“Shit!! What have I gotten myself into?!!”
On 10th April 2008, probably somewhere high above the Indian Ocean, I experienced my very first nervous breakdown. The realization of what I was about to embark on had finally sunk in. Funny, it chose to happen then rather than anytime in the past 3 months when I was in the midst of planning and preparation. It didn’t even happen the week before when nearly everyone around me was trying very hard to change my mind.
“Two months alone in Europe?!! Are you crazy? What are you going to do there alone for two months?”
Parents, friends, colleagues, flatmates, even people I just got to know had subjected me to those questions for the past one month prior to my departure. Occasionally, those who understood would say “Oh, solo travel in Europe is totally safe. Even for female traveler. And it’s very common nowadays.” I was very grateful to those who said this.
The idea of traveling to Europe came to me sometime in December 2007 when I was way too deep inside my own comfort zone and was seriously burned out without even realizing it. One day, a colleague who happens to be a friend of mine made a very casual remark during lunch “I’ve always dreamed of spending a few months in Europe, hopping from one vineyard to another and volunteering to work during harvest. Just like what you always see in the movies.”
Something inside me lit up instantly when I heard that. I’ve always loved traveling and Europe has always been my childhood dream, thanks to the castles and the kings and the queens that I used to read about when I was young. My friends would mock me every time I told them that world history was my favorite subject during school (history used to be one of the least favorite subjects in school as it requires a lot of memorizing). For me, I loved history because it took me to places I had never been before and it simply let my imagination run wild.
Inspired by my colleague’s casual remarks, I began reading a lot about Euro travel and solo travel. I found out that traveling to Europe wasn’t gonna be difficult at all. It’s pretty much a developed continent with superb transportation system and plenty of budget accommodation options, and most importantly, tonnes of people travel there alone all the time, even females.
The decision to travel alone came up initially because I was very sure my husband, who was still my boyfriend then, would never give up his job to spend 2 months traveling. But as I read more and more stories of solo travelers, I became convinced that the best way to travel is indeed solo. This is something which I still believe strongly in until now, even after numerous travels with my husband and friends.
Solo travel opens a wide variety of doors. You would be ‘forced’ to approach people and talk to them, and at the same time, people would be more inclined to approach someone who’s traveling alone than someone traveling in a group. Secondly, solo travel gives you the freedom to do whatever you want whenever you want, without the need to compromise with your traveling companion(s). It seems like the perfect way for an introverted hikikomori like me to learn to step out of my comfort zone and be extroverted for once. I couldn’t possible spend 2 months in Europe without talking to people or asking questions, could I?
With 3 months of careful and detailed preparation, short of writing my own will, I left Singapore for Europe with the sole objective of conquering my own comfort zone. Hence, despite my mid-flight nervous breakdown, this trip was the path of no return for me. I wasn’t going to chicken out before I even accomplished anything.
After spending 13 hours on board British Airways either writing furiously on my journal or flipping through the movies in the inflight entertainment system (I’ve given up trying to sleep anywhere but on a fully-flat bed), I landed at Heathrow Airport, London. I chose England as the starting point of my Eurotrip because it’s an English-speaking country, making it easier for me to adapt to the European continent before moving on to countries that don’t speak English. It is also relatively similar to Singapore, for example their local commuter train fare card called Oyster, which is exactly the same as EZ-link. While other tourists were fumbling with their card wondering how to use it, I simply tapped my wallet and breezed through the gate like a local 😉
Thanks to my Indonesian passport, I was questioned by the immigration officer for nearly 15 minutes. “Show me your detailed itinerary” was followed by “What are you working as? Do you have a job to go back to in Singapore?”, “Where are you staying in London?” and “How much money did you bring?”. To top it all, he had the cheek to ask me to show him the money that I had brought.
The shame of being treated like an illegal immigrant on my first trip to a Western country had further fueled my lingering irritation at the hassle of visa application process which I experienced during my preparation months. I waited one month for my Schengen visa and I still had to apply a British visa. I spent more than S$200 in total for both my visa applications. I was so determined to apply for Singapore citizenship as soon as I managed to secure a new job after coming back from Europe.
I boarded the Heathrow Connect, the passenger train service that connects the airport with the city center, passing by a number of stations in between. 40 glorious minutes later, I finally stood on the platform of Paddington station. I officially made my very first step on a European ground, inhaling the European air. I had to restrain myself from shouting “Yatta!!” there and then. Composing myself, I slowly walked towards the exit where the cold early spring air seemed to beckon. Welcome to Europe!