Since tenth grade, I’ve been committed to living abroad. That’s also the year I decided I wanted to join the Peace Corps. I have never abandoned that idea, even as I’ve entered a PhD program and realized how atypical that path is. (True academics may use the stronger descriptor of “stupid.” STEM PhDs get high-paying careers; they don’t abscond to Africa. But I will.)
The irony of my short-term life dream is, I had never been abroad. Until two weeks ago when I went to Denmark. But until then, I have had to cringe and admit I have been a caged bird my entire life, but one day I’ll fly outside the bars aka cross the Big Pond. It’s hard to defend a life dream when you haven’t even tasted it. Or at least you feel deluded when saying it.
As I’ve written before, though, I have clung to my decision to live abroad/join the Peace Corps, and I’ve grown even more resolute that I will be applying within the next two years as grad school wraps up. But even as that day has gotten closer, I have felt more and more claustrophobic – like being on a plane with no leg room and you don’t know when the flight ends because you’re phone’s on airplane mode and your wristwatch has stopped working and how many time zones have we crossed, is my phone changing to match it, WHEN WILL I GET THE HELL OFF THIS PLANE, etc. (This scenario did not happen. At all. I promise. Never happened.)
There’s a quote from Titanic where Rose describes her first-world, 1912 life: “Outwardly, I was everything a well brought up girl should be. Inside, I was screaming.” I imagine I could say the same thing about my life: “Outwardly, I was everything a well brought up grad student should be. Inside, I was dying.”
(Even “dying” sounds inadequate for describing my existence.)
That is why at the end of January, while my roommates booked a trip to Iceland and I stared ahead into I don’t frankly know, I decided, F*** it. F*** all. I’m going out of the country for spring break, and I’m going by myself because I’m buying this ticket right this minute, and ain’t no one else on this planet who’s going to accept my invite with five minutes’ notice.
Six weeks later aka two weeks ago, I packed 11 lbs. of clothes (because I didn’t pay for a carry-on because I’m a cheapskate) and stepped onto a plane at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. A little less than 10 hours later, I walked off and into CPH (Copenhagen, Denmark for you noobs). (And okay, technically, my first time out of the country was me unloading at the Iceland airport, but all I did there was buy a shirt whose price I couldn’t figure out. And they stamped my passport, which was SO DISAPPOINTING because I wanted my passport to say Denmark.)
This was one of the most “reckless” things I have done in my life. I put reckless in quotes, because it wasn’t that crazy, and also one time I snorted alcohol through my nose, so we could argue I’ve done more reckless things. But I didn’t fly into North Korea like some people we know. I also got a round-trip ticket; I did plan on returning. Well, sorta. I also applied for a few jobs while in Denmark. Just kidding.
I both loved and hated myself for becoming the Thought Catalog cliché of “You should travel alone in your 20s because what are responsibilities?” But really. I embraced the adventure I always told people I wanted. And I loved every frigging second of it.
I won’t say it was the trip of a lifetime. I have a long life ahead of me, cross your fingers, and that would be depressing if "this was it, I’ve achieved peak life status moment." I also won’t even say going abroad alone and for the first time was that life-changing. Sure, I got a new profile pic, but I’m not ready to declare “America needs to be more like Europe” because now I’ve “seen the world.” My mom also keeps calling me her “world traveler,” which is an eye roll.
If I had to pick superlatives for my trip (because you asked), they would be “defining” and “inspiring.” I’m sorry, I’m realizing it is really hard to go abroad and not become a bit of a sap or a travel photographer extraordinaire (seriously, my Instagram followers loved me being in Europe; don’t worry, I’m going back!). I also could say the trip was “invigorating” and “fulfilling,” but I think “inspiring” captures both those words, too.
A lot of times people travel alone to prove something to themselves. I can’t even say I did that. Yeah, I verified I can be alone with myself with only cashiers for communications for days. But I never really doubted that. I’m not an introvert, but I am fiercely independent. Years ago, which sounds melodramatic when you’re a 20-something, I decided I would never be dependent on anyone else. So I never really worried when I booked a ticket to Copenhagen by myself with my only research being a quick Google of “Is Copenhagen safe?” (Yes, it is, personal research has shown.)
My friends predicted catastrophe in my travels. I don’t blame them. I struggle to get through Metro turnstiles and can’t find the paper wrappers for picking up apple fritters at 7-Eleven (I asked aloud, “Do I use my bare hands?”). And it’s not every day someone leaves the country for the first time ever and goes by themselves. My friends had to endure multiple interrogations of “How does customs work?” (On my homebound flight, I stuffed a muffin down my gullet because I didn’t want to declare it and/or be fined.)
The only thing that really went wrong is, I hoped to get stuck in Iceland on my way back. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Most people would call that a victory. I was disappointed. Oh, and I also would bring a second pair of shoes. Frye boots are not meant for walking 21 miles in one day. Then again, are any shoes?
Of course, it’s hard for things to go wrong when you’re approaching everything with a sense of adventure. I embraced every experience: showering with no shower curtain. Asking the Danish airport security if I needed to declare myself to enter the country (customs is really not a big deal, FYI). Getting locked in a courtyard (multiple times) and not knowing how to get out. Lying to my Airbnb host that of course I’m not going to Sweden because I’m not that typical American just trying to check countries off my bucket list. Wondering whether a shirt is $51 or $830 (how does math work?). Being asked in the street why I was smiling (because I’m in Europe!!!) and then realizing the girl is only asking because she might be trying to pickpocket me. And blisters that had me asking passersby “Where is a pharmacy?” and “Do you sell antiseptic in Denmark? Neosporin, do you know that word?”
And all this plus adrenaline and jet lag is why, less than 12 hours after returning to America from Copenhagen, I bought a ticket for my next trip. I’m going back to Europe and by myself (at this point). See you in June, Amsterdam!