How Bucharest Turned Me into a Solo Traveler
“Sim card?” I pointed at my phone and asked the man at the tiny kiosk at arrivals in Bucharest Otopeni Airport, in that slow, neatly-enunciated language tourists use when they think it will help them be better understood by locals. He nodded yes and I held out my phone to him–nervous, fumbling, eager to be connected as soon as possible on this, my first trip abroad as a solo traveler.
He took my phone and opened its elaborate protective case, commandeering the only means of communication I had with the outside world. As the minutes ticked by and he and his friend spent more time discussing the intricacies of my iPhone, trying to figure out how to set it up, I began to think the worst: they would break my phone, they would hack it, they would steal it. And then, of course, they handed it back to me smiling, friendly, and happy to help a new arrival. I smiled back and felt myself relaxing.
Outside the terminal I waited in the darkness of the parking lot, empty and cold except for me waiting for my rideshare to the center of the city. In the darkness of night and the knowledge that I was a stranger alone in this place where I didn’t know the rules, I felt nervous. I’d usually feel at ease and excited arriving in a new place. I was reminded of all the reasons why (and it is hard to write this, to put it out there into the universe) I have a confession to make: I have never wanted to travel alone.
This is not the sort of thing you’d expect from a woman who moved to New York practically by herself and made a life there; someone who studied abroad in Paris in college. I’ve traveled and lived all over the world, but it’s always been with someone else, or in the context of a community: with friends to Italy, with youth groups to Ecuador, with family to France, with a boyfriend to Thailand, with neighbors to Costa Rica, with friends of friends to Peru.
Although I traveled extensively, I avoided traveling alone because I preferred having someone with whom to share the experiences of travel–good, bad, and logistical. I avoided traveling alone, thinking it was safer to travel with someone else. Most of all, I avoided traveling alone because I was afraid I’d be lonely by myself and that if wouldn’t be fun and I wouldn’t feel at ease.
I have a confession to make: I have never wanted to travel alone.
When I booked the last-minute deal to Bucharest (only a three-hour flight from where I live) I’d just moved to a new country with my boyfriend, he was away on work, and I had a long weekend off. I took the chance to explore somewhere new. It was a short enough trip, I reasoned, that I could bear the solo travel time.
Instead, in Bucharest, tracing and retracing the streets, exploring the quirky mix of architectural styles, and eating lots of carbs, I found that if I let myself relax into it, there were singular pleasures to traveling alone that I could not experience traveling with other people. I actually enjoyed being alone with a strange new place all to myself.
It was easy to let myself relax in Bucharest. The tourist center was compact and all the sights were centered around a fairly walkable area. From where I stayed in a traditional hotel with red carpets and a view of a grand square below, I could come and go as I pleased. In the morning I’d get up leisurely, stretch out, take my time to plan my day, head downstairs for the complimentary breakfast, and explore. I walked the main downtown area until I knew it by heart. I booked a walking tour and ended up being the only person on it, which meant I had a private experience and a chance to get to know the tour guide, a lifelong Bucharest native.
Where normally I have a case of traveler’s FOMO, I found that traveling alone allowed me to let go of the need to fit it all in. Specifically to facilitate the challenge of being on my first solo trip, I gave myself permission to be kinder to myself, to let myself enjoy without judging whether I was checking off every single sight on my list. When I saw a bakery, I stopped and bought myself whatever I wanted. Twice. One night I saw that a few clothing stores were open late, went in on a whim, and had them practically to myself. As I was traveling alone, I could indulge in shopping after dinner!
Where normally I have a case of traveler’s FOMO, I found that traveling alone allowed me to let go of the need to fit it all in.
On my first night, I discovered another perk of traveling alone: it’s easier to get a table. I walked into the most popular and crowded traditional Romanian restaurant in town and found a table at the bar, where I ordered too many things (which in Bucharest didn’t hurt my wallet). I wasn’t going to let being alone stop me from sampling everything I wanted on the menu. As I watched the traditional Romanian dancers in pretty white skirts and shirts dancing between the tables, I thought about my own Romanian ancestry while eating mamaliga and sour cream to my heart’s content. Meanwhile, other non-solo travelers waited with grumbling bellies for hours for a seat.
Another night I briefly considered booking a nightlife tour, but instead gave myself permission to take the night off to relax. I opened the window of my hotel and let in the cool breeze and the lit-up view of Bucharest. To the sounds of the foreign city, I read and rested and was content.
Bucharest took on a quiet, reflective quality, and as the weekend drew to a close, I realized that traveling alone led me to spend more time observing the city around me than I had on any trip before. Since there was no one to chat with or make plans with, I observed the people and the place as if I was outside looking in, much more traveler than tourist. Perhaps that is the best part about being a solo traveler: you get to be a traveler, with no choice but to fully be in the place where you are.