by Abby Kolodge
For 3 weeks I would travel throughout Europe on my own.
Never had I traveled so far or for so long. I spent months booking hostels and AirBnB’s, making sure I had a way to get from point A to point B. Saving every last penny I could. Day dreaming about walking down the narrow, cobblestoned streets of France and Italy in absolute bliss. Imagining the feeling of empowerment and pride I would feel while I was there, alone and living my best life, one I had never seen or felt before. Still…no amount of planning and preparation prepared me for what I experienced.
Day 2 : Paris
I woke in the early morning, figuring that since I slept well my first night I was ready for the day ahead of me. But my body was anxious, and how I was feeling mentally wasn’t matching up. So I decided to do what I do best, keep myself busy. I spent the entire day walking around in circles trying to find a store where I could purchase wifi, arriving only to be told they couldn’t help me.. I was wiped, and still couldn’t manage to get over my anxiety. I forced myself to eat, only to throw it all up less than 30 minutes later. 200 flights of stairs and 9 miles later, I pushed myself to take part in a free walking tour hoping that I could meet some people. To my pleasant surprise I met another girl, and we made plans to have dinner together.
We met at my hostel that evening. We purchased several bottles of wine, and numerous breads and cheeses from the cafe across the street. For the first time I no longer felt that pit of anxiety resting in my stomach. I was happy.
I stumbled into my room unsure of what had just happened. There was a man who had chatted with us during our dinner, and we ran into him later in the evening. He was clearly intoxicated, but so was I. I walked with him down the street back to our hostel, and put my arm around him to make sure that he wouldn’t fall. Before I even knew what was happening, he was pulling up my shirt in the middle of the street and shoving his tongue down my throat. I urged him to stop…we were so close to the hostel. My room was a few floors above his, so he followed me up. Stopping at his floor, he pushed me up against the wall, grabbing my boobs, his tongue down my throat again. I was turning my head away as much as I could, but the man was twice my size, if not more. He grabbed my ass and lifted me off the ground, once again shoving me into the wall, only this time he stopped because there was a painting above my head. I slammed into and it fell. I took the opportunity and left.
Day 3: Paris
The next day, I was bedridden, unable to come to terms with the fact that I had been sexually assaulted, and that person was still close by. I was sick to my stomach. How had something so terrible already happened in such a short period of time? I left early in the morning eager to do something with my day, but I was so ill with anxiety. The 6+ years I studied French helped me find a taxi back to the hostel, but that wasn’t the hard part. We had a long way to go and it only fueled my anxiety.
I was still confused about the previous evening, I was coming down from what appeared to be a hangover, and my stomach was back to convincing me that I had something to be seriously worried about. I sat in the back with the window rolled down. I held my essential oil roller halfway up my nose to try to calm myself. It felt like a lifetime before the car finally came to a stop and I was able to get out. Where the driver dropped me off was less than ideal…in front of one of the most infamous churches in Paris, Sacre Coeur, or the Church of the Sacred Heart.
It was a beautiful day out, so naturally there were hundreds of people, tourists and locals alike, out and about. How ironic?, I thought to myself, that I was feeling the lowest I had felt at the highest point in the city.
Day 4 : Paris/Versailles
Day 3 in Paris had been far from dreamy and romantic, but I wanted to make up for it. I contacted the girl I met on my second day and we decided to take a day trip to one of the most visited places in France–Versailles. The passage required a 45 minute train ride. The ticket kiosks at the station were less straightforward than I had hoped, but I took my time and purchased them without hassle. Little did I know, I had purchased tickets to the wrong location, and the men checking our tickets made sure we felt like fools because of it.They laughed in my face and gave me what was equivalent to a $50 ticket.
Versailles was no better. I had looked forward to seeing the massive palace and expansive garden after having studied it for 6+ years in undergrad art history courses, but the staff only continued to take advantage of us. We had to purchase an additional ticket for the garden after previously being told the tickets I originally purchased were good for both the palace and the garden. Later on, we were also told that we couldn’t go back into the Palace after walking through the gardens, and the ticket we purchased was a one entrance only ticket…even though we hadn’t entered the palace at all. More than ever, I felt I had been scammed and wanted to get the fuck out of Paris.
Day 6 : Paris to Italy
I had never been so excited to leave somewhere in my life, so I made sure to get to the airport extra early. I enjoyed a coffee and some breakfast while downloading podcasts onto my phone and going through photos I had taken. It felt like things were looking up until I made the mistake of leaving my phone in a bathroom stall. I went back for it less than a minute after I realized–and it was nowhere to be found. I hoped for the best in people and went to the lost and found where I proceeded to have a full panic attack in front of several strangers. I had no way to contact anyone to let them know what had happened.I did not know what I was going to do if it didn’t get returned. I had to wait, not only for my panic attack to subside, but to be helped. There were people ahead of me in line at the lost and found, and this only added my already full fledged panic attack. What if I didn’t get the help in time ? What if I had to miss my flight and my entire trip would be flipped upside down ?
