I’m on the plane, my third in as many days as I hopscotch on the circuitous route of a solo traveler using frequent flier miles. I look around as the last passengers board, relieved that I’ve had no more misses, thanks largely to me staring down the boarding areas, barely daring to blink after missing my first flight of the journey. While relief to be buckled in is what I feel most at this moment, I still can’t shake the residual anxiety about my upcoming solo travel in Italy.
I also can’t stop wondering why I’ve been feeling so bad about this trip. It’s Italy for God’s sake! Who can feel bad about that? This fear and anxiety are completely different than any other time I’ve traveled. I know the biggest part of these feelings comes with going abroad on my own for the first time. And being very short on sleep. But I wonder if it’s also age. I’ve heard older people say that travel makes them more anxious than it used to. But am I an older person? Already? I can’t be. Or maybe it’s simply that I need to re-learn to stand on my own.
I know that hyper-analyzing is my specialty so, bound for Pisa, I distract myself with something more useful: I review my Italian-English travel dictionary, memorizing the one line I learn first no matter where I travel: Excuse me, do you speak English?
I practice it silently. “Mi scusi, parli inglese?” I hear the Italian inflection and cadence in my mind and I like the sound of it. I practice other words I’ll need and then bounce to the book I’m reading, picking up where I left off last night in the early chapters of Eat, Pray, Love. Elizabeth Gilbert’s account of her time in Italy makes me hope I’ll see this country in a similar, lovely way. As I turn the pages, I feel less alone, as if she and I share this common ground and she is journeying with me. I relate to her words and they reassure me. Plus a week on my own is nothing compared to her year alone. My anxiety is easing, but there is still an undercurrent that feels like restlessness.
Or maybe I’m restless because of the next step of my journey. When I land, I’ll have to figure out how to get myself from Pisa to Florence, where I’ll spend twenty-four hours alone before meeting my friends there. I see it as training wheels for the time I’ll spend alone at the end of my trip. I’m grateful for the trial period that begins with a looming decision: Bus or train? I’ve researched it (of course) but, because I don’t know the lay of the land, I’ll figure it out when I arrive.
As I bounce between foreign words, a tale of foreign travel, and my logistics, the woman sitting next to me asks where I’m heading. She’s British, well dressed. She seems confident, like she knows what she’s doing. It turns out she’s been to Italy many times and when I tell her I’m meeting friends and then going solo, she says without hesitation,
“Every woman should travel alone at least once in her life.”
I nod as if I understand. But I don’t. Not yet.
“Why do you think so?” I ask. She has my full attention.
“So she knows she can. And so she remembers who she is.”
I am instantly encouraged by this single “happenstance” sentence and I think of my Holy Trio whom I’ve beckoned to travel with me. I sense they are here, too, perhaps with silly grins on their faces as they create the “happenstance” in our lives. I think about what the woman has said, hoping I will come to know myself and know I can, but even so, I can’t quite commit to going off on my own. I’m still allowing myself the option of going home after I spend the first week with friends. It runs counter to the deep calling that continues to nag at me, pushing me to do this thing.
The plane touches down in Pisa and within minutes, I’ve handed over fourteen euros for a ticket, tossed my carry-on into the luggage hatch and am sitting on a packed bus bound for Florence. It was an obvious choice, easier and more direct than the train. I’m grateful for that and relieved to be on my way without disaster. I can’t help but smile slightly as I look out the window, taking in the Tuscan countryside with its rolling hills and terra cotta colored houses. I’ve gotten this far and I feel chuffed, a favorite word my British husband taught me years ago. It means very pleased. And I am. It seems to quell my fears a little bit more and I start to feel excited, the way I do when I travel with someone else by my side.
An hour later I strap my backpack over my shoulders and pull my wheel-away past the parked busses and try to find the front of the train station where the driver has told me there’s a taxi stand. I make a couple of wrong terms, feeling conspicuous with all my belongs, but after about fifteen minutes, I find what I’m searching for. It’s impossible to miss with a line of about two hundred people waiting to fall into cars that haven’t yet arrived. I consider walking instead, but decide that twenty minutes lugging my stuff through a city I don’t know probably isn’t the smartest thing. My old news anchor days bubble up again. Don’t make yourself a target. So I join the line, listening to the languages and impromptu conversations that come up among those waiting, me included. I am invigorated.
