Last December I needed a break from the United States. Still recovering from post-election shock, I dedicated the holiday season to focus on self-care. For me, this comes in the form of grabbing my passport, a backpack, and shoving it full with books and maps to a place I’ve never been. The plan was to meet my family in Berlin at Christmas, but prior to our overseas reunion I was going to make my way through some personal unclaimed European territory...alone.
Over the years, I’ve planted the solo travel seed into my life. It’s started to define me in a way I never suspected it would and now I revel in the feeling of being surrounded by the strange, the unknown. Growing up I was afraid to spend time alone, but once I saw it as a challenge that I wanted to win, I finally understood the benefits and became addicted to the idea. I get to spend time in a beautiful place and get to be whoever I want—and on this trip I just didn’t want to be American. I wanted to be lost. And I wanted adventures. Per usual.
I flew into Budapest, eager to be swept up by cold winds and warmed by spiced mulled wine. Upon arrival, I made my way to the city center, found my hostel, and started walking. Hardly looking at my map, I wandered toward the cathedral towers looming above the city’s buildings and found the Christmas markets. Breakfast meats roasted over the fire coals, mixed berries warmed the air from their cauldrons, cinnamon sprinkled dough smoked before my eyes. My Los Angeles blood was frozen solid, but I could feel the sparks of excitement in my gut.
By 4:30 PM, the sky fell to black so I walked along the water watching the riverboats light up the Danube until I couldn’t feel my toes. In that moment I felt like I made a mistake and hadn’t thought my trip through. I was absolutely freezing and had two weeks to kill before meeting my family. And I didn’t know Hungarian, or German, or Czech. A slight fear started to fester from my inability to communicate. I took a hot shower and went to bed, hoping to shake it off by morning.
The next day, my attitude changed. I was ready to seize every opportunity to immerse into the culture I knew nothing about. The best way to do this? WALK. I walked through the opera house, the synagogue, and the history museum. I walked across Chain Bridge to Castle Hill and let the foggy slush fall on my face. I wandered through the delicately built Basilica marveling at the time builders spent on all the ornate details. Nothing about the process was immediate, which was something I vowed to remember as I live my impatient life.
Another perk when traveling solo is taking yourself to dinner. I found myself at Kozmosz Vegan Etterem, a Hungarian vegetarian restaurant near the river where I could try goulash like everyone else and I conversed with my waitress solely by smiling. Before catching my train to Vienna the next morning, I scoured the streets for a mulled wine nightcap and ran into another traveler from my hostel. He knew Budapest like the back of his hand and took me to some of the underground ruin bars.
Budapest ruin bars were created from the abandoned buildings after WWII, and are virtually unseen from the street. Each bar is its own glorified thrift store, with different themes in each room and eclectic art strewn throughout the maze-like structure. They are easy to get lost in, which is basically why I came to Europe. Needless to say, they were my favorite find in Budapest. Open till early morning, Instant had me dancing to a live Polish rapper/rock band and I happily left knowing I caught a glimpse of Budapest’s wonderfully kitschy nightlife.
Freedom - the feeling I get from holding my next train ticket. I took my freedom and ventured to Vienna, Austria. A Swiss girl I briefly met in LA offered to find me housing with a mutual friend. This is another thing I love about traveling; it connects you to people you would never usually meet. A minor acquaintance becomes a travel buddy who becomes a lifelong friend. She took me all over the city, which is formed by 23 districts. We started at District 1 and worked our way out. Her tour was extensive and I immediately fell head over heels for Vienna’s artistic culture, historic buildings, and overall jaw-dropping beauty. I have never felt so connected to a city in such a short time, it genuinely freaked me out. Vienna is charming and elegant, as are the people who live there.
After a few days of Austrian cafes and endless ingwer punsch, I did something I never do. I threw my ticket to Salzburg in the trash and stayed in Vienna. I wasn’t ready to leave. I was learning what it meant to be a Weltbürger, a “world citizen,” finding a home somewhere I never thought I would. By the time I left, I had perused the 14th century books in the National library and transformed into an old Austrian man that drank tea all day.
From Vienna, I made my way to the Alps. I journeyed to Innsbruck, a winter sports haven that is tucked between the mountains, hidden away like Narnia. The streets are lined with old buildings the colors of Easter eggs. A river runs through the town and everything is built against the Alps, keeping the sun at a too far away distance by early afternoon. Although the city was lacking in the snow department for late December, I journeyed up into the mountains for a brisk walk through the forest to continue my journey of getting lost. Innsbruck is different from every angle, and looking down from the mountaintop, the city was glowing.
I spent the evening walking through Old Town listening to a brass band playing Christmas carols from a nearby rooftop. I had a marvelous meal at die Wilderin where the bartender translated the whole menu for me and gave me a Christmas shot of spicy Schnaps. I guess if you live in such a beautiful place it’s easy to be incessantly nice to tourists. I met a friend of my Swiss hosts’ at Cafe Bar Mustache and got the millennial tour of Innsbruck, which was adorable. The bars that the locals hang out in are hidden from tourists and filled with kids avoiding the cold. I love that in a strange place everything can become so familiar when you meet the right person. She took me around the city and I let the reflection of the full moon on the river guide me back to my hotel.
Feeling refreshed from the cool, mountain air and new international friends, I hopped on the train to Prague to meet my best friend for her first European excursion. We spent the days walking through castles and buying all the antique art and spent the evenings eating delicious food. Eventually, we got on a train to meet my family in Berlin.
Berlin was a beautiful city with a looming dark energy of the Christmas market terrorist attack earlier that week. Once I met up with the whole family, I was excited to celebrate Christmas with everyone, but when we came together I realized that all the time I spent alone over the last two weeks, I actually wasn’t. I met new, unexpected friends and ultimately became more of a friend to myself while feeding my desire to get lost. This trip reminded me that when facing my fears of being alone, the rewards are infinite. I grew as a traveler by pushing myself and found my true citizenship as a human. I was no longer defined as just American; I was a Weltbürger.
Juliana Jurenas grew up outside Washington D.C. and made the move to Los Angeles three years ago. She works at a recording studio by day and runs around swing dancing by night. California developed her love for backpacking and traveling has always been where she's most comfortable.