Early evening in a pub in Prague is bound to be quiet. Americans are in the minority in the world when it comes to dinner times. Even after months in Spain I still found eating a large meal after 8 p.m. to be excessive. But this is Spring Break and I’m not about to waste one of my only nights in the Czech Republic eating.
An early dinner means more time bar-hopping, taking in the culture, sights, and authentic spirits. This is my second stop on my weeklong Eastern European trip and I’ve already settled into the benefits of traveling alone. This pub I chose is based on a random recommendation from the desk person at my hostel. The timing happened to be when I was hungry. I could do whatever I wanted when I wanted, and I relished it.
The dark back corner gives me a view of most of the rest of the hole-in-the-wall pub. I look up between pages in my book to watch a man shamelessly trying to pick up a single woman at the bar. Not knowing the language, I can only guess at how it’s going, but the signs of feminine disinterest are universal.
Then I hear something I don’t expect: English. My eyes dart up to see a young women not much older than myself asking the bartender about the menu. We make eye contact, and in a moment that still shocks me, I wave her over. We exchange introductions and I ask her to sit and have dinner with me. She does. We spend the rest of the night drinking and dancing, walking through the quiet yet lively streets of the city. We part ways with a hug, heading back to our respective hostels. It was a wonderful, stress-free, exciting night.
Who is this person traveling through foreign countries on her own? Certainly not the same girl that had a panic attack before going to a college an hour from home. Definitely not the person that had just had her heart broken by her first girlfriend. This was someone else.
She was extroverted to a point, happy to make friends with anyone that she could communicate with. She was comfortable ambling around strange cities, relaxing in parks while listening to American metal, and stopping for a drink or a snack in any café that looked interesting.
This trip was supposed to be with friends, but going it alone was perhaps the greatest personal growth I could have ever attained. I was forced to go out of my safety zone. I had to find my way from train stations to hostels to major city landmarks. I needed to be self-sufficient, even if only for a week. Having survived and thrived on this trip, I can safely say that solo travel was perhaps the best decision I made.
I had been with my girlfriend for only a few days when she recommended a three-city tour for our Spring Break. She had already spent a semester in Madrid and was familiar with the planes and trains of Europe. I naturally agreed, rose-colored glasses making me certain that we would be in this relationship straight through the semester and beyond.
What happened next should have been a symbolic warning sign. I messed up my booking. We were supposed to do Prague, Vienna, then Budapest, but I accidentally went Vienna, Prague, Budapest. We would be flying separately and in different cities for most of Spring Break. That would eventually be a blessing.
We broke up after only a few weeks. It was one of those hard and fast relationships where what should have been months of build-up, peak, and downfall were packed into a handful of days. My only defense is that I was young, excitable, and a little too fond of wine.
I researched hostels relentlessly, ensuring that the amenities that I as an American would require were included and in quality condition. I refused to go with anything lower than an 85% approval rating but compromised by staying in mixed-gender, 6+ occupancy rooms. It ended up being a relatively cheap trip; it’s amazing what you can save when you’re willing to give up privacy.
My Type-A personality also required that I make an itinerary. It plotted out every landmark, museum, and restaurant that I intended to see in each city down to the time of day I would tour it. I would end up only sticking to the schedule for Vienna.
The bottom line is preparation. Even if you’re going to be on your own, you need to have a plan. For one, it gives you a document to hand off to family or friends so if something happens there is a general sense of where you were at the time (I’m not going to harp on it, but traveling alone does require an extra bit of caution, especially for young women). Secondly, it keeps anxiety-ridden twenty-somethings from becoming overwhelmed with the sheer size and makeup of an entirely foreign country. Finally, it gives you something to do when you’re drinking alone in your apartment watching sappy romance movies while trying to forget that you almost told someone you only knew for a few weeks that you loved them.
Distraction. It’s a necessity for romantic fools.
Fast forward a month or so of breakup drinking and I was on my way to Vienna. The city is bright with light-colored marble and concrete making up most landmarks. It is strangely clean despite the usual transportation methods and large population size. It’s also expensive, which is why my hostel was actually a few train stops outside of the city in a quiet neighborhood.
