Instead of going straight home from Oxford at the end of term, I decided to take a jaunt through Norway and Iceland. When I first mentioned the idea, my dad thought I should hold off on making firm plans just in case I found some friends in England who might want to accompany me, but I’ve always wanted to try traveling by myself and I finally had the chance to do it. So I took a trip for myself and myself alone, and I had an incredible time. In fact, it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever taken. Now with it all behind me, I write my experiences for all to read.
But first, let’s clear up a few things.
This is not about:
- Personal transformation along the lines of Wild or Eat Pray Love
- Backpacking and hostel-hopping through Europe or Asia
- Finding myself
This is about:
- Going on a vacation alone for the first time
- Seeing part of the world I’ve never seen before
- Believing in myself
I started my journey very early on the last day of term. To make sure I had a large margin for inevitable errors I would make, I factored in plenty of extra time every step of the way. So with that in mind, it was the first of several insanely early mornings. When I arrived in Oslo after hours of traveling, I took an express train to the city centre and walked to my hotel as the sun started going down.
It was at this point that I could finally relax for the day. I had gotten to the first place I needed to be with no major, or even minor, altercations. Although I didn’t want to jinx it so early on, I felt proud. Sure, I’ve flown by myself plenty of times before. But this was different — there were way more opportunities along the way to miss a train or a bus or a plane because I wasn’t taking a short, straight journey. I had actually planned a whole trip for myself, a whole itinerary — I had a lot of places to be. Of course this was exhilarating, but it was also terrifying. What would happen if I got stuck somewhere and missed out on a bunch of things I’d already paid for? A bunch of things I was really excited about? I knew it would be a big headache. I didn’t want to find out what it’d be like. So for the moment, I gave myself a hesitant pat on the back and hoped for similar luck going forward.
I didn’t have a long time in Oslo — just an evening, really. Still, I checked into my hotel, lightened my backpack, and headed toward the main street running perpendicular to where I was staying. My mostly aimless wandering brought me to a winter village called “Jul i Vinterland” with a ferris wheel, carousel, ice skating rink, and plenty of craft and food vendors in cute little wooden house hut things. It was my heaven. My nirvana. If it wasn’t already clear by my choice of destinations and reluctance to return to Texas, winter is my favorite season by far.
Miraculously, I didn’t even have to use my GPS to find my way back to the hotel! This is a big deal for me. True, I think the different Christmas lights adorning the main streets probably made the whole operation easier. Instead of remembering long and complicated Scandinavian street names, I just remembered to go uphill on the street with bell lights, then take a left on the one with stars. However, I like to believe my sense of direction has improved. In the morning I had one of the best free hotel breakfasts I’ve ever come across, then hopped on the NSB train to Bergen, which is just as breathtaking as it is famed to be.
When we started out before sunrise, there was a little frost on the ground, but no snow. In the middle of the ride, there was tons of it. None of the lakes had completely frozen over, but some had jagged pieces of ice lining the edges. Additionally, there was a beautiful mist in a few of the valleys, which made for a serene, grey, slightly eerie view. In a move that will surprise nobody, I listened to the Frozen score on most of the journey. The opening chorus song, Vuelie, goes particularly well with a train ride through the Norwegian countryside, in case you were wondering.
I still had a good chunk of the day left, even if it was going to be mostly in the dark. My first stop was Bryggen, the historical UNESCO heritage old city centre that apparently inspired the animators of Frozen. The little houses were even more adorable than usual because of the Christmas light-lined roofs and the Christmas tree. Later I went to the world’s largest gingerbread village, which was entirely made up of kids’ gingerbread houses. I admired the astonishing layout and sat down with a Jule raspberry soda and a girl-shaped pepper cake (gingerbread cookie).
The next day, I hopped on a fjord cruise. It was just a local route running from the port in the centre of Bergen to a fjord called Mostraumen, but it was gorgeous nonetheless. There were huge, grandiose fjords, quaint little towns nestled in the hills, a big waterfall. I could definitely identify traces of Frozen in the landscape (sorry not sorry for the perpetual references), yet it was obviously much more impressive to see in person.
Back on land, I grabbed lunch at the fish market before heading to a wooden church called Fantoft Stavekirke. Although it was really cool to see, the church was unfortunately closed for the season. Well, better luck next time. In the evening I rode the funicular, looked out on the lights of Bergen made hazy by heavy cloud coverage, grabbed a lutefisk and glogg (mulled wine) dinner at a place called Pingvinen, and went to Magic Ice, an ice bar. The next morning would be another crazy early one, so I turned in early.
On the whole, Norway was just foreign enough to make me feel foreign. The language sounded pretty alien to my ears, and the greetings, a sing-song “Hi hi!” are just as chipper as Oaken’s “Yoohoo!” would suggest. The landscape was both beautiful and familiar — a lot of the fjords reminded me of taking a ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, and the rolling hills/mountains looked a bit reminiscent of upstate New York. Despite the familiarities, though, I felt distinctly like a foreigner. It all felt kind of like a fairytale, if you didn’t gather as much from all the Frozen talk. There were little troll figurines in all the gift shops, lights hanging from almost every window (see Bonus Bit in the post-script), mystical and picturesque landscapes. I’d definitely like to go back sometime.
Time for the last leg of the trip: Reykjavik. When I arrived, I walked around the city, but had another early night before another early morning. For my full Reykjavik day, I had booked two tours with a company called Trips: a Golden Circle Minibus Tour and a Northern Lights Tour. I had a brief panic when I asked the front desk where they usually picked up passengers and the concierge didn’t recognize the company name; luckily, my fear was short-lived and completely unwarranted. Trips is relatively new and small, but they were awesome. On the Golden Circle Tour, we covered Thingvellir National Park, Geysid, a farm called Efsti Dalur, Faxi Waterfall, Gullfoss, and a few other small spots. The tour guide, having grown up in Iceland, was extremely knowledgeable about the land, the people, and the culture. He made many stops that bigger companies didn’t, and the whole tour felt much more conversational and informal.
I was the only person to be picked up from my hotel whereas Reykjavik Excursions picked up a huge flock, and that actually made me feel better instantly — I really liked being part of a smaller group. Plus, I got pepper cake (is it just me, or is that a much cuter name than gingerbread?) ice cream at the farm, where the room looks into the stable where they keep the cows and calves! What could be better?
At night, I went on the Northern Lights Tour. I had originally scheduled it for my first night in Reykjavik, but it was cancelled because of bad conditions. That’s one thing not everyone might know: you could very well buy a Northern Lights Tour on your first night of vacation, go back every night, and never get to see them. You might not even get to go out on a tour at all if you happen to run into a few consecutive nights of bad weather and/or low activity. Companies only want to send guides out if there are decent chances of a Northern Lights spotting. Since the lights were supposed to have high activity, we went on the tour, but it was hard to find a patch of clear sky.
The activity was definitely high, but it was just too cloudy. Because of that unlucky combination, we saw a slightly brighter strip of sky where the lights were, but we couldn’t actually see them. It was definitely disappointing, but earlier in the day I had realized that I don’t need to complete my bucket list by the time I’m 21 — I will hopefully have plenty of time in my life to see the Northern Lights and much, much more.
On my last day of vacation, I had a leisurely breakfast, went inside Hallgrímskirkja (one of Reykjavik’s most prized and iconic sites), did more souvenir shopping and actually bought some gifts, had fish soup at the Laundromat Café, and got on a bus to the airport. And that was it for the trip. While I enjoyed my time in Iceland, I definitely felt like there was a lot more to see and do. Reykjavik itself doesn’t take long to cover on foot; everything else takes a bit of transport time to get to. But when you do venture outward, the sights are incredible. On top of that, Iceland is just so fascinating. The language is essentially the same as the language the Vikings spoke when they came from Norway, there are basically no homeless people (because they built a house for them), the single prison has less than 40 inmates. Like Norway, it feels fairytale-esque, like a place where no truly terrible things ever happen. Iceland is a strange and beautiful country.
But my experience went far beyond sightseeing and shopping. One of the first things I noticed about traveling alone is that there’s nobody to witness your mistakes. If you mess something up, there’s nobody but yourself to blame and nobody but you to blame yourself. Nobody even has to know that you made a mistake at all! This is of course both freeing and anxiety-inducing. However, if the stakes are low, it’s a wonderful thing.
For example, I bought a 48-hour Bergen Card. Free access to museums and public transportation, discounts on certain attractions — sounds like a great idea! Yet it turned out to be a mistake. First misstep: I chose to pick it up from Tourist Information, unaware that they would be closed on the day of my arrival, Sunday. I also overestimated the number of things I’d be able to use it for. With the fjord cruise taking up almost four hours of my one full Bergen day (the only day I could actually use the card) and museums that either close early or don’t open on Mondays, I had close to no options on Monday afternoon. Furthermore, they say you can use the Bergen card to travel free on the buses and light rails, but I didn’t think the town would be walkable enough to essentially render public transportation irrelevant. If you add up the money I saved with the card — a discount on the fjord cruise ticket, a trip on the funicular, two rides on the light rail — I’m fairly confident it didn’t come close to what I paid for it.
And while that sucked, it was ultimately only a small amount of money lost. I did kick myself because I’m a tragically hard-wired perfectionist, but I learned something for next time. Now, before buying something like the Bergen Card, I’ll be sure to look into it much more thoroughly. Although I made a minor mistake and wasted some money, I didn’t have other people to get mad at me for making them waste their money. There were no witnesses — I could accept the fact that I could’ve done better and move on.
As for the actual traveling alone part, I will say that I’m sure there’s a right time and place, a right point in life for everyone. Personally, I really like spending time alone. The voices in my head keep me just as occupied as the voices of other people! Kidding… But seriously, being alone gives me more room to think and reflect, and also to observe others, in the least creepy way possible. What I mean to say is not that I am a shameless eavesdropper, rather that people-watching is crucial for fiction writing. Therefore crucial to me as an aspiring writer. And also I’m a shameless eavesdropper because people are interesting.
Anyway, I absolutely loved going on vacation alone. So much, in fact, that I fear family trips might never be the same. Even though I started off as a better candidate than some of my more extraverted friends, I think there’s a lot that most everyone could benefit from when it comes to solo traveling. You don’t have to consider any other factors besides yourself, which means that you can get a lot more done. Specifically, I’m referring to family members or friends who might not want (or be able) to spend as much time on their feet, might not want to see the same attractions, or might not have the same culinary tastes. Is this selfish? Maybe. Is this more enjoyable? Hell yes. Shameless.
Now that I think about it, maybe the right time to travel alone is before you become selfless.
The bulk of my trip was definitely sightseeing. Going on the fjord cruise or the Golden Circle Tour might have been much the same with company, but I enjoyed going by myself and basking in the wonders of the natural world in solitude. It was immensely peaceful to be alone — I didn’t have to think about anything other than what was right in front of me, and what was right in front of me was breathtaking more often than not, so there wasn’t much to say anyway. I certainly think these experiences would be equally enjoyable with other people, but without anyone by my side, it was new and different and exciting. I had a great time milling around, taking my pictures, and silently moving onto the next thing. It was, in a word, pleasant.
The most important takeaway, though, was confidence, as strange and corny as that may sound. In general, I have a lot of difficulty when it comes to believing in myself. I am constantly afraid that I’m not smart enough, or I’m not as competent as my peers, or new people I’m meeting won’t like me, or that I don’t really know how to write at all, ad infinitum. It all comes down to the fear that I can’t do it, whatever the “it” may be. I have a bad case of imposter’s syndrome. I live in a constantly nervous state.
As you can imagine, this is exhausting. But every time I made it to where I needed to be, or successfully checked into a hotel, or made a good decision about my itinerary, I felt more and more confident in my ability to take care of myself. There is no reason I should have problems with any of these things, of course — they’re simple things. But regardless, I still wasn’t sure I could pull it all off. This trip was like one big continuous test. Could I make the right moves this time? Next time? Every time until I landed back in the states?
Whenever some small thing went right, I got a little thrill. And now that I’m home, I can safely say that I did it. I am competent enough to get myself from place to place, to make the most of my vacation time. I don’t think I realized that I didn’t fully believe I could pull everything off until it was all over. On the other side of the trip, I truly am more confident in my ability to function as a normal, self-sufficient human being. And that’s a fantastic feeling.
I might have taken a rather cushy trip as far as abroad traveling goes, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t help me grow as a person. I learned about the logistics of traveling alone, the way Iceland harnesses geothermal energy, how to pronounce “glogg,” what the deal with the trolls are, how to roughly convert both Norwegian and Icelandic currencies to USD. Yet most of all, I learned that I can do it, whatever the “it” may be.
Bonus Scandinavian Bit:
I noticed that Scandinavia has a lot of lights. At first it was just a general impression, but then, while browsing in a Christmas store, I saw some star lanterns with a label that read “The Lights of Scandinavia.” Right then, I realized that the lights I’d been seeing in stores and houses were all variations of each other. It was really beautiful to be able to look around and see so many lanterns; almost every house had one, or multiple. Everything seemed so much brighter in Scandinavia, even if the sun only came out for a few hours.