How did Lorraine manage to travel solo across 21 countries? Like this.

Last month I visited London for two days. As with every short break I’ve taken during the past three years, I scrunched and squeezed unnecessary hosiery into every corner of a standard cabin bag. Apart from the swearing, I also wondered how, over the summer of 2015, I managed to travel solo across 21 countries by train with nothing but a small backpack as my mobile home.

Let’s wind this back. Why would anyone take off on their own for 14 weeks? For me it was this. Newly single at 48, I had accepted a highly paid job in the Middle East after five years of misery, bereavement and almost drowning in a whirlpool of debt. A new life in the desert was due to start in September. It was March 2015. My house and 99% of my possessions had gone – sold, given away, charity shopped, or skipped, leaving me with two suitcases of memories. As a freelance writer, I could live anywhere, so my oldest friend from school offered shelter in his commodious Glasgow flat until Abu Dhabi called.

Dampening the enjoyment of our laugh-until-we-cried evenings with Sauvignon Blanc and RuPaul’s Drag Race was a nagging doubt about the job. As enjoyable as this 24/7 slumber party was, I needed space to think. And as solid as our friendship was and still is, he deserved a little respite from a house guest. There was money available, now that the mortgage and bills were gone, so travelling seemed to be the answer. I told my friend I was heading off for a month of Interrailing; my own 21st century version of the Grand Tour. He was sceptical.

When one month became two, other friends started to look at me quizzically/worriedly/jealously with responses ranging from “No! You might get kidnapped!” to “I wish I could do that.” They also expected that I would blog about it, or at least fill their social media feeds with lengthy posts accompanied by colourful photographs of medieval market squares and hearty European dishes. That wouldn’t be happening. The whole point of getting away was just that.

However, as a writer, it would seem strange to embark on a journey of this scale without documenting it. I knew, from previous book publishing experiences, how long it could take to get a deal agreed, so six weeks before departing I started a Crowdfunder page, which was essentially a way for those who were interested to pre-order the book I would write on my return. The money would then be put away to finance the editing, design, printing, and distribution of the book that I would write on the 21st storey of an air-conditioned Abu Dhabi apartment block. That was the plan. The Crowdfunder succeeded – so the pressure was on.

Cancelling a regular work contract due to start in the summer, the trip was extended to three and a half months. I would then have two or three weeks on my return to say my goodbyes, repack my two suitcases and head for the sun. The idea was, as far as possible, to play it by ear with minimum planning and luggage. It would be 14 weeks of basic grooming, wearing glasses rather than contact lenses, dressing for comfort, and travelling light.

Finally we’re back to those packing skills. Managing to fit everything into a backpack that didn’t even cover the whole of my back was a worthy challenge. Every side pocket and zipped compartment was used judiciously, planned for easy access to essentials.

When it was time to head off, I boarded the Eurostar to Brussels on a wet and windy Sunday morning in May. And then… well that would be decided from day to day.
The Interrail pass provided a great deal of freedom, although, as I discovered, some trains needed additional reservations. A little more planning might have helped there. But as long as my phone was charged and I could find Wi-Fi (mobile data was for emergencies) I could book accommodation on the day, using the Interrail app for train times.

Between that first day and boarding the return Eurostar in September, there were 21 countries, 58 towns and cities (always trying to avoid obvious destinations where possible), and around 12000 miles of travel. Most of this was by train, but there were a few ferries and an evening coach, over the Bosnian mountains from Sarajevo to Split in a thunderstorm. If you would like the whistle-stop tour, come with me to Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, through Germany to Switzerland, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Italy, Monaco, France… home.

I visited places that I hadn’t even heard of before the trip, simply looking at a map on my hostel bed and doing scant research. I had no regrets over ending up in places such as Odense, Texel island, Norrköping, Cesky Krumlov, Eger, Kosice, Sighișoara and Katowice. In fact, the more challenging the destination the more enjoyable it was, trying to work out which platform my train would leave from when the departure boards were written in various forms of Cyrillic.

I realised one day why that was. The previous five years had knocked my confidence to the floor and given it a good kicking. Travelling alone to this extent meant that I had to make every decision and work out every problem. Before I left, I had been told how “brave” I was for embarking on this. Most of my friends had said they couldn’t face a weekend away alone, never mind a whole summer. I didn’t see that. I had travelled solo before, albeit for much shorter periods. It didn’t feel brave to me.

However, being alone had meant that certain experiences – the romance of the twinkling lights in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens for example – weren’t for the solo traveller. On the night I wandered aimlessly through Budapest and got so lost that I ended up in the middle of an industrial estate in the dark, and with men catcalling from the doors of lock-ups, yeah, I was pretty terrified and had no idea how to get back to the station for my night train. I could have done with a friend then.

Most of the time being alone was ideal. I could go where I wanted, when I wanted, and for however long I wanted. There were no compromises and I could indulge my interests.

Who says you can’t go to the ABBA Museum in Stockholm twice or spend time holding back tears at the cemeteries in Sarajevo that cover so much of the hillside behind the city, a constant reminder of the three year siege during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s?

This was a completely personalised experience and nothing a tour guide could ever achieve.

One Monday I was eating a cheese toastie and drinking apple juice at about 2600m above sea level at the top of the Nordkette mountain in Austria, the next I would be making a snap decision to jump off a train in Brno, the second city of the Czech Republic. Or being awoken from my sleep on a night train to Serbia, by a border guard jabbing me in the arm with his gun and telling to take my feet off the seats.

The variety of experiences on the journey was the absolute joy of it. I had almost nailed hobo chic, which was fine for the lengthy train trips – 14 hours on a delayed service from Zagreb to Sarajevo – but got a few haughty glances from the uber-groomed ladies in Monaco.

And Abu Dhabi? Nah. That was junked within a month of leaving London. With the space to think that I knew travelling would give me, I realised what a bloody stupid idea it was. I was moving for money, nothing else. All I really needed was this break before making a new start – “the power of the pause” as I now call it.

So I rented a flat in Dundee, sight unseen, to go back to. I had to start again with everything from teaspoons to a telly. I had been off the freelance writing hamster wheel for a few months so I got back on. It could have been the time to have a complete career change but the experience made me realise that I was probably OK at what I was doing, I just needed that “power of the pause” once in a while.

The book became Facing Forwards – Europe. Solo. No Looking Back. It was released to the Crowdfunders and other buyers in early 2016, written in a few-month frenzy to maintain honesty and avoid rewriting history to make myself seem cleverer or more interesting than I really am.

The journey changed me in ways that I still find beneficial. I trust myself more, I know what’s important, and for the first time I respect myself. The packing skills need work. Because it’s time for the next big adventure.

Words Lorraine Wilson

If you’re interested in reading Facing Forwards, it is available in print and Kindle on Amazon.

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