I travel solo more often than I’d like to admit because to some people it implies I have no other choice. But while there may be stigma around solo travel, there’s also something about throwing yourself alone into the unfamiliar that jolts the senses, as if you’re seeing the world in HD.
Solo travel is brilliant and I am definitely not the only one who thinks so; the trend is catching. Pinterest searches for "solo travel" increased by 600% in 2018, and it was this fact that gave me the push I needed to attempt the solo travel milestone I'd been thinking about for a while: going to a festival alone.
Like many Brits, I’ve been going to festivals since my teens. I’ve done my fair share of big ones (Glasto), local ones (Green Man) and ventured abroad (Benicassim). But I’ve never tackled a festival alone. I decided that going to a British festival on my own would feel like cheating (I’d probably bump into someone) and even the US seemed like a cop-out (Americans' zealous amiability would make it far too easy). So I chose Flow Festival in Helsinki, Finland.
Finnish culture lends itself to loners. Twenty percent of people live alone, marriage is in decline, and it's a largely secular country where going to the sauna is a popular pastime. Sweating silently by yourself in the dark? Totally normal! There are an estimated 2 million saunas for the country's 5.3 million inhabitants. On a positive note, Finland is incredibly safe and women make up the majority of the population at 52.5%.
Launched 15 years ago, Flow Festival began with just 200 people in an old power station. It now welcomes a crowd of 84,000, 80% of whom are Finnish. Another reason I liked the sound of it? This year, Flow boasted a strong solo female lineup (65% of artists were women or non-binary people), including Erykah Badu, Nao, Mitski, Solange and Robyn. I felt they would be paving the way for me.
On the early flight, a couple asked if I’d swap so they could sit together. Solo traveller strike one – trumped before 8am. Once there, I tumbled into my hotel room to be greeted by twin beds. One would remain ghostly empty the entire weekend. I started to feel acutely aware that I was alone.
I headed to Löyly, a beautiful sauna where guests hop between prickly heat and dips in the Baltic Sea. As I anticipated, a sauna is a pretty good place to be alone because no one bothers you. Sitting in a pool of sweat is not the time to make friends. At one point I seemed to be having a steam standoff with a girl tossing on water with an aggressive sizzle every few minutes. She won. I headed back to the hotel in defeat.
Breakfast is definitely the easiest of the three meals for an inconspicuous solo traveller. I hoped no one would notice as I slunk over for seconds – much-needed, as today was the first day of the festival.
Once on site, I was pleased to spot fellow loners, but they would always be joined by someone. I, on the other hand, wouldn’t, which actually felt liberating in the end as I’m as independent as I am impatient. We’ve all endured vacant hours at festivals, waiting for a friend to emerge blurry eyed from a portaloo, or spent an hour swaying mindlessly to a mediocre band that someone’s hipster boyfriend said was a "must-see".
Another bonus point? I wouldn’t be cajoled into drunkenness. I was interested to see whether I would spend most of the festival sober. By 4pm at Glastonbury I’d normally be rolling around in a lager daze but here I was, at 4pm, alert and smug. By 6pm I realised the only time I’d spoken that day was to order food. With blonde hair and pale skin, I look Finnish, so many (I assumed) asked me for directions while I blinked blankly in response. I blended in, which helped when I felt self-conscious about trudging along by myself.
At one point, I thought I was watching slowthai until I clocked (embarrassingly late) that the artist was rapping in Finnish. I was at the wrong stage. A friend (probably with much better music knowledge) would’ve enlightened me about this far earlier. I weaselled my way to the front of the crowd (easy when you’re not chained arm-in-arm to a group) for Erykah Badu, who was followed by Solange and then Honey Dijon. They were all sublime, I danced a lot and totally forgot I was alone.
Pre-festival, I headed to the sea. The port market is a great place for a standing solo breakfast (I had dense rye bread, eggs and coffee), gobbled before I climbed aboard a boat for a trip around Helsinki's many surrounding islands. The first stop, Vallisaari, offers quiet walking trails and incredible views of the city while Lonna is home to a beautiful minimalist sauna perched on the rocks. Chugging along allowed for quiet contemplation; the rippling water and melodic hum of the boat eased the itch for conversation.
At the festival later, I people-watched for hours. The minimal booze meant I felt keenly observant. Spying on Finns slowly loosening up and attempting to keep rhythm was wildly entertaining. When I had time to spare, I treated myself to a shoulder massage. Normally I’m too busy rounding up troops to bother with the stalls at a festival. I watched Swedish Grammy-winning singer Seinabo Sey, then Mercury-nominated Nao, finishing with Robyn, who got everyone shimmying. In a tent fizzing with excitement, I felt united with the crowd.
I started my last day watching Mitski, who somehow made dancing with a table utterly mesmerising. I then stumbled upon rebel pop princess Tove Lo, who drew a huge crowd (and flashed in celebration). I decided to check out the hot pink Nordea Globe Balloon stage to support London MC Flohio and felt a kinship with nearby Brits as she explained English slang to the crowd.
Almost 50% of Flow’s food is vegetarian/vegan – fantastic in theory, until I paid €10 for a 'vegan hotdog' that turned out to be a carrot in a bread roll. I finished the night with James Blake, who preached the dangers of toxic masculinity, encouraging other men to be more "open". Sleepy, I dragged myself to Nina Kravitz, who slapped me back to consciousness with an electric set at the RA stage.
The music was so good at Flow that I barely noticed I was by myself. Unlike previous solo trips, I felt no desire to infiltrate groups either. Was it worth going to a festival alone to see acts I’ve been desperate to catch for years? Yes. Would I have had a better time with friends, ticking off an average lineup? You can’t compare it. I ended the weekend feeling exhausted but culturally satiated, as if I’d filled up four days with exhibitions or author talks. I’d been granted a lot of time to get lost in thought. My body felt broken from walking and dancing but I escaped without the familiar four-day hangover.
I did realise I was plastering a lot more on Instagram than previous festivals when I would normally be too busy nattering away. My incessant WhatsApp photos were the equivalent of prodding a friend’s arm and saying "okay, that’s weird," so between my phone and the crowd around me, I never really felt alone. Had I cut digital communication entirely, it would have been far more difficult and a whole different story.
Maybe next time...