Five reasons to take a solo trip this year

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In the not-too-distant past, there seemed to be a stigma against solo travelers, especially nomads of the female variety. But then came The Blonde Abroad, Alex in Wanderland, Anna Everywhere, Globetrotter Girls and a whole host of other brave, blogging trailblazers…and suddenly, to a new generation of travelers, striking out on one’s own didn’t seem so scary after all.

If you thought solo traveling was only for lone wolves, photographers or teens taking a gap year, think again—it’s for anyone who wants to see the world and isn’t afraid of a little self-discovery along the way.

Here are 5 reasons why you don’t need a companion to take that dream trip.

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It’s your party; you can lounge by that Vegas pool if you want to.

Reason #1: Your schedule is totally up to you.

If you’ve ever traveled with a companion, you know what it feels like to get frustrated when the two of you fall out of sync. Maybe, on a previous trip, you’d have preferred to check out the 6 a.m. cafe scene in a new city had your spouse not been more amenable to sleeping in. Or perhaps you’d have liked to take your time exploring that museum over the course of a whole day, but your friend insisted on sprinting through two more museums before noon.

When you travel alone, you’ll never have to run on any schedule but your own. Celebrate freedom of choice by taking that mid-afternoon nap you wish you could have taken on your last trip. Or, once your feet start to hurt, don’t hesitate to loiter on a park bench and people watch rather than bravely soldiering on for the sake of your companion. Where you go and what you do is completely and totally up to you…no more compromises!

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Perks of traveling alone: no one’s there to complain about the Friday night museum line.

Reason #2: You can follow your heart.

When you travel alone, not only is your schedule yours alone, but it’s also free from any outside social pressure. When I visited New York for the first time on a solo trip, I had no desire to see the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building or Times Square, and I wanted to keep things as simple and cheap as possible. Had I traveled with someone else, I may have felt obligated to visit these NYC hallmarks and splurge on a nice hotel room. But because I was alone, I didn’t hesitate to reserve a bunk at a centrally-located hostel or to follow my heart to funkier, lesser-known locales like the Cloisters in Inwood, a gritty, greasy diner on the Lower East Side and a used designer clothing shop in NoLiTa.

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Backpacking with new friends in Trieste.

Reason #3: You’ll meet cool new people.

While part of the allure of solo travel is the alone time it affords you, sometimes it’s nice to get out of your own head and strike up a conversation with someone new. Traveling solo is the perfect way to meet interesting new people, especially other solo travelers your age.

Think of the world like a high school cafeteria: When you’re a new student, you’re more likely to walk up to a friendly-looking table of one instead of the boisterous group of popular kids. In the same vein, when you travel with someone else, strangers are less likely to approach you (and sometimes that can be a good thing…see: creepers). But when you’re alone, other travelers will find you less intimidating and more approachable.

If you want to make friends but have concerns about aforementioned creepers, your best bet will be to stay in casual environments where you’ll be surrounded by lots of people, like pubs, museums, low-key concerts and popular parks. Open your mind, take off your sunglasses and flash your pearly whites.

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Reflecting from a canoe on the 4th of July.

Reason #4: You’ll learn to depend on yourself.

When you’re alone and you get a splitting headache, you can’t stay under the covers at the hotel while your companion runs to the drug store. When you lose your passport, no one else is there to help you find the nearest embassy and navigate the complicated waters of international bureaucracy. While that may sound somewhere between daunting and downright terrifying—and to be honest, it is, at least in the moment—it’s also hugely educational. Those mini (and maxi) crises you face alone become defining moments in your life, moments you can point to and say, “That’s when I really became an adult,” or, “That’s when I overcame my biggest fear.”

When you weather storms by yourself, you feel like a total confident badass…like you literally CAN take on the world. And—bonus!—you usually get a great story out of it.

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Exploring my own backyard.

Reason #5: You’ll get to know yourself better than ever before.

Comments from friends with whom I’d traveled in the past made me think my travel preferences skewed heavily toward arts, culture and snobbery. While I won’t deny that I love a night at the symphony, traveling alone made me realize some of my preferences were less upper-crust and more serflike. Now, when I explore a new destination, I know to create loose itineraries that combine the high-class with the lowbrow. If I were in Paris, I might don a sundress and spend the morning at the D’Orsay, spend lunch on the Seine with a grocery store baguette and a juice box of wine, and change into ripped jeans for a night at a hole-in-the-wall hangout in the Latin Quarter.

