I spent the three-hour bus ride from Heidelberg, Germany to Cologne (which, embarrassingly, I had thought was in France until a week prior) with my hiking backpack wedged between my knees, poring over a twelve-page printout of Wikipedia’s Cologne travel guide article. I made a list of the seventeen most exciting attractions in the city, from museums to churches to restaurants, then gave each one a number based on their proximity to each other and the order in which I planned to see them. Once everything had been put in its place, I leaned back in my seat, satisfied that I was taking full advantage of my first time traveling completely and utterly alone.
I hadn’t planned to go solo. A group of friends in Heidelberg had expressed interest in going, but they all declined during the week leading up to Friday, and I found myself facing the choice of going alone or not going at all. I had traveled by myself before, but my destinations had always had a friend or acquaintance waiting for me when I arrived. Not so with Cologne. After a day or two of wavering, I decided to pull on my big-girl boots and go for it, since I’d heard such great things about the cathedrals there (I have an unhealthy obsession with cathedrals). It was only a weekend, after all, and I could endure eating out at a restaurant by myself for a couple nights if I had to.
After the initial butterflies faded, I felt a growing sense of exhilaration as I realized that by traveling alone, I could do whatever I wanted. Nobody would complain about being dragged to another cathedral, or waste time browsing the stores in the shopping district, or hem and haw over where to have dinner. I was in complete control of this trip, and I was going to pack as much Cologne as I could into the 48 hours I had. I was going to take a deep draught of the culture and leave feeling like I’d drained the bierstein dry.
I woke up on Saturday morning to sunlight streaming through my window and the bells of the Dom (main cathedral) ringing a stone’s throw away. It seemed a good omen. I quickly got ready and went down to the hostel kitchen for breakfast. I had planned to eat my müslix and yogurt in silence while going over my route for the day, but one of the other hostel guests invited me to join him at his table. His name was Liad, and he was a teacher from Israel completing a solo bike trip around Western Europe while on his summer break. He was impressed by my detailed itinerary and map, and asked if he could come along for the day. I happily acquiesced, hoping that I would be able to convince him to join me for the midday meal I planned to have at one of the breweries in town that make the local kölsch beer.
Liad and I walked over the Hohenzollern Bridge to the far side of the Rhine so that we could take in the vista of the Dom and the city skyline while the sunlight was coming from the east (a carefully engineered plan for optimum photos), then crossed back over to visit the Dom itself. We followed the stream of tourists into the cathedral square and into, as Liad dubbed it, “the Western lifestyle ideal.” The sun was shining in a crystal clear, cloudless blue sky, it was warm but not too hot, there was a piano player in the middle of the square performing “Piano Man,” and people of all ages, colors, sizes and cultures were strolling around enjoying the atmosphere, all presided over by one of the most intricate, impressive Gothic cathedral exteriors I had ever seen. It was pretty close to perfect. Coming to Cologne, I decided, had been an excellent choice.
We followed the tourists into the Dom and marveled at its stained glass windows, lit candles at one of the altars and climbed the 533 stone steps of the south tower to get a view of the sparkling city below. Once we got down from the tower our stomachs told us it was clearly lunchtime, and I was already thinking about which brewery we should visit. Liad, however, wanted to go back to the hostel and cook lunch there. I was conflicted; I wanted to cross off all of the things on my “to-do” list and have a very Cologne-y time in Cologne, but I also didn’t want to get stuck eating by myself in a crowded restaurant. I decided we could go to a brewery on Sunday, and the whole way back to the hostel I was busy mentally calculating which things on my list I could move around or compress so that I could still fit everything in.
While Liad busied himself cooking, I started socializing with the other travelers who happened to be in the hostel kitchen: Rhiannon, a girl from Tasmania who had been on a guided tour around Europe but had struck out on her own for an extra week; David, a thirtysomething British man with a slightly cynical air who was debating whether his carpal tunnel would let him finish his bike trip back to England; and Liam, an Australian geologist who looked decidedly like a dark-haired Chris Hemsworth. We all ended up sharing a meal and a couple bottles of kölsch from the hostel bar, and as the last few bites of food were being picked at, I started getting antsy. It was now after 3:00pm, and there were still lots of things on my list that needed doing. I announced that I was going sightseeing, and that anyone who was interested could come along. Everyone else seemed to have nothing better to do, and I suddenly found myself a surrogate tour guide, leading a ragtag group of strangers around a city that none of us knew very well.
As I navigated us through the city streets to our various destinations, we made the rounds of asking each other the typical “What brings you to Cologne?” questions. We ended up getting lost a few times and ducking into buildings to avoid the rain that was playing whack-a-mole with us, and very quickly our conversation turned to more varied topics, like Middle Eastern politics and the merits vs. faults of monogamy. We all came from very different backgrounds and perspectives, but there seemed to be an unspoken understanding that everyone’s points of view were valid and to be respected. It could have been a common, instinctual desire not to alienate the only people we knew, but it felt like something more than that; some kind of mutual value we ascribed to each other.
One of our efforts to avoid the rain led us into a random brewery, where we all ordered a glass of kölsch to pass the time. The only open space was at a table with a friendly old German man whose English and hearing were both quite imperfect. This led him to interject our conversations with completely unrelated statements, like “See that portrait on the wall? That’s Konrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor of Germany,” “Do you think we will have peace in this world?” and “I love you. I love you all.” It turned out to be one of my favorite moments of the trip, because he was clearly a Kölner; a native of Cologne who had seen things in his lifetime that none of us ever would, and had insight to offer that we wouldn’t find in any of the guidebooks. When the rain stopped and we took our leave, he smiled at us with such sincerity that I almost felt sad to go. But we had places to go.
