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Notes on solo travel

It started raining as I arrived at the Vörösmarty Square for the free walking tour in Budapest. I looked around to try and remember the shop that I saw umbrellas being sold. Before I could turn all the way, a young, South Korean woman offered to share her umbrella. I took her up on it as we stood listening to the tour intro. As the rain got heavier I realized that I needed cover of my own. I told her I was going to run and buy one. She looked at me confused and said, “you can share mine!” “It’s okay,” I replied, “I’m going to need one of my own.”

I’ve never actually traveled solo before. My friends may be shocked to read this as they see me on the move often. My “trick” has traditionally been to go to places where I know at least one person. It has felt solo in the sense of me transporting myself and figuring things out about the place ahead of meeting my friendly host. This has been the case in Peru, Belgium, my many trips to Amsterdam, and London. OR I’m lucky enough to have friends or family interested in traveling to the same locations as was the case for Morroco, my many jaunts to Spain, and Germany. But alas I’ve arrived at a travel imagination without borders and with that, new locations where the connections are non-existent. For this trip of just under three weeks, I managed to think up two cities in Eastern Europe to travel to – Budapest and Belgrade. The former because of a song and the latter because of work. I flew to Budapest with a loose plan, only booking an accommodation for the week.

“You’re a long way from home.” – British Guard at airport security check

Upon reuniting with the tour, after getting completely drenched and finally stumbling into a souvenir shop for a cheesy umbrella with “Budapest” written on it, I met the South Korean woman again and she shared her travel plans with me – Budapest now, Prague for a couple days then Vienna for a couple more. Something about the way that her plans drifted from one city to the next made me realize that I had been doing it all wrong. By wrong, I don’t mean that there is technically a right way to solo travel. Wrong in the sense that I could be moving a lot faster and more efficiently if I saw more cities in the 2.5-week timeframe. I was on my own, with no agenda so why not see more of the places I’ve been wanting to go? I began to piece together a new plan, buying bus tickets, Airbnbs, looking up museum openings, and landmarks. Though it was v stressful to plan out, I got a much better sense (read: challenge) from this new method of travel. I share with you here my musings and pictures as I moved through Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Milan, and Paris.

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If Berlin and Prague had a baby, it’d be Budapest. It takes the coolest parts of a refined, street art scene, grungy ruinbars and homely cafes and bistros yet maintains a history, character, language, food, and a culture of its own. I’ll be honest I slept a whole lot while in Hungary. Part of it was getting adjusted to a new time zone and the other was learning how to balance sightseeing with being a digital nomad (Oh, y’all thought I just traveled?). Here I established the core of how I like to travel – walking tour for historical context and to understand the city by foot, museums for either getting to know a public figure or seeing art, biking to see even more of the city and now, as a remote worker needing solid wifi, a “tour” of coffee shops with great design so that I can be inspired as I conduct 8 hours of sales calls (and hopefully not disturb other patrons).

“My house in Budapest
My hidden treasure chest
Golden grand piano
My beautiful castillo.” – George Ezra

My highlights in Budapest were the Communism Tour, House of “Loyalty” a.k.a. Terror for more on the mix of communism and socialism in Budapest’s history, and visiting the National Gallery where I saw a full exhibit on Frida Kahlo and actress Cate Blanchett portraying 13 people in a video series on art manifestos. Yeah, yeah, yeah it’s no Hungarian art but I truly got my fix of historical relics while walking through an antique shop. History came to life in the form of old cameras, vintage family photos, propaganda posters, clothes, typewriters, a canteen, and an army hat that a British guy swore he saw blood in. I didn’t realize how important things like this are to a city and even to a people. We don’t know their stories but oh boy if they could talk…

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What can I say about Bratislava? It’s the capital of Slovakia. It’s not to be confused with Slovenia, a completely different Central European country. It’s set alongside the Danube River. It has a castle on a hill that looks like an upsidedown table. Slovakians speak Slovak. It has a UFO bridge called Most SNP with a revolving tower that was built over part of the Jewish quarter in the late 1960s. They have an interesting Easter Monday tradition where the women hide and the men find them only to drench them in water, whip them, and give them a gift.

As you can read, I know very little about Bratislava and everything that I do know I learned on a 3-hour walking tour. What I learned most while in Bratislava is how to travel without seeing every single thing, I frankly didn’t have the time or the energy. It was during the workweek that I popped into this border city and made way directly to cafes like Urban House, Fach, Enjoy Coffee and Moods for a productive couple days. And can I tell you my favorite thing about Bratislava? They play the same music that’s on my first gen iPod that hasn’t been updated since college like it’s the Billboard Hot 100. That’s JoJo, Janet Jackson, “Baby are you down, down, down, down, down” (popular my freshman year at UT). I’m almost positive that I was the only one lipsyncing all the lyrics…

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Someone once told me in my early 20s that I was too young to appreciate Vienna. I believed that and thus thought of a time in the distant future when I’d be old enough, wise enough and refined enough to visit the opera with my husband, him wearing a suit and me, an evening gown and shaw. Then I got on this solo travel kick and thought, Vienna has always been on my mind. Why not now in my late 20s?

