3 Countries, 2 Bags, 1 Me — My Big Solo Trip

Betsy Barthelemy
November 6, 2019
Cloudy View of Paris

Right now, I’m attempting to neatly pack six days, six busses, four nights spent in hostels, three countries, a million steps, a few too many euros, 810 phone photos, and 1,279 camera photos into a several-hundred word post to release to the internet about one of the craziest weeks of my life. It’s not going to be easy, but hey, neither was the trip itself.

The Lead-Up

The Netherlands splits its semesters into three blocks, and American students like me are here for the first two; classes can span one block, two, or the full three, but there is always an exam period between each. This meant that, including the three-day weekend I’m lucky enough to have every week, I had a six-day break from responsibilities at the end of October. As soon as I discovered this glorious empty space in my calendar, I dove deep into travel planning, emerging a few hours later with bus tickets, hostel bookings, a burst of excited energy, and some slow-growing travel anxiety. I was going to spend a day in Brussels, Belgium, two and a half days in Paris, France, and a day and a half in Zurich, Switzerland — all the while travelling by myself.

Solo travel isn’t for every person or every place. Having already taken a weekend alone in London in September, I had my bearings in order, my maps downloaded, and a bit of no-longer-a-novice confidence to guide me. I absolutely recommend everyone studying abroad take at least one solo “trip,” whether to a town a few minutes away or across the continent. It can be daunting and lonely to have only yourself and your thoughts, but the self-discovery that flourishes from these experiences is truly something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. Plus, it’s not like you’re travelling to an uninhabited area: conversations are possible at every moment if you take the initiative to start them, and friends all over the world are available to talk over the phone. Thanks to the wonderful Europeans I met in hostels, bus stations, and art museums, I rarely felt stir crazy in my own mind.

My biggest goal for those six days was to have no regrets and live as free from expectations as I could. In order to enjoy my time in these new places as much as possible, I constantly reminded myself to live in the present, and that made every experience all the more wonderful; plus, none of my limited time was wasted pondering what could have been. After narrowly missing a tram in Zurich — I actually ran after it — and worrying about being pressed for time, I was quickly able to slip back into my new routine of telling myself qui sera, sera (from the language of my week, French: “what will be, will be”), sitting back in the sun, and nibbling on some Swiss chocolate until the next tram came. Of course there were ups and downs, but the ups far outnumbered the downs because of the open mind I trained throughout my adventure.

A New Kind of Road Trip

Though I’ve been carefully saving my paychecks and tip money for years in anticipation of study abroad expenses, I (like most college students), knew I had to travel on a budget. In Europe, that meant Flixbus was the way to go. Honestly, to get from Brussels to Paris for only 9 euros, I would’ve been content with a Chicago Transit Authority-level public bus. Not that my expectations were low — they were nonexistent. Approaching experiences this way meant that I was met with almost no disappointment over my entire week, which made the trip all the more positive.

Busses really aren’t bad: they come with wifi, outlets, more than enough legroom for my average height, and seats comparable to the airplanes I could’ve taken. With a full liter of water, a bag of snacks, homework to avoid, a journal to fill, and window seats displaying the European countryside, my morning commutes to Brussels (two hours) and Paris (four hours) were actually pretty pleasant. Despite my family being asleep while I rode along due to the time difference, having wifi meant I was always able to tell someone when I departed and arrived, which (being a solo traveller) was comforting for both me and my parents.

Getting to and from Zurich proved to be two long treks, especially the 507-mile return trip; to make the most of the short time I had, I opted to make these trips on overnight buses. Not only did this save me paying for two additional nights in hostels, but it allowed me to spend much more time in my final two destinations – I got to see the sunset on my final day in Paris, and had time to climb a mountain in the Swiss Alps (literally!) before my bus back to Amsterdam. The issue with these trips was the lack of direct travel options available, which meant I had to deal with layovers in the wee hours of the morning: freezing at the open-air bus station in Strasbourg, France, from 4:00-5:30 on Saturday, and camping out in a heated bathroom at the Frankfurt Airport from 23:00 on Sunday to just after 1:00 on Monday morning. I can see why some people have told me they would’ve sooner abandoned heading to Switzerland. Honestly, curled into a shivering ball in Strasbourg and knowing that the dream-come-true experience I had in Paris couldn’t be topped, I had my doubts about the decision as well. But the Minnesotan in me toughed it out, and I’m so glad she did — Zurich was the perfect place to end my trip.

Being a Tourist and Being a Wanderer

My time in Brussels, Paris, and Zurich was split pretty evenly between attempting to blend in with the locals while wandering their cities and showing up to tourist attractions with my camera, strong American accent, and vague recollections of middle school French classes in tow (je ne parle pas français!). When asked what my plans each destination were, my answer always involved visiting a museum or two (or, in Paris, five), indulging in famous local snacks, seeing an iconic monument or statue like the Eiffel Tower or Mannen Pis, and mostly just “walking around.” Though it seems like a bit of a waste of effort to get all the way across country lines just to wander aimlessly, getting a little lost provided some of the best sights of my trip. My first afternoon in Paris, I walked to the nearest patch of grass on my map for a place to sit and enjoy a baguette sandwich...and fate led me to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica, which boasts the most gorgeous panoramic view in the city. Needless to say, I hit the jackpot.