The first night I didn’t even see my hostel roommates. Instead, I spent the evening walking the area trying to find a place to eat before settling on a local restaurant. I order a sausage dish with potatoes and a beer since that seems like what I’m supposed to do.
I don’t talk to anyone other than waiters and cashiers for the entire time I’m in Vienna. The people I share the hostel with are in a tight-knit group and I haven’t been alone long enough to crave human interaction. In fact, the loneliness is refreshing. In Madrid, I was surrounded by people constantly, whether it was my three roommates or friends on campus. For the first time in months, I was totally alone in my thoughts, and it turned out to be calming.
One afternoon I came across a winter village near the center of the city. There were miniature log cabins serving mulled wine and sauerkraut, people ice skating on a man-made circuit, and live music adding to the ambiance. I couldn’t read any of the signs to fully understand the theme, but it was an unexpected treat to see that some traditions are the same in every country.
I spent an entire day at Schönbrunn Palace. The entryway displays the grandeur expected of the golden age of Austria, and the rooms are gilded in golden decorations and lavish furniture. It’s one of my first tours of a truly regal architecture.
After roaming the halls and the unsettling on-site “zoo,” I climb to the top of the hill overlooking the palace and bask in the warm sunlight. I had made it to Vienna, to the outlying area and interior cathedrals. I’m alone and yet everything is ok.
At least everything was ok until the next day when I realized I had been taking the train for free the entire visit and was now being escorted through the station by a security guard. As someone that had lived in Boston and Madrid, both with semi-functioning train systems, I really should have been more attentive. By the time I was done paying the fine I was sprinting to the platform for my train to Prague. One of the service people laughed and beckoned me to an open door where I jumped on as the car began to move.
My exploits in Prague were in stark contrast to the quietness of Vienna. After my first night with the girl from the pub, I spent a day on walking tours around the city. I had found a company that offered “free tours” where you pay what you think the experience was worth. Study abroad students take note.
The old city tour became the castle tour which ended where the beer tour began, which in turn ended at the start of the pub crawl. I kept paying for one after the other; I only had a few days to take in what is now my favorite Eastern European city. The tours also helped me come out of my shell a bit. There were other English-speaking tourists with me that had the same idea of seeing everything, and the shared views gave us plenty for ice breakers. Despite the flowing ale and enjoyable atmosphere, I still made it back to my hostel in acceptable shape, happy in the fact that I could not only travel on my own but make friends along the way.
It’s the next night that got me into some trouble. I finally met some of my hostel mates: a Floridian, a Canadian, and two Frenchmen. The guys from Florida and France were traveling for Spring Break like me, but the Canadian man was on his second month of backpacking through Europe. Yes, those people do exist, and I will be infinitely jealous of them.
I don’t recall the exact order of events that led us from a tourist-trap bar to a very sketchy Czech strip club, but I do know it involved way too much alcohol and not nearly enough food. At one point we were at a bar where I was wing-girling the Canadian, acting like I knew he was a great guy so he could get in with a young co-ed. Between conversations, I order a shot of Absinthe, a staple of the country and every American tourists’ worst decision.
A sidebar about the so-called “Green Fairy”: it is meant to be drank in a specific way. First, you take a bit of sugar in a spoon and heat it up with a lighter. Once it starts to boil, you stir it into the shot of Absinthe, then drink. The reason you do this is to dilute the alcohol, which can be upwards of 140 proof.
Well this bartender didn’t have the time nor patience to give yet another young white American the traditional experience. He simply poured the green liquid into a shot glass and slid it across the bar. Any reasonable person would have pushed it back and insisted on at least some water added, but I was already more than a few drinks in and too caught up to care.
Absinthe has a few layers to its flavor. The first is as if you melted an entire package of black licorice and drank it straight. The next is what I imagine swallowing fire would be like. I immediately interrupted the Canadian and his lady friend to steal his beer and chugged almost the entire thing to try to satiate my burning esophagus. He laughed, she laughed, and I took credit for them heading back to the hostel early to have the room to themselves.
