During my time studying abroad in Morocco this past fall, I was fortunate enough to embark on a solo trip into Europe during my Thanksgiving break. After spending three days in Amsterdam, I traveled over to Switzerland for the remainder of the week. What follows is my experience in Zurich.
Opening the blinds, I become instantly disappointed to see a thick blanket of fog. It’s my first day in what is supposed to be one of the most beautiful places on earth: Switzerland. Since I was alone, I learned I get bored easily if I wasn’t talking to someone or keeping my mind occupied by exploring. The night before I had done some research on nearby Mountains that were climbable for a half day excursion. To my delight, an hour train ride away was Mount Rigi. This mountain at 5,800 feet was supposed to provide hikers with a magnificent view of the Swiss Alps and the valleys below. Figuring I had nothing better to do, I made my way to the mountain shrouded in fog. I couldn’t help but feel like I was being robbed of a beautiful experience due to the weather, as I was only visiting for a few days. The train ride was spent looking longingly out the window into the mist as I blasted music in my ears trying to fill the void that was growing inside me. Maybe an hour away the fog will be cleared, and I’ll get one of those picture-esk moments from the train as I get farther away. I thought to myself but was unsurprised when the fog never cleared, and I departed from the station near Rigi. Using my better judgment, I decided not to hike the 5-hour trail alone and take the tram that took passengers up the peak. I reluctantly bought a ticket and boarded the tram.
Ten minutes pass on the way up and I started to notice small glimpses of light that appear to be breaking through the mist. Slashes of light were starting to break through and the clouds seemed to grow fainter. Suddenly, we break through and my eyes are invited into the paradise I had longed for. Green rolling hills and pine trees displayed their beauty before me as I couldn’t help but break out into a smile. Beyond the green hills and pine trees was what I had been waiting for though. The majesty of the Swiss Alps appeared, and I gazed on in wonder.
Getting off at one of the stops around half way up I start to hike to the peak. Every now and then I would have to turn around to witness the sea of clouds growing before me. The serenity of being above the clouds was luxury as opposed to seeing the same view from a stuffy plane. Finally, I had been given the view I wanted and all it took was taking the risk of being disappointed to be rewarded with magnificence. I didn’t let the clouds stop me. All it took was to get above the doubt to see what the world was concealing, and boy was it worth it.
The next day I traveled an hour the opposite direction from Zurich to Rhine Falls with my newfound friend Rachelle, a 26-year-old coal mine truck driver from Australia. I met her when I returned from Rigi to the Hostel the day before and after some much-needed human interaction, we found out we were both planning on visiting the falls the following day. Since we were both traveling alone it was nice to have a companion even if it was only going to be for a half a day as she was leaving for another part of Switzerland that evening. The companionship had other benefits too as I had not had a conversation face to face with another person since leaving Amsterdam 36 hours beforehand, so I realized very fast how much of a conversational draught I had traveling alone. The falls were a sight to behold despite another cloudy day in Switzerland and I had a chance to walk through a tiny neighborhood in the small town of Schaffhausen. But that was just the beginning of one of the most magical days of my life.
Upon returning to Zurich, Rachelle and I parted ways and with an hour or two of daylight left, I wanted to get above the clouds again. I decided to head up to Uetliberg; a mountain that overlooked the city. I took the tram up and experienced the magic again of seeing the fog dissolve as the sun pierced through it as I broke through the fog. I hiked the rest of the way to the summit where I climbed the big lookout tower that had a panoramic view. It now dawned on me that it was Thanksgiving Day. It was my first Thanksgiving without my family. But that thought was soon dismissed in place of a hot meal surrounded by family, I was given the most beautiful sunset I had ever witnessed. The red and orange colored clouds once again stretched on until the horizon or disappeared into the Alps. I watched the sun slowly disappear over the horizon as I took countless pictures. I decided to stay up there despite my growing hunger and the dropping temperature to bask in this beauty that nature created.
Upon being up on the tower for around an hour a couple noticed how cold I looked. The man asked me if I wanted him to start a fire and thinking he was being sarcastic, I laughed it off. To my surprise, he pulled out a little gas-powered stove and got it ablaze. Astonished, I started to laugh as I put my hand over the flame to warm them. Furthering my surprise, he asked if I was hungry as he pulled out a half loaf of bread and a chocolate bar. Although I was humbled by his offering, the cold and my roaring belly told me to accept. I mentioned it was Thanksgiving back in America and thanked him profusely for his kindness. He tore apart the other half of the loaf and gave some to his girlfriend and we all proceeded to nibble on bread and chocolate surrounding this small flame. Looking around, I took in the moment. A moment of simple human generosity and humbled joy. It wasn’t a Thanksgiving Day, it was a Thanksgiving moment and that was all I needed. Nibbling on my bread we shared cultural differences and jovial conversation. After a while, as the sun burned orange setting behind the horizon they had to leave. I thanked them for their kindness but decided to stay. I stayed for another hour atop that tower. I slowly watched the suns glow disappear and watched the starts slowly debut onto the night sky as the large moon swapped in for the light of a fading day. It wasn’t a Thanksgiving surrounded by friends and family, but I was thankful for the experience I was given.
Geneva, unfortunately, was underwhelming but nothing could take away from what I learned about myself and what kind of experiences traveling alone can produce. I learned most of all that to travel alone, being social is a must. Nobody likes to be alone, and I found that I had the most fun on my trip when I was making friends. You meet all sorts of people when you build the courage to simply say, “hello”. That was the most valuable lesson I learned. This trip wasn’t about surviving and seeing the sights, it was about making friends along the way. The most unexpected things can happen when you open yourself to a conversation with a stranger.