Sunset Over Paris

This photo is from my second visit to the park: I came back to watch the sunset before heading to my 10:00pm bus out of Paris. It was definitely the right decision.

I got the wandering travel bug from my dad, who explores new places by walking around and building his “mind map.” I may not have inherited his insane directional memory, but I fully embraced that spirit with the added comfort of a GPS in my pocket. In Brussels, this led me to finding the best waffle I’ve ever had from a little food truck; in Paris, playing a game of “what’s the cheapest I can find such-and-such food?” yielded to enjoying three decadent macaroons in the gardens of the Palace of Luxembourg; in Zurich, the winding streets of the Old Town gave way to a glittering Lake Zurich with a backdrop of the Swiss Alps on a rare cloudless day. I saw so much of these cities that wasn’t listed on any of the travel websites I’d been scouring to prepare, and I (and my Lightroom catalog) could not be more grateful.

New Perspectives

The final morning of my trip, I took a train from Zurich to Uetliberg, the mountain right at the city’s edge. I was joined by families pushing strollers, couples carrying picnic baskets, and a few other lonely explorers of all ages. I’d been told I could see the entire city from there — almost 900 meters above sea level — but wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.

It was another cloudless day, and fresh, chilled autumn air filled my lungs when I stepped off the train to the most stunning view I’d seen since climbing part of a volcano in Riobamba, Ecuador in high school. I stood five feet from the train platform for at least ten minutes, in awe of the beauty below: the warm colors of October trees, the clear waters of the lake, the clock towers and rooftops in the city, and Uetliberg’s towering siblings beyond. Finally, I followed my fellow travellers to a hiking trail and began my 2.5-hour journey on foot.

The further I walked, the more impossibly beautiful the view became. Remember, I’m from the midwestern United States: a sizeable hill in my hometown is considered an anomaly (though nothing against you, Mt. Trashmore). Though I ended up going to school in the Midwest, as well, mountains have always held a special place in my heart: memories skiing in Colorado with my family, hiking under the Ecuadorian sun on a service trip, goofing around with my friends at a snow monkey park in Japan, and road-tripping through New England with my father are just a few of the happy associations I have with the rock formations. I came to Zurich because my dad, who travels there relatively often for business, told me I’d love it. Though it isn’t at all rural, the city is much calmer than my previous two destinations and very quickly (almost inexplicably) felt like home. But it was Uetliberg that made it such a perfect endpoint to my remarkable week.

Standing in what looked like an Apple wallpaper, surrounded by both equally-amazed tourists and locals taking their morning jogs or walking their dogs, I took several hundred photos, sat on a rock, and reflected on the week with my journal. The sun lifted my spirits even further, and any looming homework stress and fatigue from six days of constant walking washed away. Surrounded by nature in the Swiss Alps – that itself is an experience of a lifetime – I felt energized, rejuvenated, and absolutely free.

In Paris, I watched the Eiffel Tower glitter at dusk from almost directly underneath, and an hour later just past the Jardins de Trocadéro with a full view. To get the whole tower in my 50mm camera frame, I backed up as far as I could, right into the doors of a museum. Though the building was closed, I could faintly hear music playing inside: the song was “Yellow” by Coldplay, which happens to be one of my absolute favorites. Standing in front of that beautiful twinkling tower, in a city I’d dreamt of visiting since I was a toddler, somehow hearing a song that latched onto my heart when I was in 9th grade and never let go, I felt tears in my eyes. Taking in Uetliberg, I felt a similar sense of peace and belonging. I thought of a long list of uplifting anecdotes with which to conclude this post, but those two very different views couldn’t be ignored.

I let the wind guide me as I travelled Europe and was met with serendipity. No amount of blog posts, Instagram stories, or journal entries can fully capture everything I did and everything I felt over those crazy six days. I could talk about that trip, and this semester, forever – but I have to end this post somehow. So, sending you off to peruse a small sample of the photos I took while travelling, I’ll remind you (and myself, sitting in a university library), a life lesson I learned the meaning of while Flixbus-ing myself across the continent: qui sera, sera.

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Betsy Barthelemy

<p>I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to briefly study abroad in Japan (several cities) and do community service work in Riobamba, Ecuador, while in high school, effectively biting me with the travel bug. At school, I major in English and minor in anthropology, but also enjoy taking classes in linguistics, photography, Japanese, and theater. When I’m not in class, I’m probably in a chorale rehearsal, helping edit Macalester’s newspaper, working at the cafe across the street, or baking cookies.</p>

Home University:
Macalester College
Evanston, IL
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