“When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?” – Billy Joel

That early advice was way off and honestly insulting. I loved Vienna! Austria’s capital has so much more to offer than just classical music. It has architecture, art, history, schnitzel, cappuccinos, all things for people of all likes to enjoy. I’ve once said that I was over Europe because how many old cathedrals, gables, and statues can one see? Well, I clearly hadn’t been to Vienna. Never in my life have I felt so impressed by the grandiosity and intricacy of a city’s presence than there. The buildings are absolutely stunning and learning about the Austrian empire and the Habsburgs helped it all to make sense. And it’s not just a place set in history. At the Belvedere Castle, I saw a lot of locals. They didn’t hold large cameras and selfie sticks but books and lunch. They were lying on benches and in the grass purely enjoying the atmosphere. What an atmosphere to take advantage of. What an atmosphere to appreciate. Vienna is not just another European city and it’s not just for the old(er), high class, or uber refined.

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Milan was another European city. It was my pick based on logistics and I failed to do much research meaning I missed the host of the bigger tourist attractions like Da Vinci’s Last Supper at the refractory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie or the Sforza Castle or the Teatro alla Scalla. Though, missing out did have its benefit. I saw the Milan Cathedral and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and swarms of people. So. Many. PEOPLE. It was pretty overwhelming in the center. Even offputting. I also saw the Fashion District and rode a bike on centuries-old cobblestone streets and, of course, I ate! Pasta, pizza, gelato, bread, enough carbs, and cheese to last me a few months. It wasn’t “the best thing I ever ate OMG I can only eat Italian food in Italy” kind of good, but I think I do need to travel to other parts of the country for a, dare I say it, “authentic” Italian experience.

My favorite memories of Milan were the moments I met people and struggled with the language barrier for the first real time. For example, I went for gelato and didn’t have euros on me and asked the lady my #1 question when I walk into a food place (#2 do you have wifi, #3 do you have plugs #digitalnomadlife), that is, do you accept credit card as I waved my Visa in the air. She shook her head and her finger as she pointed to her card machine. No connection. I somehow understood her next few sentences as please, have some gelato anyway and next time you come by my shop, you can pay me. Wowowow what an offer! I asked her if she was serious and she nodded. She picked out her two favorite flavors – salted caramel and mango – and I dug in, It was so good. Then I asked her how much since I’d have to find a way to fund this on another visit. “Due euro cinquenta.” Wait! I dug into my purse and somehow scrapped together 2€50 with coins and paid for the gelato. That was Milan.

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Paris reminded me a lot of New York City. It has the hustle and bustle, quick pace, and fast-talking, people. It’s the kind of place I see myself living (I know, my list keeps growing). It’s a cultured place with a breathing history and of course, a new language. Yes, I will take up a third language if I have good reason to. It was refreshing to see other people of African descent there and the “sharing” of cultures in that way – the fashion, the music, the food. I didn’t get stares like I did in Hungary and Slovakia, I much more blended in and people often spoke French to me for a while before I could politely disappoint them with my American English.

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”           – Pablo Picasso

By now I was a bit toured out and stressed about working in a timezone that didn’t quite maximize the best times of day (who wants to work from 6pm – 2am?), so I only visited a few places – the Eiffel Tour (a staple), the Louvre (go for Picasso’s Mona Lisa, stay for the people watching), a walking tour (you already know), and Montmartre, which I had actually heard about from reading of the impressionist art of Van Gogh and the infamous nudes of Amadeo Modigliani. It turned out to be a pretty cool place perched on a mountain with a cathedral at the top. I ended the afternoon at Cafe Tabac contemplating life and existence and the power of the single female (that’s a topic for another day).

The French people I interacted with were warm, unlike the traditional stories you hear of the dismissive types that walk away when spoken to in another tongue. Not so. I had an excellent conversation with an Uber driver and two pool riders about politics and travel and why women should or shouldn’t go to bars alone late at night. I was also mildly insulted by a Frenchman asking for euros. He realized I didn’t speak French and gave me a mild tirade about how I should, in fact, learn French and right away. I was only mildly offended encouraged.

This entire trip solo has taught me how to take things slow, change it up, and not to take life too seriously. Those who know me are aware of my sharing problem (remember the lady with the umbrella in the beginning?). I actually think that being alone for an extended period of time taught me how to share even more. It taught me how to share my plan with the unexpected, throwing my agenda into the wind and changing things up when everything isn’t going my way.

July 2018

Where should I go next? Perhaps Valencia.

© Copyright 2018 Akua Sencherey. All rights reserved. All photos edited with VSCOcam.

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