You probably think the next part of this evening includes a brownout explaining my lack of memory as to the order of our unofficial pub crawl. To the contrary of both that assumption and past drinking experience, I unfortunately stayed conscious through my terrible attempts at hitting on both men and women and eventual resignation to hanging out with my new, platonic French friends.
Somewhere between the bar and strip club, we terrorized a hotel lobby in the name of free Wi-Fi. I messaged my mom that I was still out with some people and gave her the highlights of the evening. She would later tell me that the hours between this short conversation and when I finally made it back to the hostel and confirmed that I was still alive were the worst of her life. I’m still sorry for it but seeing as I’d made it to 20 without stressing her out in this way seemed like enough of an accomplishment to make it ok.
We end up on a street that was oddly skipped on all my tours despite being entirely made up of strip clubs. We went into the one that let me in for free, which is apparently more common than I initially thought.
I continued to explain to the guys that these women, in addition to the waitresses at our previous stops, were working for tips. They were not, in fact, interested in coming back to our 10-person hostel room and had little to no interest in an unpaid meetup in the back. None of the women were remotely gay, which meant I could relax into a highly sexualized environment with no pressure to react. It was the antidote I needed after the sting of my breakup.
We were all hungover the next day, not making it out of the hostel for food until the afternoon. I had an overnight train to Budapest to catch so our drinking time had come to an end as well. I parted ways with these new friends, thanking them for sticking by me the previous night. We’d never meet again.
This was one of those experiences where there were no major life changes or greater implications. I didn’t have a moment of clarity at some point in the alcohol-fueled evening that made me rethink my existence. I just had some much needed, stress-free fun.
Sometimes you just need to let go, team up with a group of random dudes from your hostel, and see where the night takes you.
My last stop in Budapest was cut short by a minor yet debilitating eye injury which left me partially blind and incredibly sensitive to light. The day before that, however, was fantastic.
I spent the morning recovering from the second day of my Absinthe-induced hangover in the world’s most beautiful café. By the afternoon I had traversed most of the city and was mulling over trying out the public baths before I chose to save it for another day and returned to my hostel.
My roommate this time around was a woman about my age from the UK. She was on her second day in the city and had been invited out with an Argentinian man also staying in our hostel. I tagged along to what was the most amazing bar I’ve ever been too, and yet I have never been able to find it since.
What I gather is that it was one of the ruin bars of Budapest, a mixture of broken-down industrial architecture with vines and greenery snaking their way up the brick and metal. From one point on the first floor you could look up past the people on the second-floor catwalks to an open and clear sky. The atmosphere was both unreal and vividly memorable.
The Argentinian bought us a round of drinks and a giant hookah which we proceeded to enjoy while discussing the politics of our various countries. I had traveled a lot in my childhood and had been abroad for a while now, but this was the first time I really heard about the opinion of Americans from foreigners. In an attempt to not drastically change the genre of this story, I will forego the specifics of the conversation and simply say it was enlightening and put my American experience into a much larger context.
The next morning, I couldn’t open one of my eyes. It got scratched the day before when a stray bit of particularly sharp dirt had blown into it. I’m still not sure how I managed to overlook the pain until after sleeping. Regardless, I can say that the hospital attendants were helpful and efficient; I was in and out with a $20 prescription in under an hour.
Spring Break was at its end and I made my way to the airport. At the terminal I met up with my ex and our other friend, the initial traveling group finally coming together for the journey home. It turns out they had spent most of the trip mad at each other since the ex had taken any chance she could to flirt or run off with random people, leaving the friend alone and forgotten. I would have been even more upset if I had been there to see it all happen.
Instead I made new friends, new experiences, and learned a lot on my own. It turns out I am a pretty capable woman that can navigate entire cities without assistance. I can eat meals by myself in crowded restaurants and call strangers over to join me. I can spend an entire night out with people I’ve never met and have a great time without feeling pressured into anything sexual. I can debate global politics and surrender my opinions when I know I’m wrong.
I didn’t meet a new lover, I didn’t have an existential awakening, and I didn’t exactly “find myself.” Instead, I had a good time with some good people and did a little soul searching. Afterward, I still drank too much, cried too often, and loved too easily, but I did it with a greater sense of individualism and the hope that I would have amazing experiences in the most unexpected of ways.