How Grief Over Losing My Dad Led Me to Take the Solo Backpacking Trip of a Lifetime

Each city had beautiful Cathedrals. I would go into them, sit on the pews and cry.
Publish date:
April 27, 2015
travel, loss, moving on, grief

When my Dad died in March of 2014, I was heavy with grief. He had been sick for a long time. I anticipated his death for years. I thought doing that would make it easier when it actually happened but I was wrong.

In his last years, my Dad didn’t have much of a life aside from tending to his medical affairs. His leg was amputated as a result of his diabetes and he was going blind. He was the recipient of a kidney transplant twice. And the list goes on.

In the weeks after he died, I found myself eating banana cream pie non-stop. I would go on long walks like a wondering zombie. I would get on the bus going to a gig and not want to get off. I just wanted to be taken away.

For some reason, in spite of my grief, I still attended my “Artist’s Way” group every Sunday. AW is a 12 week course written by Julia Cameron that aims to foster your creativity through doing certain tasks. You can do the workbook alone or, in my case, with a group of people.

I had grown close to the people in the group and trusted them to see me in mourning. At the time, I wasn’t making a lot of money. I was on unemployment while working intermittently as a performer, babysitter, dogwalker and housekeeper.

One day, after returning from a housekeeping job, I got a check in the mail from my Dad’s Life Insurance policy. Just an hour before, I had been on my hands and knees scrubbing someone else’s tub, and now I was holding a life-changing amount of money. I felt immediate guilt wash over me. I collapsed on the couch and sobbed. The check was a clear indication that he was really gone and he was never coming back. I felt extremely confused and overwhelmed. I shared about these feelings in my AW group. I didn’t do anything with the money for some time and went on with working.

Then, in May, a few days before what would have been my Dad’s 66th Birthday, this question popped into my head. It’s one that had been posed several times in AW: “If you had money, what would you do?”

My answer had always been the same: “Backpack through Europe”. It dawned on me that I was a healthy woman. I had both my legs. I had my sight. I didn’t have any children or a significant other relying on me. I realized that life was too short to not go after what I really wanted. So, I booked a ticket from New York City to London and a return trip one month later from Vienna back to NYC. And I let the eating, the praying and the loving begin.

My goal was to go to nine cities: London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague and Vienna. I would fly from Edinburgh to Dublin, then Dublin to Barcelona. The rest of the way, I would take the rails.

Other than staying with an old college friend in London, I was essentially on my own for the rest of the trip. People were concerned that I would be traveling alone. I’d be lying if I told you that I wasn’t concerned myself.

However, I ended up being very well taken care of due to one helpful advantage: I’m a recovering alcoholic and had been sober for nearly 4 years by the time of my trip. I came to find out that recovery support groups are located in every major European city and are conducted in English. I made friends with locals and expats at meetings who showed me around each city. It was my secret weapon and it made me feel safe.

“No drinking!?!?!” you say.

Indeed, there was no drinking or consuming any drugs during my adventures. This was an interesting component especially since, as you could probably guess, I was almost always the only sober person in the shared room of my hostel. I took solace in the fact that I could rely on sober friends I had made at meetings. Moreover, I found sobriety to be such a blessing. I woke up early each day to explore a new city while others were sleeping off their hangovers. This also meant that I was first to raid the free breakfast supplied by the hostel! My Dad would have been proud of my resourcefulness.

The drinking (and subsequent drunk snoring) of other travelers became a slight issue only at certain points, leading me to change plans and get my own room. As a friend suggested to me before my trip, “If you don’t like it there, get the fuck out!” I’m no princess but I have learned that I can’t settle for clumsy, noisy late night drunken sex happening above me in a bunk bed.

Each city had beautiful Cathedrals. I would go into them, sit on the pews and cry. I would talk to my Dad and tell him how sorry I was for all his pain and suffering. I would thank him for the gift of this trip. Sometimes, I would write him a letter or light a candle. I’m not religious, but being able to do these rituals made me feel close to him.

There were several times throughout the trip that I really felt his presence. One occurrence took place at Tempelhof in Berlin, a now defunct airport that has since been turned into a city park. I listened to music on my iPhone and rode a rented bike on the tarmac. I stood up on the bike and lifted my hand towards the sky. An overwhelming feeling of peace and ease came over me, and, in my mind, I heard my Dad say, “I see you.”

