By Venus Wong
I’ve never been afraid of the dark, and I’m known amongst my coworkers as a superb cockroach terminator, but there’s one major fear that holds me back: I’m terrified of spending my birthday alone.
It’s not just the concept that birthdays should always be spent with family and loved ones. My apprehension stemmed from a somewhat upsetting childhood incident: For my tenth birthday, I spent weeks planning a house party and invited a bunch of kids I really got along with at my local church. However, there were reports of a thunderstorm that morning, and one by one, my friends’ parents called to apologize for dropping out. My guest list was quickly dwindling down to a party of one.
My dad, who was working as an elementary school teacher at the time, managed to save the day: He called for back up and fetched a group of students from his homeroom. I was elated that I wasn’t alone, but I wasn’t exactly happy about cutting my birthday cake with a bunch of kids I didn’t know (the awkward moment was captured in the top-left corner of the collage above).
Since then, and likely out of fear and overcorrection, I’ve set lofty goals for what my birthdays should be like: No matter where I am, I go for unforgettable blowouts in with a fabulous group of friends. I rang in my 21st at a nightclub in Lisbon, and last year’s celebration took place aboard a boozy boat party in Hong Kong. I was full-on committed to the idea that if I kicked off my birthday right, the remainder of the year can only look up. It cost me a good chunk of my summer savings, but at least I wasn’t alone.
However, I surprised myself when I totally dreaded planning my 25th birthday this past August. It might have been a quarter-life crisis talking, but it had also been a year of strife and abrupt life changes: I underwent three voluntary job changes, a heartbreak, and an overseas relocation within the span of six months. Alone in a new city, I felt deflated by the self-imposed challenge of corralling a group of people and throwing a huge production for the purpose of looking like I was having the #timeofmylife.
I was listening to “My Favorite Things ” — one of my go-to tunes for writing — when it occurred to me: Why don’t I just take a solo trip to Austria on my birthday? As a major Julie Andrews fan, going on the Sound Of Music singalong bus tour has always been on my bucket list. And, I’ve written about solo travel plenty of times in my career. I was now in London, so Austria was just a short two-hour flight away. What could be more epic than belting my heart out on the Austrian Alps as I turn a year older?
Once the seed had been planted in my head, there was no going back: I bought a Ryanair flight to Salzburg — where the classic was filmed — in less than an hour, with a jaunt to Vienna thrown in for good measure.
The first great thing I noticed about going stag is the ease of conjuring a plan: Save for your boss, you really don’t need to consult anyone on the time and dates. As someone who’s had the experience of waiting for weeks for my companions to get back to me on which flights they wanted to book, this is a huge relief. Because I was alone, I also managed to grab a great deal on an single occupancy room in Salzburg for at least €70 cheaper a night.
I’ve traveled solo before, but it wasn’t till this particular trip that I discovered how reliant I was on my smartphone: I was roaming about Altstadt, the historic center of Salzburg, when my phone completely froze up. Knowing that I was only a seven minute walk away from my next destination — a Mozart dinner concert in a former nunnery — I still panicked at the prospect of finding my way without Google Maps. After an agonizing 20 minutes, I managed to locate the venue without anyone’s assistance. I was very proud of my abysmal, but adequate, sense of direction.
I felt deflated by the self-imposed challenge of corralling a group of people and throwing a huge production for the purpose of looking like I was having the #timeofmylife.
The idea of dining alone on my birthday didn’t intimidate me. But, to my surprise, I was seated in the middle of a huge Israeli family of 20 who, as luck would have it, have came to the Mozart concert to fête the family matriarch’s 75th birthday. As soon as I mentioned that I happened to share the same birthday, the whole family made sure that I felt included in all the ensuing cake-and-song hoopla. As the songs played, my elderly birthday twin grabbed my hand, and we had a sweet exchange where she commended me for my gumption to see the world alone while I’m young.
Similar encouraging moments happened throughout the rest of my journey: Once I mentioned that I’m here on a solo birthday trip, locals were quick to offer their well wishes, and a waiter in Vienna even offered to try seat me in a fully-booked gastropub. That’s the benefit of asking for a table of one: You’re way more likely to get a wink and, “I’ll see what I can do for you” — no matter if you’re at a Michelin-starred brasserie or a mom-and-pop joint.
One thing I appreciated about going to a new place on my own is the unlimited time to indulge in whatever I loved — without taking someone else’s schedules and interests into consideration. As a huge history buff and loyal watcher of The Crown, I was adamant to stay at The Bristol Vienna — a grand dame of a hotel next to the State Opera — and get a guided tour of the Prince of Wales Suite, Edward VIII’s favorite hotel in Vienna. It’s allegedly the place where he decided to marry Wallis Simpson and abdicate from the throne. (The very bed they slept in is show above).
I was able to spend hours wandering around the historic hotel to touch and photograph every little detail that thrilled me — like the scars on the brass railings of the grand staircase, a relic from the hotel’s days as a U.S. Army base after WWII. This was when I came to the realization that solo travel is actually perfect on the day you’re supposed to matter the most. In my past vacations with boyfriends, family, or my squad, I’ve always taken it upon myself to be the “planner” of the group: I like to know that we’d be doing a certain number of things to satisfy everyone, and either no one else cared to put in the effort, or they simply had a different approach to travel. Now that I was alone, I didn’t have to worry about adhering to someone’s bedtime, annoying them with my Insta-posing, or their potential disinterest in things that I want to check off my list. That freedom was the ultimate birthday treat.
I toasted the last night of my birthday adventure in Austria with a bubble bath in the marble tub, a glass of cuvée, and a history documentary on Netflix. It was one of the best trips I have ever taken, but of course there were difficult moments: The singalong bus tour ended up being somewhat of a letdown, since it was pouring and the tour guide did not have Von Trapp-worthy pipes; It took way longer to navigate from point A to B on my own; Some of the sights I wanted to see were already full. But, I couldn’t help but give props to myself for confronting one of my biggest anxieties head on — I’ve not only matured another year, but I was able to check a destination off my travel bucket list in a really meaningful way.
No, I didn’t have a posse of friends bringing me cake while singing “Happy Birthday” on top of their lungs, but hey, a slice of Sachertorte — Vienna’s iconic chocolate and apricot cake — tasted pretty damn delicious, too. The best part is knowing that my dad won’t ever need to swoop in (although he probably would) if people were to bail on my birthday party again: I’m perfectly capable of having a grand time all by myself.
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