When the cab finally drops me off a couple blocks from Florence’s famed bridge, the Ponte Vecchio, I can feel the history stacked around me. I pause for a few seconds looking at the buildings and people. Then I continue on through the arched entry, decide to pass-by a mini- elevator that looks too small to be trusted (it turns out to be just fine), and opt to lug my suitcase and backpack up the flights of stairs for which this hotel is named (La Scaletta). One set of fifteen. Then another. And another. And several more. I’m sweaty by the time I reach the reception desk that’s tucked away, as if it’s a bit of a secret. I drop my belongings as I practice the one Italian phrase I’ve committed to memory:
“Mi scusi, parli inglese?” I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing it right.
“Yes, madame, I do speak English,” the woman behind the desk replies happily, her English taking far less effort than my Italian.
Relieved that the language barrier has lifted, I check in and am delighted to be given a room that’s even better than the one I booked. There’s momentum now. Things have gone well today. So far. But I’m still feeling cautious - there’s a lot of daylight left.
I place my bags in the gorgeous room, look outside my window at the beauty of Florence’s hidden courtyards and gardens and can’t wait to venture out into this city of creativity, the birthplace of the Renaissance, and, more importantly, gelato. As I tuck my passport in the safe, I wonder what I want to do first. I’m not used to making these decisions without kids and Hubs piping in, and I usually acquiesce to their desires. But now, it’s just me and my indecisive mind. I finally opt to just wander and see where the ancient streets of Florence take me.
After less than ten minutes, I turn a corner and bam, it’s magic all around. I’m at Piazza della Signoria with its incredible sculpture garden outside the Uffizi gallery. It’s eye candy everywhere I look. There’s a replica of Michelangelo’s David, a fountain with a giant Neptune looming above, and much more. The details of the sculptures are incredible. I look at the folds of the the carved garments and overhear art students talking about the dimpled indentions of fingers pressed into stone flesh. I look for myself. It’s incredible that rock can yield to the softness of touch. Then, out of nowhere, a man in the square fills the air with the sound of his acoustical guitar and I can barely breathe because of the overwhelming beauty of it all. I stand perfectly still, amazed that I get to be here in this place, soaking it up. I whisper a quiet thank you.
As my eyes and ears expand from their singular focus, I see a hundred or so people walking around the square, some doing as I am. I hear the languages: Italian, French, English. It’s a mix of everything beautiful. In the midst of it all, I realize that I get to choose how long I’ll linger here, free to stay or go at my own whim. While I miss my people and being able to turn to Hubs and say, “Look! Look at that,” I also like this new freedom. Being alone doesn’t feel so bad. I stop my mind from wondering if that’s only because this is new… and short-term. It’s not hard to handle most anything for twenty-four hours.
Eventually I pull myself from the scene and stroll on, wandering without knowing where my feet are taking me. A few minutes later I am in a second square where I pause to listen to the tolling church bells, the sound echoing off the nearby buildings just the way it has for centuries. I look down at the large squares of stone beneath my feet and wonder who else had stepped in this very spot before me. What was her story? Or his? How was his life different or the same? And I felt like a conduit, a connection between past and present.
In this moment, I realize fear plays a distant second string to excitement and I suddenly know I am exactly where I am supposed to be and that I should be here alone, though I’m not sure why.
Then, as if it couldn’t get any better, a beautiful, operatic voice suddenly resounds in the square. My ears hear, but my eyes can’t yet find the man with the mighty voice. Then I spot a figure moving in song and I’m wonderfully surprised to see that the power belongs to a petite woman with the booming voice of an angel. She sings as centuries old steeples and a sculpture stand at attention around her. I linger and smile, the kind of small, contented smile that says, “This is perfect.” (Click here to watch and listen to this beauty).
