If you follow me on social media, you’ll know that I’ve just come back from a month travelling round Europe exploring the role of culture in different cities. I blogged about it on Thriving Places and I’ll carry on adding to this blog with reflections on my travels, and perhaps new trips to cities. I’d like to visit Antwerp and Stockholm this year, for a start.
I’m sharing here one of my posts from Thriving Places….
This is like one of those ‘letters to my teenage self’. It’s the advice I would have given myself if I’d already done this trip when I was planning it. I haven’t necessarily followed my own advice, because I didn’t know to give it to myself before. It might be useful to others, especially if you or your trip share any of these characteristics: by train, in Europe, a few weeks, pursuing culture, solo and female.
1. Plan for your temperament
The whole point about travelling solo is that you can please yourself. You don’t need to follow anybody else’s advice on routes or routines or activities. You can do more of what obsesses you and not need to worry about variety or balance. Visualise yourself in different situations and consider what would make you happiest, what would make you most stressed. Imagine yourself doing things out of your comfort zone, and have a go at the new things that you think fit with what makes you happy. I was a bit shy about going into the Gellert baths on my own but it was a great thing to do.
I have a bit of an overdeveloped work ethic, so I felt that a long solo trip was a bit indulgent. I kept trying to justify and boil it down to one goal, as if it was going to end up as a book or new business plan. I could only manage to reduce it to two main goals, plus a few more sub goals and themes! One goal was reviewing museums in many cities in order to grow my understanding of museum experience design; and the other was researching cultural projects that are socially and ecologically engaged to help learn about how places can thrive.
Experiencing the museums was easy as, well, there they were on the tourist trail. Finding thrivable culture projects was more difficult as they relied on people connections and research. I realised that, although I was interested in such projects I didn’t want to spend a long time chasing leads and getting into odd corners of cities. Also I had so many places on my itinerary I just didn’t have time, so I achieved the first goal most. But also aspects of sub-goals were achieved too. See the list at the end.
3. Lower your expectations
If you live in London or perhaps Paris you will not find as much variety of culture in other European cities, especially in terms of contemporary and diverse culture. In a few of the cities I started to feel slightly bored – or aware of the risk of boredom – by mid afternoon. I countered that by seeking out smaller hidden attractions and was often frustrated by closures, disappointing content or simply not being able to find them. All this said I’ve been surprised and amazed by something every day, and don’t regret going anywhere (although a better planned trip would have skipped Bratislava in favour of more time in Vienna and Brussels).
Out in public in a place you’re staying a couple of days nobody will meet you again (probably) so you can ask for what you need, complain, skip in a park, cry in a cafe, or try to speak a foreign language badly. Of course this doesn’t mean you should abandon decency and politeness, and don’t draw unsafe attention to yourself, but it just means you can try being more assertive and expressive, which is necessary when you need to protect your safety and achieve your goals.
5. Deal with loneliness
You will be lonely. You may not realise that what you’re feeling is loneliness. You may use words like ‘glum’ or ‘anxious’ but loneliness is the root, exacerbated by the tiredness of daily stimulation. It’s ok to feel that way, but maybe not if it runs out of control, so there are some ways to combat it:
– Relishing how you can enjoy being by yourself
– Taking all opportunities for self care
– Using social accommodation like Airbnb
– Using Facetime or Skype to keep in touch with your loved ones
– Not being shy to talk to people
– Avoiding too much mood-altering stuff like coffee or alcohol (I didn’t follow this advice enough!)
Don’t be too abstemious!
If there is a bath in the place you’re staying, have a bath if there are cooking facilities, cook something you like. If there is a washing machine wash your clothes. When you are in a place where there is a calm space like a park take a bit of time to go there. Don’t go all the time to the crowded places. And if in Budapest go to the Gellert baths!
7. Don’t fuss about your kit
You won’t have anyone to lend you stuff, or to moan to if your bag is too heavy. It’s all on your shoulders. If you’re away from home for a while this pack is your home. It represents your needs, and some of it you will be aware you don’t really need. So, you are going to fuss but try not to. If you strap your rucksack on properly the extra weight doesn’t matter. If you need something buy it when you next see it. If you don’t need something, gift it or abandon it. Some things won’t be much used but in the case of weather gear you might be very grateful for even one use. The stuff you don’t have and the stuff you don’t need balance each other out.
8. Get to train stations early
Ease of mind! You don’t know how long it will take you to get to unfamiliar train stations. Especially, like Villa Opicina, when they are off the edge of nowhere.
There’s nothing wrong with spending a bit of time in train stations. They are interesting atmospheric places which show you quite a lot about the character of each city. Some still have original cafes like in Budapest (see below). If there is nothing to do, that’s what books are for. Or find a wifi cafe and research what you might do at the next destination. The reason to get there early is to make sure you have a valid seat reservation, to ensure that you don’t need a reservation, or to be on the train settling into your seat with everything you need.
If you make your reservation online, you may find that the proof you have it’s not actually a seat reservation. There isn’t a seat or wagon number. You will have to take this printout to the office for them to actually reserve you a seat. If they tell you you don’t need a seat reservation because you have your interrail ticket, tell them that you want one.
This advice doesn’t apply in ultra efficient Germany but you must make your reservation online – and it works.
9. Love your feet
Do not be tempted to take a pair of shoes you suspect of giving you blisters. Take Compeed in your pack. Be conscious of how you walk to avoid putting extra pressure on certain parts of your feet. And when you are at the Gellert baths find the underwater jets and massage your feet with them. You will be very grateful.
And, what I got from my trip:
– A lot of learning and thinking about the history, people and geography of all the countries I visited
– A huge number of photos (not including the ones taken on my phone that I’ve used for blogging, which I have plans to use in various ways)
– Creative inspiration
– A mental break from normal work
– Useful learning to apply to work
– Met some lovely people, and caught up with friends
– Had time to read books
– Learned about travelling on trains, and loved it
– Had time to think and blog.
On top of that is the indefinable value of exploring new places and seeing how people live, and the beauty of a long settled human culture in a particular landscape.