I bought the train ticket to Caen on impulse. I knew exactly one fact about the coastal French town: It’s located just a few miles from the Normandy landing beach where American troops launched their offensive against German forces in Nazi-occupied France. Intrigued by this bit of history, my research ended there. When I boarded the train bound for Caen from Paris in the summer of 2013, I didn’t have a hotel room booked or a map saved to my iPhone (this was before Google Maps was ubiquitous). I didn’t know the name of a single restaurant. My overnight stay in Caen, as you can probably imagine, was a total disaster.
I had been in France all of four days when I decided to take my little detour, and I spent most of that time paralyzed by anxiety and hunger. Afraid of being laughed at by waiters because I didn’t speak a word of French, I had to gather my courage on the street before stepping into a restaurant. Crushed by jet lag, I roused myself in the late afternoon and then spent the rest of the day trying to hit all the tourist spots before closing time. I was, in other words, totally unprepared for what traveling alone would mean: There was no one to wake me up, tell me to get moving, or back me up when I felt nervous asking a stranger for directions (or to see the lunch menu).
So the trip to Caen was, thinking back on it, probably an opportunity to prove to myself that I could do it. That I could emerge, on my own, in this totally unfamiliar place, unscathed. But the second I got off the train at Gare de Caen, I knew I made a mistake. As the panic set in (I had absolutely no idea where I was!), I followed the crowds to the center of town and walked into hotel after hotel looking for a room. Everything was booked. I wandered around downtown Caen so distracted by the prospect of sleeping outside for a night that I couldn’t tell you a single feature of the town besides the fact that it’s surrounded by steep hills — a fact I remember solely because I walked up and down most of them looking for an empty hotel.
As daylight began to fade, I realized I was not only temporarily homeless but also lost. I was genuinely scared, probably the most afraid simply standing alone on the sidewalk I have ever been. I considered tracking down a police officer and appealing to him or her for assistance, but I pulled the straps of my backpack onto my shoulders, took a few deep but very unsteady breaths, and kept walking. Eventually, I found a hotel, and so exhausted by the ordeal, I stayed in my room all night watching reruns of Supernatural in French.
Generally, I think it’s a good idea to ask for help if you really need it. And it’s also important to note that I never felt any external threat — except perhaps the next day when I got catcalled outside the train station, but that happens to me in America, too. But I was embarrassed for myself, for how badly I had messed up and put myself in potential danger. So I decided that I would have to fix it for myself, and I’m glad that I did. Standing on the sidewalk in Caen, the thought that changed my life forever dawned on me: You are enough. You’re clever enough and tough enough to figure this out. I stopped hearing I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, and a much clearer voice announced, You can.
Getting myself to safety made me feel powerful. I was 23 at the time, in graduate school in New York City, and yet very much sheltered and looked after. My dad paid my rent. In college, I worked at American Apparel to support myself, but other than that I had never had a full-time job outside of school. But this I had done myself. My day and night in Caen was a gateway to real independence, to the idea that I am capable of taking care of myself, even when it feels inconvenient and difficult. I learned to manage my fear (not to overcome it — fear kept me alert, a yellow light blinking in my head that would turn to red if and when I lost control of the situation). In turn, I earned a new skill: self-reliance.
Later in the month, I would hop on another train, this time to Brussels. I picked a cheap ticket, which meant I had to wait for my connection to Munich overnight. I felt a bit like Sal Paradise in On the Road, drinking endless cups of coffee from a vending machine so I wouldn’t fall asleep until my train arrived in the early hours of the morning, but I was not afraid. Maybe I should have been, but I wasn’t. Because I had become the keeper of secret but powerful knowledge: that I am capable, up to a reasonable limit, of not just existing, but thriving alone.
This is an important lesson for anyone traveling alone to learn,