It’s hard to believe I can feel this good after having fallen apart with a horrible case of being clingy and sad and petrified just 48 hours before. It’s strange to now feel invigorated by the very thing that had me in a tizzy: being here alone. I try to internalize this juxtaposition and put those big, negative emotions in a bag labeled “temporary.” I suspect this will come in handy in the future. Of course, I’m not thinking of the future and the longer time on my own that I’ve planned for the end of this trip. Not yet. I’ve learned already on this trip to attend to what’s here and now instead.
When the singing ends, my eyes and ears and soul are filled with the beauty of it all. Everything I went through early in this adventure is suddenly worth it to lead me here. I walk across the square and drop a couple of euros in the woman’s hat, then I continue on, this time with a destination in mind: a small museum that is home to Michelangelo’s early works. I am eager to see what he created before anyone knew who he was and to see how his creative process grew. I pick up my pace, not knowing what time the doors will close and I opt to take a quiet street that I think is a shortcut. As I walk the craggy cobblestone road, I look up at the windows, some with laundry drying on the line, and I wonder who calls this home and what everyday life is really like in Florence. I think I could live here, my mind spits out unexpectedly. And I agree. I think I could.
I’m high on this place and that things are actually going well. It’s different by myself, yes. And I miss Hubs, of course. But I’m also happy with myself and I sense my Holy Travel Buddies have something to do with the sweetness of this day. I like the feeling of that.
Riding this gentle, wonderful wave, I look up at the windows again and the next thing I know, I am airborne and then crashing down on the cobbles that had not warned of a sudden gap. I land hard on one knee and then the other, and am flat out. I roll over and grab the knee that hit first. The pain is severe and I wonder how badly I’ve hurt it. Damn it, I think. So much for things going well. I look up and down the street as I sit now, hoping for the pain to subside. There’s no one around. What if I had hit my head, I wonder. What if I was bleeding, alone, unconscious? But I catch myself this time. Stop it, I think, knowing I’m at the gateway to the same thinking of my first disastrous day. You’re not bleeding. Or unconcsious. C’mon. Let’s get going. My knee hurts, but I don’t think it’s serious, so I get up, hobble down the road, and push away negative thoughts. I’m sore and bruised, but I can walk and I carry on, determined that this fall means nothing and it will not daunt me. There has been too much good today to let one thing take my thoughts down.
Too late to the now-closed museum, I console myself with gelato, the deepest dark chocolate I’ve ever seen. It’s approaching dinner time, but it doesn’t matter because I can do whatever I want. I’m bold with freedom.
I cover nearly four miles in this glorious city and eventually stumble, ready for dinner, into a restaurant that my hotel recommended when I asked where the locals go. (I hate the touristy places.) The answer: Osteria Del Cinghiale Bianco, the Tavern of the White Boar. I like the name.
This is my first sit-down meal by myself. I look around this quaint place that’s charming, but not fancy. Couples surround me, smiling at one another and engaged in conversation. It’s all so romantic. I feel awkward, the odd woman out sitting tucked away next to the stairs. Two days ago, this might have sent me into a spiral, but I know I am half of something and, for the first time in a long time, I feel whole in myself. I pull out my phone to occupy that uncomfortable space, but the battery is nearly dead and I’ll need it to find my way back to the hotel. I sigh and look at my wine glass, take another sip, then, unsure where to put my eyes, I glance around the restaurant some more until the waiter takes my order.
“Pasta with wild boar,” I say, attempting, in a sloppy way, to read the Italian from the menu.
I’ve never eaten boar, but tonight I don’t care about what I’ve always done. It’s the specialty here and I’m feeling adventurous. What the hell, I think in a fit of mild bravery that I enjoy. Maybe it’s second glass of Chianti. Or maybe trying new things is what this trip is supposed to be about.