Finding your unique style as a traveler is great, but even better are the discoveries you make about yourself as a person when you’re on the road. Traveling alone allows you to discover your limits, physically and emotionally, and sometimes put them to the test. It illuminates your strengths and establishes your weaknesses. I’ve never felt more self aware than at the end of a solo trip.

Have you traveled alone? What tips would you give to aspiring solo wanderers?

 

Waiting at the Venice Mestre train station

I’m ready for a vacation!!

It’s down to the wire here at the Istituto Filippin. There are four academic days left until we leave the CIMBA campus for good and jet to our homes back in the States. We’re getting weepy, but surprisingly, we’re also glad to be going home. We’re all, as we’ve said to each other for the past week or so, “over school” and for the time being and we’ll be happy to get a little ( or in my case, a lot) relaxation time before hitting the books next term.

Budapest Hungary Chain Bridge

I never knew how much travel could take out of me. The fact that, during this whole program, there was never really a “break” in terms of mental or physical relaxation because we were either studying or traveling the whole time, has really gotten to me. My back is sore. I’m probably sleep deprived, but I can’t tell anymore. This week, made up of three days of classes and three days of finals, has pushed me even further to the limit. I’ve been typing nonstop for three days, and I’ll probably continue to do so until Friday, the day before my last paper is due. In the meantime, I have to figure out when (and HOW!!) I’ll pack, where to get a hotel near the Venice Mestre train station for easy access to the airport in the morning, secure a CIMBA yearbook, fax my course syllabi to my home university and–tear!–say goodbye to everyone. Wish me luck.

This term, though it was technically much longer than any term at U of O, has gone by faster than any other. I feel like it was barely a month ago that I came here, sweaty and confused, with my huge suitcase and my shy smile, dubious about whether I’d be able to call this place home. I needn’t have worried. In fact, I should have been more concerned about how I would leave without pulling out a generously sized Kleenex box. I’ve gotten to know 89 American college students, four tabacchi employees, a pastry shop owner, two taxi drivers, a pizzeria owner and a jewelrymaker, and to have known these people so intimately for three months and then to never see them again seems so odd.

Waiting at the Venice Mestre train station
I’ve seen nine countries, flown on 15 planes, taken a dizzying amount of train trips all over the place. (And even with all that travel time, I still learned valuable things in my classes!) I should feel worldly, but instead I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the world has to offer. I’ll be back–I hope–to conquer Rome, to ride the train all the way down the Rhine, to discover the undiscovered parts of Eastern Europe, to freeze my butt off in the Scandinavian countries, and to revisit every inch of London.

In the meantime, I’ll be glad to return home, where Mexican food tastes good and where my pillow-top bed awaits. I hope to see all of you soon.

News flash: Journalists aren’t doomed

College journalists who haven’t entered the workforce yet have been trained to fear the very worst after they’ve secured a diploma, but Rich Gordon sees a much cheerier picture.

According to Gordon, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, the modern era of journalism should be defined as a changing job market rather than a shrinking one.

“All is not lost,” Gordon said in a Skype interview with our Power Journalism class last week. “As jobs in newspapers decline, opportunities for all kinds of other platforms are growing.”

My association with the changing nature of the newspaper has always been a negative one. After all, I go to school to learn about print journalism, I practice print journalism, and my dream to be a classical music critic can only exist if print newspapers hang in there. But now I have hope. There are other, equally rewarding ways to earn a salary, like starting a classical music blog, freelancing or working for an online arts publication.

Gordon’s predictions come from the fates of other companies like Kodak, companies who may have lost out in the transition to digital but who reinvented themselves to fit into the 21st century.

“If you go to their website right now, you’ll see that they’re hiring,” Gordon said. “Not for the jobs they had 10 years ago, for different kinds of jobs.”

But in case you were so brightened by Rich Gordon’s news that there’s no longer any need to worry, think again: as the newspaper must reinvent itself, the new wave of journalists must do so too.

These days, Gordon said, “Every journalist needs to be able to create content in multiple forms on multiple platforms.” Translation: don’t know how to work a video camera? Learn. Never had to take your own pictures while interviewing people on assignment? Get used to it. Never recorded interviews with the intention of actually posting them for audiences to listen to? Too bad.

Knowledge of multiple forms of media is a must, but the most valuable skill a journalist can have is knowledge of all things computers: HTML, videomaking programs, networking and more.

Computer literacy is, in fact, so valuable in the modern newsroom that Northwestern’s journalism school has just introduced a nine-month program in which computer science majors work with journalism graduate students to learn about the media industry. According to Gordon, when these computer whizzes graduate, they’ll all be a shoo-in for any Web design job at a major newspaper.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work quite as well the other way around. A journalist like me, who has next to no experience with Web design or computer programming, could never learn everything I’d need to know in a tech job at a newspaper in nine months. Still, Gordon might have talked me into buying a copy of “HTML for Dummies” to get a leg up on the competition.

Expatriates: Still sort of American

You might say George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are among the greatest heroes of American history because they had the courage to stay loyal to the U.S. through the worst, but I’d have to argue that Margo, Sharla and Giancarlo are just as heroic for mustering up the courage to leave the freest country in the world.

Though the notion of moving abroad permanently excites me, the concept remains just as foreign to me as Italy itself. We CIMBA students have been in Italy for nearly three months and are well-versed in tabacchi products and prosecco wines, but we’re still awed at the idea that an American could drop everything to live in Italy indefinitely. So, naturally, the panel of four expatriates that sat before us one night last week intrigued us all.

Waiting at the Bassano del Grappa train station

Sharla, an expat who has lived in Italy longer than her 15-year-old daughter has been alive, said she literally hasn’t seen “this many Americans in decades.” Though she was there to answer our questions, she wanted to know about us, about our lives as Americans, something with which she has been out of tune.

I was surprised, in fact, by how very American they all still seemed, considering how far removed they are from American culture. They, like us, sometimes missed things like bagels and chipotle–though the longer they live there, “the smaller the list gets,” according to Margo, and “now when I go back to the U.S., sometimes I want a spritz”–and there are certain ancient Italian practices they still haven’t gotten over, like working around inconvenient store hours and siestas.

“In America you can be like, ‘Oh, it’s 2 a.m. and we need milk, let’s go get it!’ Here, you have to plan ahead for everything,” Margo said. Added Giancarlo, “planning business things like meetings is really frustrating.”

Though they live lives I thought I couldn’t imagine, the expats echoed my thoughts every few minutes with one of their comments about living here in Italy. Sharla said, “When I go to the States to visit my family, I feel more Italian. Here I feel more American.” I, too, feel more American than ever here, but compared to many of my schoolmates who’ve never ventured outside of Oregon, I’m practically a native European.

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Heroes, though their status seems loftier, are just as human as the rest of us. No exception here. These expats did something unthinkable to most of us at CIMBA, yet somehow they were just like us.

When Margo mentioned peanut butter longingly and the whole room sighed with her in moans of gastronomic pain, I realized that, while we students haven’t left our home country for good, we’re expats in many respects too. I envied these panelists their ability to just up and leave for something completely foreign, but in a way, I did the same thing.

Fisherman's Bastion at night Budapest Hungary

Back to class

I returned from another great travel week on Sunday, and once again, I had barely enough time to rest before the work rained down on me. On top of keeping up blogs for two classes and getting all my homework done, I had to deal with class scheduling woes in the wee hours this morning while attempting to wash my clothes in broken machines. I’ve also just accepted a position as a student blogger at the U of O and I’m now dealing with very unfun employment paperwork, made doubly unfun by the fact that I don’t have access to a lot of financial information I need while abroad. I think this week, with all its stresses, is a preview to the stresses I’ll be experiencing when I go back to Oregon for my next school term. I’d better get used to it.

I can barely remember as far back as the day we left for the second travel week–Nov. 8–but I’ll try to recall as much as I can.

Dohány Street Synagogue Budapest Hungary

Our first stop was Budapest, which proved to be a lot like I pictured it to be: a slightly more Eastern version of Prague. In fact, it was even geographically similar: a river, the Danube, ran through the center and on one side, on a hill, was a castle and the old town (Buda) and on the other side was the sleeker, newer town (Pest) with a Jewish quarter. The difference in the Jewish quarter: there were more small synagogues scattered over the district in Prague, and here, the focal point is one synagogue in particular, which happens to be the largest one in Europe. We inadvertently signed up for a tour, but were glad we did when we learned the Gestapo set up a communication station right in the pews of the synagogue, as if in an effort to crush the spirit of the Jews as much as possible. Monuments like these are just impressive, gilded empty shells unless one knows the incredible and terrible history behind them.

We wandered around the streets of Pest for a little while before we crossed the Danube via the Chain Bridge to get to Old Town. We took a tram up the hill to the castle, which reminded me of riding up the Shadowbrook tram after an atmospheric dinner, and we were slightly disappointed upon arrival: the castle wasn’t really set up to display rooms as they were in royalty’s heyday. Instead, each segment of the castle was a different modern art museum or renovated concert hall or something else that involved completely gutting all the rooms to give the building another purpose. We thought it was odd, but we saw some beautiful streets ahead of us, so we walked away from the castle to explore the rest of the old town.

Fisherman's Bastion at night Budapest Hungary Pest at night Budapest Hungary
After grabbing a coffee around 4, it was already getting dark by the time we ran into St. Matthias Church, classic gothic but for its Eastern tile-patterned roof. Even more impressive was the nearby Fisherman’s Bastion, a balustrade that somewhat resembled a sandcastle and began to light up just as we arrived. Not only was the structure magnificent in the evening glow, but so was the view of Pest from up high on the bastion, especially as other structures–the bridge, parliament, huge hotels along the water’s edge–began to light up too.

I’ll talk more about my other visits during the travel week–Vienna, Prague and a spontaneous day trip to Bratislava–when I’m back in control of the work situation. Before then, you can read the update to my class blog on one particular morning in Prague.

Prague revisited

By 4:30 p.m., all I could see from the train window was black. Staring out the window on the way to Prague had been my last source of entertainment; my iPod was already out of battery and I’d finished the one book I took with me on the travel week. Now all I could do was pull out a map of Europe and stare listlessly.

Perhaps that’s how, after about 20 minutes of staring, my eyes focused on Dresden, Germany.

I’d begun to think about my traveling companions, two girls who wanted nothing but to shop at American department stores and read at Starbucks during our entire three-day stay in Vienna. Would they do the same thing in Prague? Even if they changed this time around and showed enthusiasm for seeing the sights, I knew I wouldn’t be too thrilled to tag along. I had already visited every important Prague monument three years ago with a touring singing group. I wanted something new. I wanted something German.

I already had it all decided when the train screeched to our stop: I would take a day trip to Dresden, a two-hour train ride away, on Saturday to ease the monotony and my frustration. I didn’t know what Dresden had to offer, and my German still wasn’t up to scratch, but what the hell.

I was even happier about my secret pact when, as we came up from the underground near our hostel, I felt the dry, penetrating cold of the night air. Dresden must be warmer than this, I thought, though I had nothing to back up this theory.

The air had the same biting chill in the morning; there seemed to be little difference between day and night here in terms of temperature. We wound our way through tiny alleyways toward the Old Town Square, shivering and shoving our hands deep within our pockets, and I again commended myself on my brilliant plan of escape.

And then, just like that, there was the square. I didn’t even recognize it at first, thinking it was just another busy square that happened to house a few beautiful buildings, but then I saw the main monuments: the Church of Our Lady of Týn, the astronomical clock, the many restaurants with yellow-clothed wicker tables spilling out onto the cobblestones. The cloudless azure of the sky seemed almost to reflect upon the apartment buildings and to illuminate each color: pea soup turned to lime popsicle, marzipan turned to pale lemon and glass windows looked like pools of water.

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My hands fell out of my coat pockets and my eyes were so wide they reached an aperture I’d never before accomplished. I was not cold anymore. I was in Prague, my intrigue renewed, and I wasn’t going anywhere.

How local is too local?

I’m pretty sure that, of all the news in my home county newspaper, about .00001 percent of it mentions the street on which I grew up. I’m not terribly disturbed that more news about my street isn’t regularly published, not only because hardly anything newsworthy happens on my street and also because there are thousands more streets competing for attention in the rest of the county.

But seriously, how cool would it be to know why that ambulance roared by my bedroom window at 2 a.m. the other day?

A while ago, it occurred to Adrian Holovaty that people of the 21st century crave information they don’t have, probably because so much of it is at our fingertips that we’re intrigued when it is not. He created EveryBlock, where residents of 11 densely populated cities across the U.S. can check out the latest news, police blotters, photos and more from their own backyards. While each city has a main portal site where news from all over converges, locals can use filters to only display an area, neighborhood or even street of interest.

Some newspapers have observed this trend of megalocal news coverage from both locals and professionals like Holovaty with interest, wondering how they can incorporate the really local into their own general news. They know they need to pull readers in, especially in the face of plummeting revenue, and what better way than to talk about what’s going on at the neighbors’? But newspapers probably won’t gain anything focusing on superlocal coverage, at least not without losing other vital parts of the paper.

Some non-newspaper websites that have tackled local-local news, as it is sometimes called, by going straight to the source: the locals themselves. These websites serve as portals for discussions on street- and neighborhood-specific issues between its residents and is not necessarily newsworthy. (Every neighborhood has its stereotypical old grouch who always finds something to complain about, hot-button issue or not.) However, some of the issues brought up on these sites can’t be gleaned from town hall meetings, police briefings or other public events reporters have access to–thus, these sites should clearly be on a reporter’s radar.

The question that remains, then, is how a reporter who finds pertinent, newsworthy local information on such websites should use it. The best way is to use these online discussion panels as a starting point for a larger story, perhaps even one that connects with a national issue. (For example, my hometown paper has of late focused on the locals’ angry reception of the downtured California State Prop 8.) Seeing these discussions at least gives a reporter an idea of the general public feeling and can show the reporter how a story might go based on personal and phone interviews with similar locals.

I’ve given references to my very localized hometown newspaper, one that gets all its international news from wire services, one whose reporters cover nothing but news that occurs inside Santa Cruz County lines. So what of huge papers with bureaus all over the U.S. and the world, like the New York Times? Can they benefit from websites like EveryBlock? Only to a very small degree, I think. Since their readership expects thorough coverage not only from within the city but throughout the entire country and world, their Bronx beat reporter should make efforts at crowd-sourcing through sites like these. The guy stationed in Tel Aviv needn’t bother.

Stuffy news sources step it up with video

In 2004, the video was as much of a novelty as was the blog–in terms of covering the election.

But traditional news was already losing its grip on public interest and advertising revenue four years ago, and newspapers in particular knew they had to change the way they presented the facts to the public–but how? It should have been an easy answer–after all, it wasn’t as if the video camera was a brand-new invention at the turn of the 21st century–but the video didn’t burst onto the news scene in one day. It’s slowly crept from novelty and experiment in 2004 into what we now view as the norm on any newspaper’s web site. No matter what newspaper it is, if it has any credibility at all, some video will be featured above the fold–er, at the top of the screen.

The New York Times, though its dusty old-guard reputation precedes it, picked up on the video craze fairly early and has now officially gone video crazy. With every hour, it isn’t just the headline story that changes on http://www.nytimes.com, it’s also the featured video! The New York Times now has a membership on YouTube and has in just one year posted more than 700 videos to its profile. Here’s one of the latest videos, dealing with the topic that hasn’t yet escaped the forefront of Americans’ minds: the 2008 election.

Just viewing this one-and-a-half-minute clip shows why the New York Times has so violently embraced the video as a source for news: it tells the story of a revolution in The Bronx better than text and any amount of photos could.

An epic American night…in Italy

It’s now 2:30 p.m. in what will probably pass as one of the most important political days in my young adult life, but there’s a good chance I won’t remember a minute of it.

Last night, I stayed up without sleeping until 6:30 a.m. (9 p.m. on the West Coast) to watch all the states’ returns come in and to see what everyone already knew was coming–Barack Obama’s acceptance speech. I’ll remember the excitement I felt every time a new state flashed on the MSNBC virtual map, leading us closer to a conclusion to the stat-packed night, and I’ll remember watching the interesting patterns developing in the form of blue and red clumps in the counties of battleground states. And I’ll most certainly remember the first address of the first black president, one delivered with such determined fervor that I could tell Obama knew the serious trouble he was getting himself into and knew he could conquer it all.

It seemed like as good a time as any to #ThrowYourO.

But my memory will probably go fuzzy after the time that I fell into bed at 6:30, especially considering that I had to wake up a mere three hours later. All the more reason, then, to document my findings from newspapers from all over the world in this blog.

I looked up the online translated version of Il Messaggero, the most widely read newspaper in Rome, and my beliefs were instantly confirmed: that most of Italy was overjoyed by Obama’s victory. The paper proclaimed Obama won “by an avalanche of votes”; a reader in support of the outcome wrote in a comment “long live REAL democracy.” European leaders hailed the new president’s election as “a turning point” that made the year a very strong one for democracy in the U.S. and the world (EU president Jose Barroso), a “wonderful example of democracy given from the United States to the world” (Nicolas Sarkozy), and a testament to new “progressive values and a vision for the future” (Britain’s PM Gordon Brown). Even Russia welcomed Obama with open arms, assuring him a “full partership of trust.”

It’s a shame I couldn’t have been right in the middle of the action–say, celebrating on campus with fellow U of O students or dancing on tops of cars with other Santa Cruzans (yes, they really did do that)–but in a way, being in a foreign country for these elections has made me see the importance of the perspective of the world, not just that of the U.S., in these elections. I think the American media focus so much on Americans’ reactions to the election results that they don’t immediately take into account what foreign leaders–and foreign equivalents of the average joe–are saying. Thus, had I been in the U.S. while this was happening, I wouldn’t have thought to read up on foreign perspective.

Thank goodness for the Internet–and thank goodness for study abroad!

Back in Eugene, just for a moment

Sure, it’s rained enough in the last week to rival Oregon’s rainfall record, but let’s face it: Paderno del Grappa, Italy is nothing like Eugene.

I know, I know, I’m not exactly in a position to complain. I couldn’t imagine a more idyllic place to study—right at the foot of the Alps, surrounded by villas dotting the countryside, an hour’s train ride away from the romantic canals of Venice. But even so, now that my time here is two-thirds gone and I’m stateside bound in just a month, I can’t help but think about everything I miss about Eugene, where I’ve lived for the better part of two years, and how excited I am to return.

In those moments when I get what I’ve started calling “hippie withdrawal,” I’m lucky to have more than 10 fellow U of O students to turn to. We all feel the same way, torn between the excitement of traveling and new experiences and the familiarity and comfort of our home away from home. We talk about our favorite cafés on campus, study spots we like and great professors at dinner sometimes, but even after getting some of it out of our systems, we still yearn to return.

But something fortuitous happened on Saturday night that eased the chill of the Alpine foothills and made me feel a little more at home: a barbecue. We all skipped dinner in the cold, cavernous cafeteria that night and instead broke out the barbecue. There were French fries, hamburgers, hot dogs and baked beans, and we gathered it all up on our plates like ravenous pigs. We chatted among ourselves as we dove into the all-American fast, and amid conversation, someone mentioned an Oregon game was scheduled to play on TV tonight. And suddenly four of us, decked out in Oregon shirts and sweatshirts, were parked in front of the television in the campus lounge. Then eight. Then 10. And then the Oregon faculty members were there too.

University of Oregon alumni at a CIMBA dinner in Italy

All the Ducks in a row…er, two rows

The game was at UC Berkeley, not on home turf, but what did it matter? We could see our team, up close and personal, and we identified our yellow-clad fans in the stands as if we were there with them.

We gave loud whoops when the game was in our favor and groaned, heads in hands, when our team let us down. We yelled in unison and held our hands above our heads in “O” shapes at the kickoff. We tried practicing other traditional game chants even though the band wasn’t there to back us up.

Practicing a U of O tradition, even when we were nearly 5,600 miles away from U of O itself, staved off my homesickness enough to make me feel buoyant even at the end of the game, when we lost to Cal and the rain in Berkeley fell harder than ever.