Sweat dripped down my back despite the frigid air conditioning in the Paris airport. I really had to learn to pack lighter. I dragged one giant suitcase behind me, held a heavy purse in one hand, and had a large duffle bag printed with red and yellow outlines of the continent of Africa across my back. My blonde hair was braided with weave in cornrows that hung down to my hip. I had spent a year studying abroad in France and Senegal and was on my way to spend a week in Lisbon by myself – my first solo trip.
On the plane, I sat next to a pair of British boys who were banging on the tray tables with their fists and kicking the seats in front of them, with no parents in sight. The couple sitting in front of the boys turned around and started shouting at them in French. The boys looked at them blankly. I tried not to overhear, but couldn’t help myself.
“Where are your parents? You must stop hitting our seats immediately. We are contacting the flight attendants,” said the couple, waving their hands in the air. The flight attendant appeared.
“Sir, I can’t understand you,” said the weary-looking flight attendant in a heavy British accent.
I tapped her on the shoulder and translated. The flight attendant located the parents immediately and made one parent switch with one boy, separating them. I explained what was happening back to the French couple.
“Thank goodness you were here!” They said. I blushed. It was amazing how far I had come in just a few months, both in my French proficiency and my ability to navigate uncomfortable travel situations.
When we arrived in Lisbon I took public transportation into the city from the airport, dragging my bag up the winding cobblestone street to the hostel when we finally reached my stop. I was on a student budget and couldn’t afford a cab.
I had planned to meet a boy in Lisbon. Five months earlier, when I was studying in France, I had cultivated an ongoing flirtation with a Portuguese student who said that we should go to Portugal together, as I had never been. Once the summer arrived, he reneged on the plans but I decided to go anyway. He had described the beauty of the country, the food, and the beaches and I could picture it all in my head; it would be the perfect spot for my first adventure alone.
My hostel was spotlessly clean, perched on a hill with a view overlooking the red roofs of the city. After securing my luggage in the mixed-gender dorm room where I claimed a top bunk, I ventured out into the city to explore. I strolled up and down hills and past the vibrantly-painted buildings, observing that I seemed to be visiting San Francisco’s European equivalent. I smiled to myself at my clever comparison, feeling my first pang of loneliness: I couldn’t share my observation with anyone.
Passing under an arch and into the stately Praca do Comercio square, I was immediately stopped by a man who asked me if I wanted to buy marjuana, my long braids singling me out as a potential hippie. I dodged him, shaking my head no. Trees and cafes full of tourists lined the square, and I sat down to enjoy an overpriced coffee while I read my book and people-watched. The seconds seemed to slow without anyone to talk to. Did passerby know that I was traveling alone? Did they think that I was strange to be out at a cafe by myself? If I felt awkward just having a solo coffee, how would I manage dinner? I tried not to think about it too much as I focused on the plot of my book.
Arriving back at the hostel, I discovered a group of Italians in my dorm room. Normally shy with strangers, I pasted a smile on my face and greeted them warmly. Upon learning that I was traveling alone, they invited me out to dinner and I heaved a sigh of relief, knowing that I wouldn’t have to sit alone at a restaurant table. We ate whole fish baked in salt, accompanied by fragrant roasted vegetables, savoring the seemingly endless good, cheap wine. We followed the dinner with a trip out to a bar in one of the hip parts of town, eventually stumbling back to the hostel late that night as we laughed – instant, new friends discovering the Lisbon nightlife.
The next morning at the breakfast table, I met a Spanish clarinetist who played for an orchestra in Finland. He was in Portugal to soak up as much Mediterranean culture as possible before he had to go back to the frigid north. He had just departed Spain, where he was visiting his girlfriend. She had been busy with work, otherwise she would have come to Lisbon with him.
“Do you want to go to the Moorish castle outside of the city? If we sign up for the tour, there is a bus that will take us there,” he said.
“Sure!” I replied. He seemed nice and non-threatening, especially after telling me about his girlfriend.
We were able to get tickets to the castle for later that day, climbing up and down the crumbling stone turets and snapping photos of each other.
By the end of the day, I was overheated and wanted nothing more than a cold shower back at the hostel. As we rode the bus back to city, the clarinetist and I talked about all of the delicious things we would eat later that evening. Climbing the steps to the hostel, I said goodbye and thanked him for the day.
In my dorm room, gathering my shower gear from my suitcase, I turned around to find the clarinetist standing right behind me.
“I’ve been wanting to do this all day,” he said, leaning in to kiss me. I pulled away before his lips could touch mine.
“Wait, but you have a girlfriend!” I protested.
“But you’re so beautiful,” he breathed.
“I’m sorry, but no,” I said. I was still too young to realize that I didn’t need to apologize when rejecting unwanted advances.
The next day I decided to go to the beach by myself. The encounter with the Spaniard had put me on edge, and I decided that I wasn’t truly experiencing a solo trip if I just spent all of my time with new friends.
The golden sand beach was chock full of people: mothers with babies, topless women bronzing their breasts, men in speedos, and groups of friends playing beach games. The sun beat down as I shaded my eyes, trying to read my book. All I wanted was go in the water, but I was afraid to leave my belongings unattended. There were simply too many people around. Part of me wished that the Spanish clarinetist was with me, just to watch my bag and help me put sunscreen on my back.
Ah, well. There I was, alone on a Portuguese beach, basking in the sun. It could be worse.
That night, instead of trying to make friends with the new arrivals in the hostel’s common room, I decided to eat at a restaurant by myself. The minutes slowly ticked by as I waited for my food, concentrating on writing my journal entry for the day. When my food arrived, I savored each bite, smiling to myself. I had done it. I was traveling alone, and it was just fine.