I scan the restaurant again. The hardest part of eating alone is knowing where to look. I don’t want to stare at the people, and you can only look for so long at the place. So I make eye contact with the empty seat across from me and picture Jesus sitting there, the travel buddy I’ve invited along. I wonder what He thinks of this place and if he’d order boar, too. I silently thank Him and his heavenly sidekicks (the Father and the Holy Spirit) for joining me. I like having them along.
With that, I feel the kind of wonderful urgency that comes when my heart and spirit are full. Tonight they are overflowing and I have to catch what’s there as it pours out. I have to write. My phone is useless so that option is out. I glance down and notice the blank paper place- mat that’s laid in front of me. Then I grab a pen out of my bag and begin to write feverishly. The words tumble out fast. It takes me out of awkward and into comfortable. Writing gives me something to do, a purpose, a soliloquy in place of a conversation. And I’m at home with all of this. As I capture this day in words, I can’t help but giggle out loud in delight. I’ve been doing that since I set off this afternoon to discover what Florence would teach me.
As I flip the place mat to begin writing on the other side, a steaming plate arrives. My dinner is ribbons of wide pasta bathed in chunks of meat sauce made with wild boar. I don’t hesitate to dig in and from the first bite I am in love. I close my eyes and savor the next bite like a food critic paying attention to every detail dancing on my palate. I wonder how old the recipe might be as I notice the firm texture of the noodles and the rich flavor of the sauce. It is the best pasta I’ve ever eaten.
I’ve always been indecisive and every good decision I make, no matter how small, seems to be fuel for my journey. Even choosing an amazing meal. I move slowly through every bite, taking my time because who knows when I’ll have boar again. I eat and write and eat and write, a rhythm that continues until my plate is empty and my place mat is full.
Then, ignoring the gelato that I ate only a few hours earlier, I order dessert. I don’t care if it’s excessive. I’m all in, soaking up this experience like a thirsty sponge. I order cappuccino, too, even though that is unheard of among Italians after morning. But this whole thing is about me figuring out what I want, despite expectations and perceptions. And tonight, with my dessert, I want cappuccino. By the time I finish both, the second side of the place mat is filled and I am satisfied, as if the permanence of the words will make this day stick.
I settle my bill and am folding up my notes when a middle-aged man stands before me, smiling as he introduces himself as the owner of the restaurant.
“Are you a writer?” Marco asks.
I smile and nod. Then I gush about the delicious pasta. I wonder if he thinks I am a food critic.
“Would you like to see the restaurant? Parts of it date back to the thirteenth century.”
“Yeah, thank you.” I say, nodding and still smiling. I’m delighted.
Marco shows me the oldest parts of the building, where diners sit tonight, more than likely unaware of the history surrounding them on the ground floor of an 800 year old tower. Then he leads me through the kitchen where men with aprons scuttle about at hyper-speed. We continue on through what looks like a secret door, tucked away. I follow him through it and am suddenly standing in a beautiful space with a luxurious bar. I can see an adjoining room where there are only a handful of tables and even fewer diners. It’s a special spot only the locals know and yet, here I am being led to the bar where the owner serves me a tiny glass of Limoncello, one of Italy’s many national, alcohol-laden beverages. I sip on it slowly, and though I am still alone, I feel less awkward than before, but it’s not because of the drink. It’s because I’m settling into this new way.
Not wanting to stay out too late, (because… you know… I could die), I lick my upper lip with the last sip and thank Marco as I head out the back door, abundantly grateful for this day and this evening and this wonderful shift of emotions.
Two turns later, I’m nearing my hotel when I hear music for the third time today. I follow the sound to a nearby square where a crowd is seated, and begins to clap in unison, urging the trio to play one more song. My hope immediately joins theirs. Then the three retake their places on stage and play a peppy jazz encore that I am just in time to hear. Like so many things that have happened today, I feel like this was just for me. I feel like this whole experience is just for me.
If this is what I’m in store for in this journey, maybe I won’t cancel my longer solo venture after all. But first, I have one more morning in Florence, then a week with friends in the mountains of Tuscany, fine tuning my solo-travel training-wheels. I’m beginning to hope that maybe… just maybe… I won’t need them after that.
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