I was eventually seen to, but that did little to ease me in my frantic state. The staff members didn’t see that anyone had returned my phone, and the stress of playing the waiting game crept up on me. I waited for hours. Still, nothing. At this point I was unsure what would become of my trip, should I just end it here and head home ? That’s certainly what I wanted to do. A woman working in the lost and found allowed me to borrow a phone to call my loved ones and let them know what was going on. The only phone numbers I had memorized were those of my mom, dad and brother. I called each of them several times before my mom finally picked up. I cried to her over the phone and she explained to me why it wasn’t the end of the world. She said I needed to continue my trip, and that it would be stupid of me to walk away because of this. So I left the lost and found, I left Paris, and I left my lifeline.
Day 9 : Rome
Being without my phone left me feeling super vulnerable and anxious for my first few days in Italy. I had this dark pit in my stomach and lingering thoughts that made me feel like I was incapable without my phone, like I had failed myself.. I did all I could to ignore this feeling and find the joy in each individual day. I made it a point to be out of the hostel as much as possible, spending endless hours at various museums and walking the length of the city to simply see. By the end of my second day in Rome, something had shifted for me. I had seen the Pantheon, the Trevii Fountain, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, the Piazza del Popolo, the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, and the Spanish steps all in one day. I bought myself my first peice of clothing since being on the trip at some Italian Forever 21. I took a bus during rush hour, crammed in with the 50 or so other people, and was yelled at by a woman in Italian. Laying in bed that night, I felt comfort for the first time on my trip. I didn’t know why or how it had come, but I welcomed it with open arms.
Day 11 : Rome
I came down with the flu. Quarantined to the bed in my hostel, I began to lose hope over what had become of my trip. I had far too much time on my hands to over analyze and criticize everything leading up to this point. I felt stupid. I felt stupid for getting drunk in Paris that one night, which eventually lead to me being assaulted. I felt stupid for not asking for help and clarification when purchasing the train tickets to Versailles, putting me and my friend out $150 that we didn’t need to spend. I felt stupid for not paying attention to my health and wellbeing while on this trip, which eventually confined me to my hostel. But mostly, I felt stupid for allowing my anxiety to cloud my perspective.
On this day, I realized I needed to stop holding onto control. I tried so desperately to control what this trip was going to be like, and it did nothing but give me anxiety and cause me grief. I made the decision to throw my expectations, assumptions, and incessant need for control out the window. The rest of the trip would be what it was, and I was there to experience it, truly and openly.
Day 18 : Florence
I fell in love with this city. For the first time on my trip I cried of happiness–at the views, at the art, at the food and the culture. Florence was full of narrow alleyways, stunning churches and delicious trattorias around every corner. There were museums and galleries with all of my favorite art, rolling hills of green surrounding the city, and a sense of safety I had yet to feel anywhere I had been. It was the romantic trip I had planned out and envisioned for myself.
Day 21 : Paris to LA
After three weeks of traveling, I was finally on the plane home. I was exhausted but simultaneously energized by the fact that I would soon be back in my safe space with my people.
What would I tell them, though? The trip wasn’t what I had expected it to be? In fact, it was so different from what I had expected that I was looking forward to coming home more than anything?
2 weeks post-trip: Avoidance
I found myself avoiding talking to people about my trip at all. I was irritated that each time I spoke about it, I felt the need to be honest and include all the information about all the stupid shit that went down. I knew I was coming from a privileged place discussing the trip at all, and having the audacity to complain about it didn’t feel right.
Now that I have had time to properly process and reflect on my trip, I can see that those “bad” parts were in fact what made it so good. Being sexually assaulted gave me the know how to be cautious about those around me early on. My extreme anxiety pushed me to continue doing things each and everyday even though I was scared. So many locals taking advantage of me convinced me that there were just certain things I did not have control over, but that my attitude towards those things was something I could control. My phone being stolen allowed me to be truly present and self sufficient for the rest of my trip. My 2-day flu encouraged me to take advantage of all the time I had when I was feeling good. My perceived weaknesses throughout the entire trip were actually my greatest strengths. Since the trip, I have found it easier to let go of things that I simply have no way of controlling (something which proved very difficult for me prior to the trip). I have a greater confidence in myself and in my abilities. I no longer second guess going into unfamiliar situations. I am not scared of the world around me like I once was. Simply put, I am a different person, and for the better. If given the opportunity again to travel for three weeks on my own—I would take it without hesitation.
Abby Kolodge is a recent Art History graduate of Cal Poly Pomona. She works at the Claremont Museum of Art as a Museum Associate (satisfying her love for art), as well as a Paraeducator for the Pomona Unified School District (satisfying her love for helping others). In addition to both of these jobs, Abby has operated her own photography business, Painted Cave Photography, since she was a senior in high school, giving her a consistent outlet to be creative. Abby hopes that her stories of traveling alone in Europe did not create fear in those considering the same, but rather encouraged and proved to them that even with challenges, it is possible. If you’d like to keep up with Abby and her current adventures, give a follow to the following : FB: Painted Cave Photography, IG : abbayhaybay or painted_cave