Alum takes on the world by herself

"Barcelona lives and breathes life into every corner of its streets. It is difficult to explain, but you exit the metro and come above ground, and you can just feel it. The city is alive, filled with passion, culture, excitement, and independence. They say if you visit the city and stay for a long time, you never want to leave. I felt that."
Barcelona was the last stop of my month-long, life-changing solo trip to Italy, London, and Spain. Over 33 days, I visited cities like Rome, Florence, London, and Madrid and had fantastic day trips in between. However, this trip was not all rainbows and butterflies. It was a test of my self-awareness, control over my mental health, and a testament to my persistence and assertiveness. 
To understand where I was before I left for my trip, we have to backtrack to January 2022. I was preparing for two hip surgeries to repair impingement on both sides. My first surgery was planned for February, and my second surgery was at the beginning of July. During recovery, I could not do things I loved, like rock climbing, hiking, and even activities as simple as going on walks. I was lucky to have a support system to help me through it. During the first recovery period, I found the strength to put in notice to my employer and map out my recovery to find an official travel date. I booked my plane tickets to Rome and set a goal to be physically ready to adventure by September 28th, with my last day at work by August 31st. 
We all know things don't go as planned, but 90% of my plans worked out, except for one big one. My physical therapist and doctor cleared me for travel and adventure (woo-hoo!), but my employer let me go earlier than I had intended, so funding my trip became difficult. During my second surgery recovery, I spent time planning out details to ensure I stayed within my budget and no prices would catch me off guard. I was nervous that $50 a night for lodging and $50 a day for food wouldn't be enough to get me through, but it was highly feasible while traveling. 
On September 29th, I arrived at my first destination and began the time of my life. I stayed in hostels and made friends from all over the world. During the day, I would go on my pre-booked activities (usually only one or two), then spend the rest of the day adventuring, eating, finding other activities, window shopping, and... napping. Naps were essential on my trip. This was the most activity my little body had had in 9 months. I needed them. But I still would have done the same regardless because traveling at your own pace, and napping when you want are the best parts about traveling solo.
One exceptional experience I had was my day trip to Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. I was ecstatic because, with the encouragement of new friends, I climbed to the top of the mountain and saw into the volcano. I was so happy to be able to experience the climb and that my hips WORKED!

About two weeks into my trip, the loneliness started to creep in. There were times in Florence when I had lazy days in bed and days when I didn't talk to anyone. Around this time, I was anxious I was wasting my trip. My hips had begun to feel the impact of all the activity. I had a cold, had painful blisters on my feet, and getting out of bed took me longer than usual. But eventually, Florence would call to me, and even if it was just an evening, I still had the time to fall in love with the city. When I was un-motivated to do an activity, like a museum, I would bring my sketchbook to a café and sketch and people-watch with some Italian snacks instead. Those calm days were my favorite. Ultimately, Florence taught me to be kinder to myself and find beautiful experiences even on the worst days.

While staying in Florence, I went on some of my favorite day trips. I learned a ton about wine on a tour of Chianti. I visited the gorgeous Cinque Terre, where I fell in love with the bright-colored buildings and Limoncino. If you want to get to know a city, I recommend renting a bicycle (or scooter or walking if you aren’t bike-inclined) and getting lost and exploring. It is worth noting that I made sure I had cellular data and a portable charger when I did this because my confidence and comfort with getting lost were heavily dependent on Google Maps and a fully charged phone.

Next, I made a pitstop in Venice, then flew to London to meet with my boyfriend and friends. This part of the trip felt like home. I was with people I knew and loved, back in my comfort zone, and for the first time in 2 and a half weeks, I did not have to think about what I would do for the day. I hadn't stayed in a hostel since Rome, and despite the lovely time in Florence and Venice, I was not ready to be on my own again. It was perseverance and courage in its simplest form, but it took a lot to not go home with my friends, catch my flight to Madrid, and continue my trip to Spain.
 Then, Spain. I stayed in hostels for all of Madrid and most of Barcelona, and it was great to meet new people again. I was in Madrid for 5 days. My highlights were the Prado Museum, my day trip to Toledo, and talking to locals in English only to have them respond to me in Spanish. Luckily, I had 7 years of Spanish under my belt (gracias Senora A, Lombardo y Doyle) and could piece together what was being said to me. In Italy, if you talked to a local in English, they would catch on and try to continue the conversation in English. I appreciated the locals' steadfastness in their language with tourists.

 We all know my story of Barcelona. Catalonia was beautiful, and I didn't want to leave. I adored Montserrat and the little towns of Costa Brava and was inspired by Catalonians' desire for independence. People all over Europe warn you of pickpockets in the city and touristy areas; even locals always remind visitors to be careful. Learning to enjoy such a beautiful city while staying conscious of my surroundings was a great growing experience. Holding my space, being assertive, and paying attention was necessary for my safety, especially as a woman.

I could write a book on all the beautiful and tasty things I loved about each city, but that would take forever for me to write and for you to read. If you are interested in seeing pictures and reading a few snippets about my trip, you can check out my Instagram (@lanielue96), which acted as my photoblog during my travels, and see my itinerary with highlights below. As of November 4th, I am back home. I graduated from physical therapy and am cleared to rock climb again; I am equipped with my Master's degree, continuing to learn Spanish, and starting to look for my next career in User Experience Design.

As for you, Gerstell readers, I cannot recommend a solo traveling experience enough. If you have been thinking about it, even if you don't have the funds, do it. There is no perfect time; you have to make it and start saving; it truly can be affordable if you pick and choose what is worth the money. These trips are challenging but in the best way. I have come home more educated and confident in my identity and more open-minded after exploring different cultures and meeting different types of people. I am optimistic I can take on anything now, and I want that for you, too.
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