Finding Myself (Whatever that Means)
I didn’t grow up with a family that had much interest in extensive traveling. My mom says its because we’re farmers, and all we know is to stay in one place. She took me and my brother to Disneyland in California when I was in sixth grade, and we’ve talked about going to Ireland one day since it’s where our ancestors originated, but there just hasn’t been a good time so far. My dad’s side was a little more restless, but it was mostly repeated trips with my grandparents to Pigeon Forge or to a beach in Florida or South Carolina. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining; I’m extremely grateful for those trips and the time I got to spend with my family, but at the same time, I ached to experience something beyond the sand.
The first cross-country trip I went on without parental supervision was to Alaska with my best friend to visit her sister, a post-graduation present from my parents. I was extremely fortunate to be able to tag along on that trip because at that point in my life, being fresh out of high school, traveling was never something that was easily within my reach, or at least I didn’t think it was. Whatever money I had leftover from working part-time was spent on clothes and nights out with my friends; the same friends that I wanted to travel with, but whose priorities didn’t line up with mine. I got lucky again my senior year of college by getting almost all expenses covered to go to San Francisco for a PRSSA conference and I rode that high for awhile, but after graduating and getting my first real job, I started becoming overwhelmed with envy of all of my social media friends who were going on road trips across the US and spending weeks overseas. I wanted that more than anything. I love Nashville and I’m thankful to have a place that I consider home, but I need to get out from time to time and see the rest of the world.
Part of the reason I broke up with my last boyfriend was because he didn’t want to travel. I planned a trip for us to Charleston, SC, and while we did have fun, he wouldn’t have cared if we had just stayed home. When I asked him once why he didn’t seem to care about traveling, he said there were already too many things around here he hadn’t seen yet. He wasn’t making an effort to see those places either, but that’s another story. With that breakup came a drive to do something completely out of my comfort zone, mostly out of fear that when I finally did meet someone new that I would be trapped again and unable to travel like I’ve found myself in so many relationships before. So at the end of last year, after counting all of my Christmas money, I randomly decided I was going to New York to see an old college friend. He hooked me up with a cheap place to stay, I booked a round trip plane ticket for $250, and marked my calendar for May 18-24.
I anticipated the trip every month leading up to it, building up unrealistic expectations and playing potential encounters out in my head like they were scenes from an indie movie. But when it was a week out, I was nearly nauseous from anxiety. I was scared of so many aspects of the trip, all brought on by my overwhelming and unnecessary sense of paranoia that has unfortunately plagued me for years. I mentally prepared myself for everything that could possibly go wrong: missing my flight, getting on the wrong flight, losing my luggage, getting on the wrong subway train, not being able to read the subway map, falling on train tracks and being run over a la House of Cards, getting lost in the city, getting mugged, getting murdered, getting mugged and then murdered, running out of money, eating in restaurants alone, my phone battery dying before I can use my maps app to get to the subway platform, etc. Take this time to be thankful that you don’t live inside my head.
I knew ahead of time that I would be spending the majority of the trip wandering around by myself because my friend worked second shift almost an hour away from his apartment, so he was gone from 2-11pm. I told myself that it would be a good opportunity to “find myself”, whatever that means. I read plenty of essays by people my age who had traveled by themselves and actually enjoyed it, and it gave me confidence that I could do the same. I wouldn’t have to worry about catering to someone else’s travel agenda or rely on another person to make my fun for me. Most importantly, if I got tired of walking around, I could cop out and take a nap whenever I wanted. I was excited at the opportunity to set my own schedule and to have the options to change my plans on a whim.
All of the anxiety I felt about my flight turned out to be for nothing, which was a major relief. I made it to LaGuardia and then to Brooklyn with no complications, and the reality of where I was really started to sink in when we pulled up to the beautiful brownstones of Park Slope, where I stayed with a lovely family who had two cats that kept me company on the couch at night and helped ease the pain of missing my own cat back home.
My friend took me out into the city to show me the ropes before he let me fly on my own. We got a traditional New York pizza slice and he explained that the subway was not the horrifying contraption that I made it out to be in my mind. We walked through Chinatown then all the way up to Grand Central Station, where I stood in the middle of the room and admired how big it was and how small I was in comparison. Then he asked if I wanted to go through Times Square, and I unabashedly said yes. I wasn’t afraid of looking like a tourist because I was a tourist. But after a few minutes of wading through a swarm of people clamoring over each other to get to whichever corporate clothing store was on that corner, I quickly realized that Times Square was not where I wanted to hang out, so we bolted. At least now I can say that I’ve been, I guess.
I pretty much flew by the seat of my pants for the rest of the week, which is something I rarely do in my routine life, so I wasn’t expecting to be as comfortable with it in a foreign environment as I was. I had a basic game plan of which part of town I would be in before I left the apartment, but everything else unfolded organically. The only real setback was that I had somehow managed to underestimate just how much I was going to be walking around, so by day four, my feet were covered in blisters and I had sprained my right ankle from trying to walk in a way that would avoid popping them. If I didn’t look like a tourist before, I certainly did after that. But as much as I winced every time I took a slow, hobbled step, I was determined not to let that ruin my trip.
It was impossible to do everything I wanted in just seven days, which was such a crazy concept to me because this was a much longer vacation than I had ever taken before. I tried to prioritize based on what I actually cared about seeing vs. what I felt like I should see. It’s much easier said than done, because at the end of the day, I still came back to the apartment feeling like I should have made better use of my time. It wasn’t until after I got back to Nashville that I really started to recognize the value in where I went and the things I saw.
I stood in awe of the World Trade Center. I went into the 9/11 museum and walked around the room filled with pictures of those who lost their lives that day, and as cliche as it sounds, I cried. I walked around in Battery Park and looked out over the harbor, almost unable to believe I was really there. I wandered around Chinatown and went to a restaurant where I ordered sesame chicken, the most Americanized dish of Chinese food ever, but it was still a million times better. I read a book underneath a tree in Central Park. I explored the Met and became incredibly overwhelmed by how many exhibits there were and how many installations I couldn’t possibly have time to take in. I met up with another friend who took me to Soho where my willpower was seriously tested by all of the gorgeous clothes that I knew I shouldn’t buy. I went to the High Line in Chelsea, a park built on top of an old railway, and laid down in the grass amongst a bunch of strangers and stared up at the sky. I met a cute ginger man who took me out for drinks and showed me his collection of jazz records. I ate the most amazing fries with garlic aoli from a food truck at Brooklyn Flea and went out of my way to go to Shake Shack like everyone recommended. On Sunday, the final day, I got up early and took the train out to Coney Island and ate a hot dog on the beach. A tiny part of me wished I could just stay there and start over, but I went back to Nashville with a stronger sense of who I was than I had felt in a long time.
I tested myself more than I initially realized by going on this little journey, and it mostly, if not fully, related to being alone. I was worried about not being able to fend for myself as a solo traveler, but I was more concerned with setting myself up to succumb to loneliness, which I had been trying to fight off (or adjust to) for several months before the trip. Being in such a fast-paced city gave me an entirely new perspective on being alone because I was constantly surrounded by so many people who were also alone, or at least they were in a physical sense. You didn’t see couples casually strolling down the street so much as people walking hurriedly past you coming to or from work. The people on the subway weren’t sitting across from me and judging me because I was by myself, because they were too. And while I know that likely wasn’t happening in Nashville either, I didn’t really realize it until I was in a different city.
It took awhile after returning to Nashville for me to recover from my week in NYC, both physically and financially. My twisted foot only got worse as I continued to walk on it, so I spent the next week at work with it propped up on a chair with an ice pack. The safety net in my bank account was officially gone and I had to adapt to living paycheck to paycheck again for a few months afterwards, but I don’t regret anything. I try to apply my mindset from that week to my daily life now when it comes to accepting that I’m alone and not letting it destroy me. It’s still a struggle sometimes, but I would hate to think of where I would be right now if it wasn’t for that crucial experience of clarity. I proved to myself that I could survive a week alone in NYC, and that was all I needed.