Reflecting on the semester during which I studied abroad, I spent one of my most memorable days in Monserrat, a beautiful mountain area located less than an hour from the outskirts of Barcelona. Standing on a ledge overlooking the rolling hills and winding roads, I realized how much time had passed since I had experienced a peaceful, quiet moment such as this one. Away from the bustling city streets that had become my life for the past two months, I soaked in the serenity of the mountains.
My friend and I visited Montserrat together, but on our hike, we passed only a handful of people. We spent most of our time there in silence, surrounded only by the sounds of the wind and occasional birds. At one point, we stopped to sit on a ledge and journal. Monsterrat provided the perfect change of pace to the crowded tourist attractions and loud streets that had preoccupied the rest of our time in Barcelona, and until going, I didn’t realize how much I needed this day spent away from others.
In a sense, I went into my study abroad experience alone, knowing no one in the country and having just met the other students in my program. While we quickly became friends, I began my time in France without having real connections to anyone there. When we began planning trips to other cities in France, I went on those trips out of a desire to experience those various cities, not simply to go along with what others were doing. We went to a wine museum in Bordeaux, a robotic animal park in Nantes, abandoned warfare towers in La Rochelle. I traveled with people who had similar traveling styles to mine, and we traveled for the sake of experiencing the culture, not for each other.
I did not travel alone during the majority of my time abroad, but I rarely felt as if I was catering to someone else’s needs. If I wanted to eat at a certain restaurant, I ate there; if I wanted to visit a museum, I went. But I found that when I did travel alone, or even had a day to myself, that time always felt incredibly rewarding.
In America, we often consider alone time to be something you do in the privacy of your home. In college, when I felt overwhelmed by school or people, I retreated to my dorm room. Yet I experienced alone time while traveling in a different sense. I didn’t seek it out because I felt like I needed to get away, but because I genuinely wanted to spend a day or two by myself. I don’t recall the last time I ate alone at a restaurant in the States, with the exception of working over a laptop in a coffee shop, the epitome of an American alone in public. Yet in France, I sometimes sat on the terraces of cafés for hours, accompanied only by a journal and a café crème. I challenged myself to eat meals alone, enjoying my food without the distraction of technology.
Although I only had a little over a week in London with two of my best friends, I spent one afternoon by myself, visiting a couple of the city’s famous bookstores. I treated myself to overpriced truffles from a bakery counter, wandered the streets to find picture-worthy spots, and lost myself between floors of every book imaginable. If I hadn’t visited Hatchards and Waterstones that afternoon, I would have regretted missing out on that defining aspect of the city.
One of my favorite weekends during my semester abroad occurred when I spent a day alone in Paris. Although I had spent moments alone over the past three months, I had not had a full twenty-four hours to myself since arriving in France. I went to Shakespeare & Co. in the morning and wandered the streets of the Latin Quarter in the afternoon, stumbling upon tiny stores and non-touristy restaurants. I sat at a café writing and people-watching, then checked into my Airbnb and made myself dinner for the first time in months. The next morning, I went to a mass service at Sacré-Coeur and wrote for several hours outside a café in a quiet section of the city.
Until I spent the weekend alone, I hadn’t realized how much I needed that time to myself. I fully appreciated the value of exploring a city on my own, even just for a day, moving at the speed I wanted and enjoying time devoted to writing. This became self-care: it didn’t have to take the form of a closed door or an early bedtime, but instead, miles walked and pages written.
I ended my four months in France by climbing up the hill to Sacré-Coeur in the early morning, giving myself just enough time before my early afternoon flight to look out over the slowly awakening city.
I needed this moment alone, standing at one of the highest points in Paris in front of a silent cathedral on an early Thursday morning, after citizens went to work or school and before tourists and vendors crowded the hill. After four months of exploring and experiencing and learning, the silence and the beauty in this place perfectly culminated my time abroad, ending with a promise to return, à la prochaine.