Written by Jake Stewart
Ever since becoming a legal adult in 2008, I’ve taken a number of personal risks that I wasn’t sure would pay off.
I went to a private (very expensive) university despite having limited finances, a large student debt load, a learning disability and, at times, crippling mental health struggles.
I moved out of my parents’ house to take a correctional officer job in an unfamiliar land, surrounded by inmates who wanted to see me get played—and certain staff who wanted to see me fail.
I had bariatric surgery to aid my lifelong struggle against obesity. I did this despite the discouragement of some well-meaning people, on top of the natural anxiety that comes with any major medical procedure.
Yet, somehow, all those risks eventually paid off.
But for three weeks in September 2021, I took what could arguably be my largest step yet in personal growth. Using my own money, vacation time, logistics, and planning, I took a solo trip to five different countries in Europe. This was the first time I had been out of the country as an adult, as well as the first time doing so alone!
This trip did not happen on a whim. It was something I had been planning for the better part of three years. Prior to surgery, I could not fit into a single airplane seat due to my size. This, coupled with my intense desire to see the world with my own eyes, is what got me to take the radical step of having my stomach physically reduced. I promised myself that if I could fit into an airplane seat again, I would reward myself with my dream trip to Europe.
And now, here I was, touching down on the tarmac of Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Roissy-en-France!
As I disembarked that Delta A330-300 and entered the jetway, I carried with me a weighty mix of emotions. On the one hand, I was excited because I was visiting a land that I had only dreamt of visiting in the past, with all kinds of fun, exciting, and awe-inspiring sites worked into my itinerary!
But I was also terrified because, for the first time in my life, I was alone in a country that was so culturally distinct from my own, in a city I was entirely unfamiliar with, surrounded by a language of which I had next-to-no knowledge. As I was now over three thousand miles away from home, I had no “easy escape” to quickly return home if I became overwhelmed. Even more than when I moved away from my parents’ house to start my own career, I was fully and truly alone.
During that first day in Paris, I could only describe myself as a ball of nerves. Despite clearing passport control with ease (with a stamp I now value more than gold!!!), I had almost eleven hours between my flight landing and my check-in time at my Airbnb. During this time, I would have to figure out where to store my bags, as well as navigate the Paris public transit system. On top of this, the nine-hour plane ride had left me very sleep-deprived and—I realized too late—badly dehydrated.
Though I managed to find a private company where I could store my bags until check-in time, it took only a few hours before I felt myself getting dangerously close to a nervous collapse. My heart was pounding against my chest with anxiety, and I was feeling physically light-headed from dehydration. These two factors combined to create a certain paranoia, where I felt like every person I walked past was staring at me, as if they somehow knew I was a foreigner. I distinctly remember hurriedly sitting down on the magnificent front steps of the Palais Garnier, my arms and hands visibly trembling, wondering if I’d made a huge mistake in coming here.
But then, I did something that would have been quite out-of-character for me only a decade prior. Instead of breaking down, I decided to take care of myself. I reminded myself that this trip was my victory. Was I going to enjoy it or regret it? The decision was obvious.
I immediately stood up, walked to the nearest Starbucks and ordered some food, a coffee, and some iced water. Within an hour, I felt refreshed, awake, and excited once more! The day ended with me taking a guided tour of the Palais Garnier before finally arriving at my Airbnb. I hadn’t been there long before I finally collapsed in utter exhaustion, but feeling exhilarated all the same.
For the next three weeks, I travelled from France to Italy, to Vatican City, to Poland, back to France, and a day-trip to London before finally returning to Charles de Gaulle Airport for the journey home. I made this trip something worth treasuring for the rest of my life. I took more than two thousand photos, met countless people (including some fellow tourists), saw some world-famous sites, walked more than 16,000 steps per day, and ended up with four beautiful stamps in my passport.
Aside from the obvious reasons, the success of this trip has a uniquely special meaning for me. I recall the first time I flew on a commercial flight by myself. I was 18 years old and was flying from Minneapolis to visit a friend in Phoenix. My mother was absolutely convinced that I couldn’t handle it on my own and attempted to micromanage me via cellphone during most of my flight itinerary. Even though she passed away less than a year later, I have always remembered—and seethed at—that experience every time I’ve flown on a commercial plane. The success of this trip shows that she was categorically wrong to doubt my ability to navigate my way not only though an airport, but through an entirely new continent, filled with language barriers and cultural differences I knew almost nothing about.
I took the jump into the unknown, and came out the other side healthier and stronger because of it.
Read also from Jake, I Used to See God as a Toymaker.