Personal Essay: When Growing Up Means Traveling Alone

On her first night in Lisbon, the author muses: “I’m alone in a new city. I got dinner alone. What’s wrong? Then it hit me. I wasn’t appreciating the moment at all.”
This view was one of the authors rewards when she screwed up her courage to spend four days in Lisbon on her own.
This view was one of the author’s rewards when she screwed up her courage to spend four days in Lisbon on her own.
Abby Langton

Dear Abigail, we’re very sorry that your flight from Madrid to Lisbon was cancelled on 02-04-2023. We do all we can to minimize any inconvenience caused and keep you informed,” reads the most recent email lingering on my phone screen. I see it after waking up at 10:00 a.m. for my morning flight.

One of the worst ways to begin your first solo trip is with a cancelled flight. I hadn’t left my apartment yet but already felt so alone. Without anyone to complain about the flight cancellation with, I found myself searching the internet for Easy Jet customer assistance phone number. After minutes of scrolling, I find the English speaking number and call.

After listening to the not-so-calming music provided by the airline as I was left on hold, I contemplated my plans for the next week. After living in Madrid for two years, I’d travelled a number of places. Paris, London, Dublin, Prague, and many others. One of the things that these cities had in common was that I had visited them with a friend. Traveling with a friend is one of the best things a person can do. The level of intimacy and tenderness found when traveling with a friend is almost euphoric. Some of my best memories I’ve made traveling are thanks to the assistance of my friends and their presence. While I cherish these memories and want to continue traveling the world with my closest friends, I’m also 20.

Being 20 is one of the weirdest things I’ve experienced so far in my life. Some days I wake up fully aware I’m supposed to be an adult now, then others I wake up calling my dad because boiler is broken. What I’ve gathered as of now is that being 20 means that you are supposed to begin to be an adult, but you have no idea how to actually begin that journey. After living abroad for a few years, one of the things I’ve heard from my fellow lost 20-year-olds is that one of the best ways to learn independence and understand yourself is to do a solo trip. I avoided this advice for a solid two years as my anxiety convinced me that nothing constructive could come from me visiting a foreign country alone.

In 2023, I made it my New Year’s Resolution that I’d go on a solo trip. I looked at it like everyone looks at their resolutions, something you’d like to do but something you never do.

The author got in 25,000 steps walking these hilly streets of Lisbon. (Abby Langton)

So, how did I end up planning a solo trip to Lisbon in April if I was so against it? Well, my friends had plans. Everyone around me was traveling for Semana Santa. My roommate had family visiting from the US and it seemed like everyone else I knew was busy, but I’d been dying to go to Lisbon. After a few sips of white wine, I had a flight and hotel in Lisbon for spring break.

As the trip got closer and closer, I felt unsure about my decision to travel alone. I debated cancelling my flight every other day, but part of me knew that this trip would be essential for any self-growth.

My flight got cancelled the day I was supposed to leave. I thought I’d feel relieved, I had a free excuse to not go, but I felt devastated. My desire for independence and growth was greater than my lingering fear of traveling alone, which led me to the Adolfo-Suarez Barajas airport with a cancelled flight and no new ticket.

My phone call with Easy Jet earlier in the morning was anything but pleasant, but my impromptu trip to the airport and discussion with the man at the Easy Jet desk was incredibly constructive. I was provided with a new ticket and a seat on a TAP Air Portugal flight.

After landing in Lisbon, I headed straight to my hotel. I sat on the freshly made twin bed and decided my first course of action would be dinner. I found a close sushi restaurant and decided that would be perfect to celebrate my first night alone.

I tried extremely hard to excite myself and to dismiss my nerves. I walked to the restaurant pretending I knew where I was going, though I assume everyone around me knew I was terribly lost.

The next battle I had to face was eating a meal alone. I’d done this numerous times in Madrid, never thinking it was anything strange. That being said, I felt so out of place in this restaurant already, not knowing the city or the language, which made eating alone feel so uncomfortable. I scrolled on my phone and read some of my book as I waited for the food to arrive, then I ate faster than anyone ever should. I got the check and went back to the hotel.

Upon my return, I felt unaccomplished. Shouldn’t I feel proud? I’m alone in a new city. I got dinner alone. What’s wrong? Then it hit me. I wasn’t appreciating the moment at all. I was blinded by my anxieties of what could go wrong, resulting in me not appreciating everything that was going right. Luckily, I had four days to figure this solo trip thing out.

I woke up the next day determined to enjoy myself. I looked up brunch restaurants in Lisbon, something I heard the city had a plethora of, and located one in Alfama. I began my 40 minute walk to the restaurant and decided that Boygenius would keep me company along the way. “The Record” by Boygenius had come out right before my trip and I had listened to it a few times already, but I never truly sat and appreciated it. This walk provided me with the opportunity to listen to the new songs, cherish the new words, go back and repeat my favorite parts, and even learn the words. As I closed in on the restaurant, I found myself singing along to the music playing in my headphones on the street and smiling at those who walked by me.

Brunch that day was incredible. Toast with a poached egg, ham, and an orange sauce that I was unfamiliar with accompanied by a fruit bowl and an iced latte. I sat and enjoyed my meal, read my book, spoke with the waitress. After roughly two hours, I decided it was time to depart. I walked throughout the neighborhood in awe of the bright colors that could be found on seemingly every building. I stumbled upon a monastery and then ended up at Saint George’s Castle. I ended the day with over 25,000 steps. I returned home with aching feet, a heavy tote bag, and a smile on my face.

For the next few days of my trip, I woke up early and headed straight out the door. I found myself growing in confidence day-by-day. I no longer checked my phone every time I turned a corner, I had conversations with people in shops and restaurants, I even went on a day trip to Cascais from Lisbon on the train alone! I left the security of my hotel and allowed the city to guide me.

View of the colorful rooftops of Lisbon, April 2023. (Abby Langton)

The day of my flight back to Madrid, I had no desire to leave Lisbon. After a lazy morning that required much convincing to get myself out of bed, I returned. I had a few days alone in Madrid before my friends came back from their trips, so I explored parts of the city I hadn’t seen much before.

My first solo trip to Lisbon was one of the most formative experiences I’ve had yet. In only five days, I learned so much about myself. I’m more capable than I had ever thought before. I can navigate new places alone, I can find ways to communicate with others even if we don’t share a common language, I can problem solve when my flight is cancelled, I can do so much. This one singular trip resulted in so much personal growth and a stronger sense of self.

Since my first solo trip to Lisbon in April of 2023, I’ve gone on two more.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The NewSLU Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *