introversion and solo travel
As a wise and elegant woman once said, “Paris is always a good idea.” Chelsea Davies discovers it’s still a good idea even if you’re an introvert travelling alone with no desire to socialise.
It takes approximately nine minutes into my flight – not even in the air, just taxiing on the runway – to realise that holidaying on my own is not the done thing.
On all sides, I’m surrounded by couples taking pictures; selfies with the plane, selfies with each other, selfies with the tiny bottle of watery merlot they paid an arm and a leg for. It’s comical, really. If you were to look at their photographs, my existence is a half-life; a sliver of my coat sleeve here, a curl of my hair there. I do my best to dodge cameras. Yet, there’s only so far a person can go in economy class. With a thin smile, the stewardess asks me to remove myself from the aisle for takeoff.
“To me, travel is placing yourself in a country out of your comfort zone and seeing what happens.”
When I told friends and family of this trip, two days solo in Paris, I was met with two responses – applause for female empowerment or claims against my sanity. After all, why would anyone want to visit the city of love by themselves? If I wanted to take myself away, why not to York or Edinburgh?
“That’s not travelling,” was my reply. To me, travel is placing yourself in a country out of your comfort zone and seeing what happens. Still, right now, I feel very single, very awkward and very, very alone.
Solo travel is on the rise
As a global trend, solo female travel is thriving. It’s becoming ever more popular, accounting for almost a quarter of holiday bookings worldwide. Skyscanner, the online travel agent, predicts it will revolutionise the industry in the coming year.
This forecasting data is echoed by Hostelworld. In 2019, the number of reservations made by solo female travellers increased by 88%. A spokesperson of the hostel-focussed online booking platform said, “Over 60% of our customers are solo travellers and meeting people is a huge part of their journey.”
The social aspect of solo travel is reiterated that evening at my own hostel. It’s hipster central, a 20-minute rattling metro ride from the centre. At the check-in desk, I ask if I’m the first woman to arrive alone today. “No,” the receptionist says, his accent thick. “You are maybe four, five? A good place to meet people. We have kitchen, bar and restaurant.”
In that communal kitchen, making a late-night cup of tea to take back to my private room, I meet a fellow female travelling alone.
"I love the ability to do and be whatever you want to be," says Helena Moorhouse, a 24-year-old account executive whose solo destinations include Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and Budapest. "I never feel alone when travelling,” she says. “I go on my own and make friends there.”
There’s a key difference between me and this typical solo traveller. I don’t want to meet people. When I travel, even staying in hostels, I’ve never felt the need to socialise. After a long day exploring, there’s nothing worse than having to make small talk with your bunkmates. I think being a twin fuels the introvert in me.
At five-weeks premature, my sister entered the world. Apparently, she was wide-eyed, wary and silent, as if finding herself in a room empty of the person she’d expected. She was hurried to an incubator and my mother was again told to push. I arrived six minutes later. I was scrunched-eyed and screaming, in a mood at being separated from all the warmth ever known to me. It was as if I realised, taking those first few wailing breaths, the hand I’d held onto for months was waving like a landing flag on the other side of the room. I’m here, I’m safe, I’m waiting for you.
Following your own feet
Le Marais, on the right bank of the city, is bustling in the late-morning rush. It unfurls across the third and fourth arrondissement, a historic district scattered with medieval remains easily found when you look beyond the façades of charming boutiques and boulangeries. The narrow streets are worn smooth by centuries of wandering feet.
I’m meeting with a woman who’s made a living from solo female travel. In a café that smells like melted caramel and rain on cobblestones, I find Sophie Anne Nadeau.
“If I’m travelling with someone else, there’s always an element of compromise.”
It was a year abroad for her undergraduate studies that inspired her career as a full-time solo travel blogger. In October 2019, the day after an unexpected break-up, she chopped her hair ten inches, booked a one-way ticket to the city and moved the next week.
Obviously, she’s an enthusiastic supporter of my solo adventure – even as an introvert. “I love the freedom to travel wherever you want and dictate your own schedule,” she says. “If I’m travelling with someone else, there’s always an element of compromise.”
This, I understand. The trip usually exhausts me if travelling with anyone but my sister. After all, travelling with my twin is like travelling with myself; we’re alone without being lonely.
I ask if she’s ever felt unsafe travelling alone as a woman, my biggest concern when embarking on my own journey lacking safety in numbers. “There are drawbacks,” she thinks. “I’ve felt uncomfortable a few times in terms of being harassed, but this also happens at home.” Sophie takes a bite of her honey-sweetened crêpe, then says, “My safety advice would be to have multiple forms of payment kept in separate places, limit yourself to a glass or two of wine, and always arrive somewhere new during daylight hours.”
“It’s a tale of a woman unafraid of her own company.”
That evening, I find myself meandering beneath the glittering bronze arches of the Eiffel Tower. The wind carries the scent of iron and rust from the river, and it settles me. I get to thinking about what one travel writer said when I asked the online community for their thoughts on introversion and solo travel. “Contrary to popular beliefs, introverts make for great solo travellers,” said Smita Bhattacharya. “We travel richly, have a lower need to seek companions to have fun, and thus, completely soak ourselves into the local culture and ways of life.”
When travelling solo, there’s an unfair assumption that you’ll only have an experience worth talking about if you actively seek other people to share in that experience. Online, articles call for introverts to push themselves into extroversion, ignoring what they need to function on top of the stress of travelling. Yet, according to research, people who travel solo are naturally better at connecting with the four pillars of a meaningful life – belonging, purpose, transcendence and storytelling. Alone, I feel connected to those four pillars; each one is the leg of the tower that stretches tall above my head.
I have stories to tell of this experience, as worthy as those spoken by the groups that laugh and kiss and marvel at the city stroked by moonlight. It’s a tale of a woman unafraid of her own company. I whisper it to myself as my feet find their own way through the crowds.
Alone, but never lonely
The gift of introversion is self-awareness and my solo adventure has proved being both happy and willing to invest in time with myself is not only healthy, it’s liberating. Last year, when my twin sister moved oceans and continents away for the foreseeable future, I lost my adventure partner. It’s comforting to know I can, in fact, be my own travel buddy.
And anyway, the city is a charming companion. I spend my last day roaming from café to gallery to museum. The scent of pages old and new is a comforting embrace at Shakespeare and Company. At Musée du Louvre, the glass pyramids glisten. In the side-streets, apartment buildings rise in shades of faded white, laundry strung like necklaces between the balconies. I find sun-drenched gardens to escape into at the Musée d'Orsay in the form of Monet, Vuillard and Van Gogh. It’s a peaceful end, I think; the reflective, restorative, unhurried wanderings you can only achieve alone.
“Are you travelling alone,” the stewardess asks on my flight home. “Yes,” I reply, chest puffed and readying my speech on the importance of being able to navigate life solo for the inevitability of moments of solitude. She nods, gesturing for me to follow her to an empty row of seats. By the looks of the legroom available, it’s the budget airline equivalent of business class.
“Here,” she says with a smile, taking my coat. “You get a row for yourself.”
I order a glass of red, snapping a selfie to capture me, my wine and my empty row with legroom.