During the week leading up to Semana Santa, I found myself having both an entire continent at my disposure and eleven days in which my only responsibility was exploring and eating. For a college student, this is pretty cool; for a “wanderluster,” this is heaven on Earth.
After much consideration and indecision, my destination of choice ended up being Italy. The land of wine, pizza, and gelato had been my dream for quite some time, and I wasn’t sure of the next time I would be gifted with 11 days of freedom and an international flight that would cost less than 100 euros. My itinerary: Milan, Florence, Verona.
To the dismay of many of my loved ones back home in the U.S., I chose to venture on this cultural and culinary excursion alone.
I mean, I knew it was the right decision. Pinterest knew it was the right decision. Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love knew it was the right decision. But that was the extent of unconditional, unwavering support for my solo travel. I apologize now for those who experienced anxiety due to my plans (i.e. Mom and Dad), but this turned out to be one of the most rewarding, exciting, relaxing, and transformative experiences of my life.
Though I could ramble for hours and hours, and have done so, about how Italy might be the most wonderful country in the world, I feel inclined to focus on what I learned from traveling alone for that extended period of time. As a young, virtually-inexperienced female traveler, it was a precarious adventure. After having done it and feeling incredibly positive about my trip, I would recommend that every person do it at least once in his/her life. But I have a personal mission to avoid sounding like the thousands of generic, cookie-cutter articles that would pop up on Google if you typed “solo travel” right now.
The most captivating part of my experience was the fact that despite not having a single travel companion for my journey, not once during the time that I traveled through Italy did I eat dinner alone.
I invite you to take a peek into Evening Number Four, a distinct highlight of Kayleigh’s Italian Adventure. (I’m hoping if this excursion was turned into a book or movie, it would have a more creative title than that, but they’ll pay someone to come up with that kind of thing.)
Our scene is set in Florence, Italy on the top of a hill-ish mountain. (Too small to be a mountain, too big to be just a hill.)
If you’re in Florence, the place most people will recommend that you visit is Piazzale Michelangelo at sunset. It’s a beautiful plaza which features a replica statue of Michelangelo overlooking the entire city, just as visitors are able to do at that location. My personal suggestion is that you intend to go there, but on your way up, I hope you stop and realize like I did that the close-by Palazzo dei Vescovi is actually the most wonderful spot. It has a beautiful little church, a complete lack of tourist crowds, and is much more elevated than the Piazzale. You have to climb a few stairs, but we could all use a little exercise, right?
So after I had my breath taken away by the Palazzo (I’m talking about the view, not the stairs), I walked down to Piazzale Michelangelo because, after all, I am a tourist. As I stood on the edge overlooking the city watching the sky grow purple, an elderly man spoke up beside me.
“My city. It’s beautiful, no?” he said.
I gave him a warm smile and simply uttered, “Amazing.”
Unexpectedly and unspurred, the man then began to converse with me. He spoke very broken English, but we were able to communicate through what little Italian I knew and the small bits of English and Spanish he knew. He described how he spent his life volunteering to teach Italian to immigrants so they could create a life in Italy, and how he’s taught people from all over the world. (“The immigrants from Asia are the best!”) He told me about his family, a wonderful wife and a 28-year-old son who travels for a living and has a passion for adventures. He even digressed to tell me that he’s bitter because he has no grandkids yet. The conversation arrived at him suggesting that I find an Italian boy and change my plans to go to Venice so I could have “romance,” and that’s where that conversation effectively ended. However, his last words to me were my favorite part of the encounter.
He took both my hands and said, “I come here every night. I choose one person to talk with. Tonight it was you. Grazie.”
And just like that, he was gone!
***WARNING: This is Hung and I’m highjacking this amazing post by Kayleigh to simply state that the old man was probably an old SAGE who imparted wisdom and power upon our intrepid traveler – every kung-fu movies has one such sage. I DEMAND to play the old SAGE if this were to be made into a movie. Okay, continue on Kayleigh.***
I walked to the bus stop to wait for the transportation back down the hill-ish mountain, feeling a nice warm glow settling over me, which was a product of my “authentic Italian experience” for the night.
But after 45 minutes had passed at that bus stop, I realized that the glow had faded and I was just cold.
If my mother and father are reading this, I want to make it clear that there were dozens of people waiting at the same bus stop as me, so I was not alone on the hill-ish mountain. However, I was standing there watching those dozens of people hailing cabs so they could travel the long path down to the city with more comfort and significantly less money in their pockets. I ran my fingers over the sole twenty-euro bill in my pocket with dismay.
Determined to not give in, I ventured about half a mile down the hill to where I knew there was another bus stop. Here, I shivered for about ten minutes before I met the next characters in my Italian adventure.
I came to know Sarah, the residential director of a college study abroad program in Florence, and her brother- and sister-in-law, all originally from Idaho, by our communal indecision of whether to give up on this wait for the bus that had long since exceeded an hour. Just as they began actively searching for a cab to drive up the hill, the lights of the bus flashed in the distance, and it felt like a life preserver being thrown to a drowning person. But maybe I’m being dramatic…
On the lengthy bus ride down to the city, we covered a lot of conversational ground. I learned about how Sarah had lost her husband to cancer, and the couple was her husband’s brother, Phil, and his wife, Marie. I listened to tales about each couple’s three kids and the summary of their vacation thus far, and they listened as I described studying linguistics and why I decided to travel alone. After a week of struggling through Italian and broken English, having a fluid, comfortable conversation with Americans was a mental oasis.
I was nothing short of overjoyed when Sarah invited me back to her apartment to dine with them and meet their kids. Once there, we continued chatting over wine and traditional Ribollita, a sort of bread and bean soup that is characteristic of Florence and highly recommended. The evening came to a close due to their early-morning travel plans, and they kindly walked me back to my hostel before we parted ways.
This is only one of the many nights during which I added new characters to my story, and each one was as surprising as the next. When I tell people about these experiences, they say “You’re so lucky!” or “I wish I was the type of person who could make friends so easily.”
But the fact is that I am neither of those things. I am not simply lucky, as proven by my horrible timing with the bus, and I am definitely not a social butterfly, as proven by the copious amounts of social awkwardness I display on a daily basis.
Travel can create these memories and stories for just about anyone. The people who travel often have open minds and adaptive spirits; they write other people into their stories. So when one is traveling alone and lacks the pressure to conform to the group dynamic of their travel companions, that circumstance is the place where magic happens. I whole-heartedly believe in the idea that we give off vibes to the people around us, and I could feel my openness for adventure flourish when I was in Italy. My opportunities were boundless, and it was in that mindset that I found the community of travelers that I view as a phenomenon. It is a community in which strangers become friends, and the distance that this world can put between people is minimized. I will stand by the belief that any attempt to reap the benefits of solo travel, whether it is taking a trip alone or splitting off from travel companions for a few hours, will open up opportunities beyond what is expected.
Travel truly is the best education.
What changes have you found in yourself or in your experiences when you travel alone?