“Who are you traveling with?” It’s a question that naturally seems to follow after the other vacation basics have been covered (where, when, how long, etc.) and yet people are often shocked by my answer, “Me, myself and I.” Invariably, I am told, “You are SO BRAVE!” or “Good for you! I could never do that.” But really, nothing could be further from the truth. Sure I can put on a good game face and I inherently try NOT to live in fear, purposefully stepping outside my comfort zone. But just like everyone else, I have plenty of fears and insecurities that plague me every day. I just choose not to let them stop me from living my life and exploring the world. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I truly realized how simple and how rewarding solo travel could be.
Bitten by the travel bug in high school, I was fortunate enough to travel to both France AND Italy on school trips during my Sophomore and Junior years. From those humble experiences with group travel so many years ago, I started traveling again right after college. Thanks to my then significant other, I was able to travel to Italy during the fall of 2005. It was my first small taste with solo traveling and it was TERRIFYING! The plan was simple enough – take a plane from Boston to Rome (with a short stop in Milan to change planes) and then take the train to Florence and find a payphone, in a time before smart phones with international calling plan. One simple call would connect me with my girlfriend, who would then meet me and take me to our hotel. Armed with an Italian-English dictionary (what did we do before smart phones?), I figured it would be easy, yet that didn’t stop the incessant worry from creeping into my brain. Yet despite all my fettering, things went off without much of a hitch, despite all of my well laid plans constantly changing.
For starters, I decided NOT to take the connection flight onward to Rome, but instead, simply made my way from the Milan Airport to the Train Station via bus after asking for help at the airport’s information desk. From the train station, some basic Italian and asking a few locals for help, I bought a ticket and got on the right train bound for Florence. The biggest snafu, came when my changed plans got me into Florence much earlier than expected and my girlfriend wasn’t able to meet me and take me directly to our hotel due to a lingering work commitment. Armed with the hotel’s address and our room number, I procured a map of the city at the Tabachi store and hauled myself across the city to the hotel. Sure I got lost along the way, but thanks to my map and some more helpful locals, I was able to make it to the safety of our room without any major issues. The following day, new work commitment cropped up and I also had to find a way to amuse myself for several hours while my significant other continued to sort through some work at the office.
Now, even in this small tale, you might think I was brave. But really, I bet many of you have done similar things in your lives. If you have ever lived in or traveled to a big city, I bet you have navigated the public transportation system by yourself or with the help of some friendly locals. If you have ever traveled to a new town to visit friends or family, you might have had to find your way around by yourself for an hour or two. Maybe while your host was working or running errands, you decided to wander out on your own and explore. I bet you have even tried communicating with someone who doesn’t speak your native language. Sure there is a lot of simple phrases, pointing and gesturing going on, but you probably got the general gist enough to communicate even a little bit. The ONLY difference with these experiences and mine in Italy circa 2005 is a perceived sense of familiarity with the surroundings. For instance, you might be in a new place but everyone speaks the same language, so you know you can always ask for help if you need it. Yet you can find this same sense of security when stepping into a foreign world by simply remembering that we are all alike, even when we are so different.
A few years ago, my grandfather was preparing for his first trip to Europe in over 20+ years. While he has traveled prolifically to foreign countries with the help of cruise ships, he called me for advice nearly panicked: “What will I do if the airline losses my luggage?” My response was simple, “What would you do in the US if that happened? Got to a store and buy some new cloths and toiletries.” Yet he still fretted, “But how will I know what to buy or how much it costs?” Again, my response was simple, “You can always ask for help or try the clothes on before buying them. And numbers are the same in Europe, so knowing how much it costs won’t be a problem.” Still, he seemed skeptical, “What if the store clerk doesn’t speak English?” This struck me as odd because his first stop was to England before hoping on another cruise ship to see several other countries, but I simply answered: “Someone will, and they will be willing to help you if you ask nicely.” Sure enough, his luggage made it through to England just fine and after his trip he regaled me with stories of all the new and different things he saw. But I think ultimately he realized how similar life can be, despite the miles between us.
Over the years, I have slowly graduated to weeks of solo travel around Europe, but I started small with just a few hours navigating between major Italian metropolises. So if you aren’t ready to explore Italy by yourself, bring along a friend or join a tour group. Or even just practice your skills a bit closer to home. Start small and work your way into it. But whatever you do, don’t let your fears win. Get out there. Explore. Never postpone the joys of traveling because life begins at the edge of your comfort zone!