This summer, my four-year relationship ended. So naturally, I booked a two-and-a-half week trip to Croatia and Iceland. By myself.
At the time, there was a part of me that thought I could run away from my heartbreak (spoiler alert: I couldn't) and come back healed and unscarred (spoiler alert: I didn't).
When asked, I'd explain the purpose for my first solo trip by telling people that I wanted to reclaim a self-reliance and take back a dependence I had on a man for the past four years.
I went on this trip with a void in my heart, exposed and constantly feeling like something was missing because my other wasn't around. I mean, solo traveling as a mid-20-something female is scary in itself, and I knew that I was adding an extra, heavier layer of emotion by doing it heartbroken and confused.
I expected to spend the majority of the trip alone, I expected to have my breath taken away from the beautiful countries I was visiting and I expected to have brief interactions with people along the way. Beyond that, there were no expectations -- mostly just anxiety and fear.
What I found was that the void doesn't make me less whole or less myself. Losing a loved one didn't take my existence, my half of the relationship, away. No matter what my intentions and expectations were when exploring the world, I never expected to discover myself through the eyes of strangers in foreign countries.
Thanks to my solo adventure, I was able to explore myself, the world and my place in the world.
With that said, here are 10 things I learned about relationships:
1. Everyone has a story (or stories) worth hearing, you just need to be open to listening to them.
When I was on my very first flight (one of seven), I was annoyed that the guy next to me was trying to engage in conversation. I wanted to wallow in my anxiety while frantically texting and Facebook-ing. I was even too busy checking to see if there were any updates on my exe's social media sites. Once I was forced to put my phone away, I learned more about the guy next to me. He was a 50- to 60-something Frenchman, born and raised in Prague, who lived in New York City and has been in Paris for a few years where he manages a language school. He was en route to Paris before going to Kiev to explore Ukraine. He told me some stories from his lifetime of travel and taught me a little bit about the world. This connection was incredible, foreshadowing what was to come, and to think I almost missed building this relationship because of fear (of missing out and leaving my comfort zone).
2. You're not going to hit it off with everyone, and that's OK.
On my very first day in Dubrovnik, Croatia, I decided to fight jet lag and do one of the most touristy things there -- walk the city walls around Old Town. There are only two entrances to walk the wall, so if you enter with other people, you are more or less walking together the whole way around. I ended up with three guys from Spain, visiting only for the weekend. We talked, we joked and they were kind of enough to take pictures of me since I forgot to pack my selfie stick. After we were done, I mustered up the courage to ask them to grab a drink or dinner together. One instinctively said no followed by no explanation, while another politely declined and the third just stood there looking in the other direction. I was so embarrassed and immediately decided I wouldn't ask to hang out with people on this trip. I later went back on this promise to myself, and I'm glad I did.
3. Language barriers only hinder verbal communication, not connection.
In Dubrvonik, I was staying in a couple's guesthouse, and their daughter, Vedrana, who happened to be my age, was in town from school. She invited me to go out with her and her friends on my second day, and I reluctantly agreed, not knowing what to expect. While she, her friends and her cousin were all fairly good English speakers, some things definitely got lost in translation, and one of the girls who went to college in the U.S. had to middle-man translate here and there. But ultimately, connection transcends language. We were able to find commonalities (like dancing) and build real friendships from there. I spent two days in their company, bonding over gelato, swimming in the Adriatic sea and teaching them American games.
4. Getting lost is good for the soul.
Five days, two cities, a table for one. Before this trip, I never had the confidence to sit at a fancy restaurant with a glass of wine and smile, because I was content with my own company.
In Hvar and Split, I ate meals, sat at cafes and explored the touristy sites by myself. I've never been able to draw from my own strength without someone cheering me on, but at one point, I went bike riding to the top of a very desolate mountain in Hvar (13 kilometers one way). It was physically and mentally strenuous, but I pushed through to see the lavender fields pictured above. In Split, I literally got lost; I was scared, I pulled myself together and I was able to find my way again... all alone. It was all very metaphoric. A metaphor for life... for heartbreak. Remember when I said there was a part of me running away from my feelings? Well, it was during these solo experiences that they surfaced, that I was forced to re-evaluate my relationship with myself. I learned so much about being a healthier individual and having a more loving self-awareness on these scary, yet exhilarating, adventures by myself.
5. As Rumi put it, "What you seek is seeking you."
I left Croatia having spent a lot of time exploring myself. I very much accomplished learning and building a self-love and self-reliance I sought before the trip.
With these newfound discoveries and a growing love for myself, I traveled to Iceland expecting more or less the same lessons. However, I had an entirely different experience. I wasn't aware consciously, but I was seeking a community and a community is definitely what I found.
From the minute I walked into Kex hostel in Iceland, I immediately hit it off with a handful of people, all from different countries. They were all vivacious, light-hearted, smart, witty, adventurous, and we all fed off each other's similar energy, because after all, you attract people with the same energy you exude. The most amazing thing is that we were all individual solo travelers, with a desire for a shift of perception and change that pushed us each out our doors. To say I took this trip only because of my heartbreak wouldn't do the truth justice. I took this trip because of a perpetual heartache I felt, a lack of connectivity with myself and with the world.
I needed to step out of my comfort zone and decided to do that halfway across the world. And there is where I found a tribe of individuals who felt exactly the same way.
6. How you make a living doesn't necessarily relay the life you live.
Work is naturally one of the first topics touched when you meet someone new. But I noticed that the combination of being in a strange land and with strangers, very quickly what is important to you and what drives you take precedence over your job. How you make a living doesn't necessarily relay the life you live.
When I think of the people I met in Iceland, the family that I made, I instinctually think of my favorite movie, The Breakfast Club. People know us, in our respective communities and lives, in a very certain kind of way, and they have seen us the way they have chosen to. But there, in Iceland, in a foreign land with only our hearts (some scarred) and our zest for life, we were, in some weird way, in a self-imposed detention -- exploring each other and ourselves with much more depth. It's there that we realized we were more than a writer/editor, a behavioral therapist, an accountant, a wandering guitarist, a beverage technologist, a student, a consultant and more.
7. We all want to belong to something that's greater than us.
The world is really big, possessing so much to be seen and learned, but the beauty of it is that it's made to feel smaller when we're lucky to be a part of something that's greater than us. For some, it's finding a tribe of like-minded people where you can feel at home. For others, it's a pursuit of a passion or career that provides a sure sense of purpose. No matter what it is, or how you currently feel... we all have the engrained desire to know that we belong. Fortunately, I was welcomed with ease in Iceland, and I felt a deep sense of belonging with the other misfits and mischiefs. The home really is where the heart is, and I found a home in Iceland (and subsequently in nine other countries).
8. Never lose faith in humanity.
I, along with four others, spontaneously decided to go for a hike one day in Iceland, but we missed the bus and couldn't afford a cab to the mountain. A young couple from their Serbian donut stand nearby asked us if we were trying to get to the airport. We kindly say no, we wanted to go hiking at Mount Esja but we missed the bus. We walked away, defeated, only to get yelled back five seconds later by them. The girl, Tara, handed her keys over and said, "Here, you can take my keys and my car. I'm going to be here all day. Just fill up the gas and have it back by 9." The man proceeded to drive us to the girl's car and apologized for not being able to take us to the mountain himself. We returned the car later that day, bought some delicious donuts, made new friends and were incredibly grateful and lucky to have met this couple. It's this kindness and trust that not only restores faith in humanity, but also absolutely started a cycle of kindness that we each passed on to other people.
9. Being present should be a priority.
I was sad the first few days of my trip; I was alone and in a strange city and heartbroken, but through my experiences and the bonds I made, I realized that whatever was important would still be around when I got back from my trip. I started to think less about the life I temporarily left behind in New York, and filled up that mind and heart space with the people and places I was with in the moment. I realized that worrying about my ex or my life in New York was only keeping me from maximizing my trip and fully committing to the relationships I was making, both with the countries I visited and the people I met.
10. Soul mates come in different forms.
I've always been a strong believer that a soul mate isn't just a romantic partner. This trip only confirmed that belief. I made a number of soul mates, and they each share different parts of my soul with me, some overlapping with others.
Alex, the strawberry-blond-haired girl, perfectly mirrored my love for life and the importance of transparency. We spontaneously danced in the streets while walking to dinner; tried fermented shark together; stood under the Northern Lights until our fingers were numb; talked about our families and heartbreaks and career pursuits. We were direct and honest and challenging with each other, but offered an unconditional support for each other's choices. And since the trip, we've already reunited in San Francisco.
Then there were the boys. My brothers. As a solo female traveler, who was staying in a hostel for the first time, I felt nervous and wary of boys. But I honestly couldn't have met and built bonds with kinder, funnier, sweeter, more inspiring or more adventurous gentlemen.
These newfound soul mates reflected back to me my own beauty, helping me fall in love with myself. And as easy as it was to be loved and love each of them, I was reassured that true, real, raw love exists. It didn't matter that none of it was romantic, I knew my heart was going to be OK.