Bravery Is Not A Prerequisite
“Brave” is a word that surfaces a lot when I mention that I travel alone. Extended family, my parents’ friends, and even some of my peers insist on telling me that’s what I am: because I’m young, because I’m female, because I’m by myself–– because, supposedly, anywhere outside of America is fraught with an excess of danger (and even the parts of America that aren’t familiar often seem suspect). I’ve felt many things while traveling: anxiety, loitering in my third Italian post office of the day, not knowing if I need a slip of paper in order to be called up to the counter; inferiority, when the waiter in Paris switches smoothly to English, my pronunciation of items on the menu an atrocious mangling of French; exhaustion, as I continually manage to sit in the wrong train seat in England. What I don’t believe I’ve ever felt is brave.
The internet abounds with strong, independent female travelers making their way, solo, across the globe. I read their blogs and browse their Instagram accounts, and I enjoy watching their fearless explorations across all seven continents. They represent the sort of person people assume I am, when they say that I am brave. But I am well-aware of not being that bold. It’s unlikely that I could make myself go camping, alone, in the middle of nowhere, and I get nauseous just thinking about swimming with sharks. I can get pretty freaked out just taking a taxi by myself.
No one who’s told me that traveling alone makes me brave has ever actually seen me travel. They haven’t watched me, desperately hungry but numbingly exhausted, go to sleep without dinner for the second night in a row, because I can’t bring myself to sit in public for the hour it would take to eat. They haven’t seen me speed-walk down a city street at night, trying my best to pray like Franny Glass, because otherwise I’d be too terrified to walk home. They don’t believe in my incessant ability to get lost, no matter how many times I look at Google Maps (and how I hate looking at my phone while out and about, convinced it will turn me, in the eyes of the people I’m certain are watching, not only into a definite tourist, but also a lost one).
I am not brave. I am, usually, to some extent, scared. And overwhelmed. Or nervous, or tired. In order to leave my hotel room, I sometimes have to bribe myself with ice cream or a library. Not in one single city have I made it to all the museums, restaurants, or historical landmarks I’d hoped to. For me, a good day is often finding a café, or bookstore, or park, and sitting for a few hours, admitting to myself that that is all I’m going to have the energy to do. A great deal of my traveling is done on foot, tricking myself into seeing huge swaths of cities by walking between bookshops and restaurants I’ve heard have good hot chocolate.
But I keep traveling, because some deep part of me, underneath all the queasiness, really likes walking down new streets or striking out across unknown fields, loves approaching a building I’ve only read about, or discovering the most achingly beautiful place I’ve ever seen. I wish I could explain, when someone says, “I could never travel alone like that, I’m not brave enough,” that bravery is not a necessity or prerequisite to travel. You can love a thing and be bad at it, or at least, not an expert. I’m clumsy and uneasy and overstimulated, bumbling my way across countries, landing myself on the wrong train platforms, getting lost going in a straight line. Bravery isn’t necessary, but patience and self-knowledge are. Enough to know when to stop and sit in a park, or get something to eat, or recognize it’s time to get into a cab. Enough acceptance and self-awareness to know that, for some of us, sitting in a restaurant in Italy, avoiding the crowds on Liberation Day, is the best we can do. And that you can still see the parade go by, right outside the window.
Caitlyn Kinsella is an itinerant bibliophile and lover of long words. She can be found wandering both sides of the Atlantic, usually lost. Her fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Drum Literary Magazine and the Washington Square Review.