I would wonder around all day in each city until my feet hurt. I took a million pictures. I would learn how to say “Hello,” “Please,” “Where is the bathroom?” and “Do you have Wifi?” in each language. I went on those silly guided bus tours. I learned to not be afraid of dining alone or receiving unexpected company from another traveler. I had long conversations with people from all around the world, sometimes about life, sometimes about the World Cup that was going on. I saw the most beautiful landscapes via train. Instead of making a photo album, i decided to make a dance video of all my favorite places I encountered along the way.

My mantra soon became “Why not?!” “Want to go on this tour of the Highlands?” Why Not?! “Want to go on this bar crawl?” As long as they have Coke Light, why not?!” “Want to make-out?…”

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for some kind of romantic tryst during my jaunt. There were plenty of opportunities for hook-ups. However, most of the time, it was coming from guys who I wasn’t interested in banging. I used Tinder periodically but nothing seemed to materialize from this. My position on passion abroad was that of brevity yet quality. I wasn’t against a fling but it had to be with someone worthy. I might have been grieving, but I wasn’t desperate.

I was nearing the end of my trip when I arrived in Prague. One night, as I was walking through Old Town Square, I stopped to steal some Wifi from Starbucks. I sat and checked my emails then opened Tinder. I had a message from a guy. A REALLY cute guy! His name was Jonas and he was from Sweden. He was a security officer for an airport (fancy a frisk?) and was on holiday with his friend. I struck up a conversation with him. He seemed sweet and funny. I asked him if he was an axe-murderer which he assured me he was not. That made me feel safe because routinely when you ask an axe-murderer if they are such, they must give you an honest answer! Just to ensure I wouldn’t be Natalee Holloway’d, I preemptively told him a fib that I was staying with a friend in Prague even though my gut told me I had nothing to fear.

So we agreed to meet up because “Why not?!

We met outside of a store called “The New Yorker” (his suggestion) and proceeded to walk around the city all night. I could tell he was shy but, after a while, he warmed up to me. We made each other laugh. He had the most beautiful blue eyes I had ever seen. Then he said the most romantic thing to me:

“Its weird that I’m talking so much. Usually, I don’t like to talk a lot. I like to listen.”

To which I responded, “Well, that’s great because I have a lot to say.”

We shared our first kiss at a tram stop sitting next to a homeless woman who was either talking to herself or on a bluetooth.

We met up the following night which was to be our last in Prague. I invited him back to my PRIVATE room. It felt natural and not dirty. In Euro-Backpacking-Time, waiting 48 hours before sleeping with someone is the equivalent of 3 months in regular life. It’s like dog years.

He stayed over and I told him about my Dad passing, what it’s like in America, and about all my adventures so far. He turned out to be a great listener after all.

The next morning, he brought me to the train station so I could be on my way to Vienna. I felt so sad on the cab ride over to the station. I didn’t want to say goodbye.

He kissed me before I got on the train and said, “It was such a nice surprise to meet you, Andrea.” I told him I felt the same and that if he ever wanted to visit NYC, he had a place to stay.

So we parted. When the train pulled away, I started to cry. I wrote in my journal as it was happening so I could get my feelings down like the little Artist’s Way nerd I am.

When I finally had wifi again after reaching Vienna, I had several messages from Jonas. He said he really wanted to see me again. We both confessed we had big crushes on each other.

That was 8 months ago. Jonas visits NYC a week out of every month. When he’s home, we talk on the phone and Skype often. We discuss plans for the future, moving in together, getting a cat, marriage,etc. This has not turned out to be a love of convenience but loving him is the easy part.

I often take a step back and marvel at how any of this happened. It weirds me out the course of events that had to occur to lead us here: had my dad not passed away, I would have never taken that trip. If I never took that trip, I would have never gained a stronger sense of autonomy. And had I never gained that sense, I would have never met the Swede.

I am still learning how to move in life with grief. I’ve been told it could take years. Still, my knee-jerk reaction at times is to pick up the phone and call my Dad when I see a cool vintage car or watch a documentary about the Knicks. I miss him and hang on to those words I heard that day on the tarmac. It may sound strange, but in hindsight I am grateful to witness his struggles because it made me want to life the fullest life I could and ask, “Why not?”