved basic pleasantries and table seatings. Heat from the kitchen radiated onto our faces, chefs in the background called out order numbers, and she casually mentioned she was about to go for Scotland for the Fall semester.
"Scotland?" I choked. "I've wanted to go to Scotland for years! That's amazing!"
"Yeah," she said. "I'm excited."
"Wow. I wish I could go with you...!"
"You should!" she said. "I mean, you're welcome to visit. I'll have a place to stay. It'd be fun!"
I turned to face her. "I'm the kind of person who will show up at your doorstep, suitcase in hand, thinking this was an invitation. Please tell me now if you're joking."
"No, I'm definitely serious! You should come!" she assured me.
And so it was that I had an invitation to Scotland, complete with a place to stay, from a girl with whom my longest interaction was the conversation above. Nevertheless, two months later I was boarding a flight, from Boston to London to Edinburgh, carrying the instructions I'd hand copied from an email she'd sent before my departure*, telling me which bus to take from the airport and which stop was my exit.
My greatest fear was finding her. Since I'd never arrived into a city without someone to meet me at the airport, I concentrated all of my anxieties into my arrival at Edinburgh. It had not occurred to me I would get myself into trouble before getting to Scotland, but that's what happened.
First, I should probably mention that my love of Scotland developed in an unconventional way—because of the movie P.S. I Love You. Technically, the movie takes place in Ireland, but Gerard Butler, the leading actor and the most beautiful human I'd ever seen, is a native of Scotland. Thus, I put all my hopes of finding a husband into visiting Scotland because that's where all the men with sexy accents, sensitive souls, and six-pack abs** must originate. I was hoping to run into Gerard on my trip, or at least his handsome cousin, so we could fall in love and get married.
I made the mistake of revealing this secret to the customs agent in London when he asked what the purpose of my visit was. I thought he would find it funny; I was, after all, joking***.
He did not find it funny. Instead, this initiated an interrogation. "Where are you staying in Scotland? How long have you known this friend? How do you know her? Why are you on holiday? How much money is in your bank account? When will you return?"
Eventually he sent me on my way, but not before assuring me he flagged my passport as a security threat. TSA would be paying strict attention to me for the rest of my travels.
I was very glad to not be staying in London.
Edinburgh, however, was different. From the moment I landed, I was greeted with smiles. In my panic to find the correct bus, I asked someone to direct me, and they non-judgmentally pointed to the bus in front of me. I found my friend at the appointed stop, and together we walked to her flat, the place I'd call home for the next seven days.
In short, it was the most amazing week. I was on my own during the day because of my friend's class schedule, and halfway through my visit she left to Amsterdam. But I wouldn't have asked for it any other way.
The first day I decided to take a free walking tour of the city****, and this was the perfect initiation to the city. The guide advised us on which bars to frequent, taught us the history of the Destiny Stone, pointed out where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter, and facilitated friendships. I met travelers from all over the world—Australia, Germany, Brazil, Holland. In fact, two of the Australians I befriended stayed in touch with me and we ended up meeting on subsequent travels!
I learned how to properly drink Scottish whiskey from a local, listened to live music, and got to know the ins and outs of the Royal Mile. My last night in Edinburgh was the most memorable of all. Thanks to the help of two Scotsmen, I had a bar full of people offering to take pictures with me. At one point another traveler stopped me to ask, "Are you famous?"
For those few hours, I felt like I was!
I might not have found Gerard Butler, but what I found was even better: the confidence to travel the world solo, and a collection of memories to last a lifetime.
*This was before the advent of Smartphones.
**See Gerard Butler in 300.
***I was not joking.
****Look for Sandeman Free Walking Tours – they're amazing!