We made it to one of the stops on my list, Great St. Martin church, but it had just closed. I was annoyed that yet another goal would go unrealized, but my newfound friends helped cheer me up as we walked through the shopping district to our next stop, a Russian restaurant called Dostoevsky that I had found on TripAdvisor. David and Liad kept ogling the pastries piled high in the bakeries we passed, and finally bought some, which meant that they weren’t hungry by the time we got to the restaurant. Fortunately, there was a Cuban-themed bar next door so we drank mojitos and chatted until everyone’s appetites were sufficiently whetted.
I was starting to feel a sense of camaraderie between us that I hadn’t expected. We were all solo strangers in a foreign land, but that isolation had oddly made us more willing to reach out and connect to others who were in the same situation. And we didn’t stop at “acquaintances,” we just plowed right on through to “friends.” At Dostoevsky, we learned that it had been David’s birthday two days prior, and that he hadn’t celebrated because he was on the road by himself. With the help of the bemused waitress, we improvised a birthday cake by sticking a candle to a plate of Russian apple tarts, singing “Happy Birthday,” and paying for his dinner. David was quite touched by the fact that people who had been complete strangers just hours before had taken it upon themselves to throw him some semblance of a birthday party. None of us had thought twice about it until he mentioned it, and we all agreed it was a bit unusual, but it felt completely natural.
It takes a certain kind of person to go somewhere alone, and if you meet other solo travelers, you’re likely going to share some traits, like an openness to new things, willingness to give and receive help, and the ability and desire to connect with others. I think it’s a common misconception that people who travel alone are loners. They’re often very social and outgoing, and in fact want to meet other travelers like themselves. Ironically, people who are alone often prefer to travel alone, together. Their paths may cross only for a day, but for that short span of time, they form bonds that allow them to connect with each other solely in the present moment, free from concern about the future. I knew I probably wouldn’t see these people again once I left Cologne the next evening, but they enriched my life while we all sat in Dostoevsky wiling away the evening, and I didn’t need them to do anything more.
As quickly as our little band had formed, it began to fragment. Rhiannon went back to the hostel, while the rest of us spent a few hours at a dance party in a venue that looked like it used to be an old junkyard. We had all promised to meet up the next morning, but when Rhiannon and I got downstairs for breakfast, only Liam was there; Liad and David had apparently decided to finish their bike trip together, and left early. Liam wanted to take the morning easy, so Rhiannon and I rented bikes and zoomed up the Rhine to the botanical gardens. We spent over an hour there, both attempting to take artsy photos of the flowers and gossiping away like college roommates, letting each other in on secrets that I normally wouldn’t bare until I had known someone for months. But our friendship was on the fast track, and each of our respective lives were so far away from the other’s that we could talk about them without fear of judgment or dishonesty. It was refreshing to just let things pour out into an interested ear, and to learn more about this person I’d become so close to so quickly.
We rode back to the Chocolate Museum, where we’d agreed to meet Liam, but we only had about an hour before Rhiannon’s train left. We sped through the exhibits, meeting a girl named Emily who was traveling alone as well along the way. She folded right into our little family, and when Rhiannon and I had to leave to return the bikes, she and Liam decided to stay and tour the museum together. I promised to be back in an hour once I returned the bikes and Rhiannon got on her train. Unfortunately, she ended up missing it by two minutes, and was completely distraught because she was supposed to meet friends that night. I found myself playing the role of the older sister, trying to calm her down and figure out a way to rebook her on a later train that would still allow her to catch her connection. It took almost two hours to get her ticket exchanged, after which she was mentally and physically exhausted. It was now almost past lunchtime and I still had about eight things left on my list. But it didn’t matter; Rhiannon was like family to me now, and there was no way I was going to abandon her just to go see a few more old buildings.
We ended up back at the Chocolate Museum, long after Liam and Emily had apparently gotten tired of waiting and gone elsewhere, but we instinctually knew they would be okay because they were two solo travelers traveling together. We went to the museum café and ordered two decadent chocolate desserts and chatted away, talking about relationships and our families and our dreams and aspirations. Those two hours were infinitely more fulfilling than an entire extra day in Cologne by myself would have been. When I hugged her goodbye just before she stepped onto her later train, I was genuinely sad to see her go. We may have only known each other for just over 24 hours, but we had been friends, sisters, listeners and companions.
I had about an hour and a half before my bus left, which I could have used to race through the Roman-German Museum, or the Ludwig Museum, or find a variety of kölsch I hadn’t tried yet. But I didn’t want to. I didn’t feel the need to cram in the Cologne I had “missed” seeing. I felt completely sated, filled to the brim. And it wasn’t because of the things I had done or seen, but because of the people I had connected with. If I had experienced Cologne truly alone, then in my memory it would exist as solely a collection of places I had crossed off my list. But when I look back on my time in Cologne, I relive the feeling of being surrounded by people I instantly knew I could trust, the few minutes I spent basking in the “Western lifestyle ideal,” the old man in the brewery smiled at us, complete strangers, with honest love in his eyes. While I learned something about Cologne while I was in the city, I learned infinitely more about myself. That’s why I’m not afraid to travel alone.
Lindsay Brownell is an intern at EMBL, Europe’s flagship laboratory for the life sciences. She studies Science Writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.