I Went to Scandinavia All By Myself Like a Big Boy

by stephancox

Sitting in the Stockholm airport waiting to board my flight back to the US seems like as good a place as any to start my blog post about my first solo international trip. I likely won’t finish it here, nor will I finish it on the plane; I didn’t sleep well last night, mostly because I kept waking up in one-hour intervals, convinced I had overslept and missed my cab ride to the airport, even though I had set the alarm on both my iPhone and the clock radio, and had also phoned down for a wakeup call. This clearly a pattern with me—see my depiction of my night’s “sleep” before the marathon. In any event, I plan to be sawing serious logs once I’m on the plane.

Now, I’ve noticed an inverse relationship between how smoothly a Shit That Scares Me challenge goes and the funniness of the blog post that results from it. In other words, difficulties make for better comic fodder. That’s main reason why I decided to blog about this in the first place: if things go all pear-shaped during a challenge, at least I’ll have something funny to write about (see my Zen retreat). It is therefore with mixed emotion that I predict this will be one of my least funny blog posts. Because of all of the challenges I’ve attempted and completed, this has been by far the most revelatory, and certainly the most unreservedly enjoyable.

Traveling is fun; it’s why we do it. I’ve traveled a fair amount, and I’ve always had a great time. But I’ve always done it with at least one other person, someone with whom I can reflect or share a laugh about a particular incident, and so forth. Part of my fear of traveling alone was that I would miss having that someone with whom I could process the experience.

The thing is, once you acknowledge the fact that it’s just you, you get into a different mindset. You recognize that whatever memories you’ll be creating will be yours and yours alone, and you therefore become much more present. It’s a good thing, especially for someone like me whose mind tends to be all over the place. When you’re by yourself, bearing witness to a glorious sunset over a medieval city, or watching a procession of the Swedish Royal Guard ride by on horseback in formation through the center of town, you take it in more readily, because you realize it’s up to you, and only you, to do so. It’s hard to explain, but it’s very much true.

On a more selfish level, traveling alone is great because you call the shots. I’m an only child, so this part of the experience was a natural fit. I set my own itinerary, got up and went to bed when I wanted to, ate what and where I wanted to. I could go where I chose, and when I got tired of that, I could go someplace else. It reminded me all over again why I’m so incredibly glad to be a grownup. Not that I didn’t have a nice childhood, mind you, but the whole time I was growing up, I just couldn’t wait to get it the hell over with and be an adult so I could do whatever I wanted.

Speaking of being an adult, traveling as a grownup is a very different experience than traveling when you’re younger. I did regret at the time that I didn’t have the money to go backpacking across Europe when I graduated college, and I’m sure that would have been fun and life-changing, but the amount of freedom, not to mention security, you feel as a 43-year old man with a life and resources and a wallet full of credit cards, well, you can’t beat it with a stick. Not that sleeping in a sketchy hostel on the outskirts of town with a bunch of other noisy, stinky 20-somethings doesn’t completely rule. I’m sure that it does.

Now, on a practical level, I discovered that you really can’t do better Scandinavia for a first solo outing. First off, everyone, and I mean everyone, speaks English, and speaks it well. I learned how to ask, in both Norwegian and Swedish, if someone spoke English, but after awhile, I stopped asking. I think the reason everyone speaks it is because there’s a lot of interaction between the four Scandinavian countries (not to mention with the rest of Europe), and the one language they all learn and know in common is English. Additionally, the people I met were really helpful and cheerful. I read recently that both Norway and Sweden have a high happiness index among their citizens. I almost never saw anyone look unhappy or raise their voice in anger or be rude. Plus, Oh My God, are these people beautiful. Not all of them, mind you, but a high enough percentage that it’s kind of intimidating. And they bike and run everywhere, so they’re fit. And stylish. I know I’m talking about the cities here, so who knows if this holds true in the hinterlands, but the vast majority of people I met were nice, attractive, smart, fit, and happy. So say what you will about Socialism (or, actually, don’t), but something’s working for these people.

Did I get lonely? Not per se. I certainly missed my wife, but I always do when we’re apart, so that was to be expected. I met a number of very lovely people when I was out and about and had my conversation fix when I needed it, and afterwards they went their way and I went mine, just as the good lord intended. But the biggest factor in staving off loneliness was technology. I was always connected. Here’s where I give an enormous shout-out to my amazing wife for doing all of the hours of waiting on hold it took to get my phone set up for international service—man, was that amazing. I was able to text, check email, do all the stuff I do with my phone at home. Plus, I had free wifi in each of my hotel rooms, so Lori and I could Skype every night. I also could also check my Facebook, watch the Daily Show, listen to WNYC. And, because I brought my studio with me, I also did my regular voiceover auditions. Basically, when the door was closed on my hotel room at night, it didn’t feel all that different from my loft in New York.

I certainly won’t bore you with a blow-by-blow of my trip or post a bunch of photos, but let me sum up by saying that both Oslo and Stockholm are two of the most beautiful, charming, culturally rich cities I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit. I recommend them both highly. Oh, and the reason I went in the first place—the art show. It was lovely. This group of graduate student and professional artists had curated a show about creativity during the process of waiting. Therefore, everybody there had actually intended to create something that would wind up on the walls of a gallery. Except me. I confess felt a little silly, with my little goofy video, but nevertheless, it was received well. And there was free beer. So it was a win-win.

Summing up, traveling alone is an enormously enriching and empowering experience that I hope everyone gets to have. I know I’ll be doing it again. And again. I can’t wait. Seems a little arbitrary to give myself a grade on something that was so unequivocally positive and enjoyable, but here goes. Solo travel: A.