Behind the Scenes: The Reality of Solo Travel
When I landed in Paris a month ago I had a lot of enthusiasm about the following weeks of solo travel. Since I needed to be in Florence on October 15 for my Escape to Tuscany blog reader trip (SO much more on that later!) I convinced Dan that it’d be a great idea if I hopped a low cost flight a few weeks early to explore and help my UX clients, under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Such a poetic plan, right?
After posting this picture on Instagram, I realized that a number of close friends would also be in Paris during my first week there. My days quickly filled with dinner plans and crepe lunch dates. My busy social schedule made Paris my oyster and I had a ball pretending to be a local with places to be.
The following week was an incredibly different story. My friends had left the city and I had adopted a sinus infection. Joy. I anticipated that this would be my chance to experience true solo travel, not knowing a soul on the busy streets all around me. In the morning I’d get up, walk and walk and walk, find lunch somewhere, park it on bench and read from my kindle then continue. My camera kept me company but after awhile but felt empty. I tried to remember my original plan – bring my laptop to a cafe to work remotely, just a like a techy Parisian. But, how could I possibly sit around in a cafe? I felt like I was squandering my time in Paris. Typically when traveling I’m charged with energy and excitement for the day but during this time alone I felt full of conflict about how to spend my time. Perhaps my sinuses lended a hand, but I felt lethargic and short of motivation to actually get out and experience the city.
After a few nights in Paris I moved on to Venice and finally Florence, totting my cold along with me. In Venice I lucked out with gorgeous, crisp fall weather and snapped my way through 128 GB of memory cards. While there I followed the advice of my Instagram buddies and tried Dal Moro spaghetti (I die! So delish!), rose early to see sunrise on the Grand Canal and perused books at Liberia Acqua Alta. The most lasting and memorable experience though was a night I spent cozied up at a cicchetti bar. Was it the tasty but cheap red wine or free appetizer toasts? Not at all. For the first time in days, I sat and chatted with other travelers. I approached a group of Aussies and Brits with an odd introduction of “Hi! I heard you speaking English so I wanted to say hello…” (in hindsight: so weird). The group conversation lasted all of an hour before the bar closed but I walked home along the dark canals with a big, goofy grin.
I arrived in Florence with a new goal. Instead of focusing on knocking off tourist sights I put myself in situations were I could interact with others. I’d read amazing things about a wine bar near my Airbnb and forced myself to take a seat at the tall brass bar for dinner. Shortly after ordering a glass of red and my meal an elderly man from Beijing sat in the chair beside me. His English was somewhat broken but I slowly introduced myself then prodded and asked his thoughts on Florence. Fast forward an hour, and I learned that he was in Italy studying Tuscan wines and had brought his favorite bottles into the bar that night to share. We poured generous sips of Tuscan reds into glasses for the 4-person waitstaff and me. Based on everyone’s expressions and boisterous “fantastico!” ‘s, I understood that these were very, very special tastings that my mediocre wine budget would never be able to offer. I walked home that night, again, with a big, goofy (and this time wine-stained) grin.
I shared my solo travel experience, with all of it’s highs and lows, with others that I met during the remainder of my trip. A middle-aged Brit quickly concluded “Well, it’s the people that make a place.” and changed the topic. I appreciated his simple, precise evaluation of why my solo travels included blunders. For those that are considering a solo trip abroad the most important piece of advice I can provide is to ensure that no matter where you are, in the shadow of the Eiffel tower in or a remote Swiss village, ensure that you put yourself in situations to interact with others. Consider staying in a hostel, sitting at the bar, joining a tour group or taking a class to open up the door to conversation on the road. No matter the size of your camera’s memory card, it’s the memories of toasting and chatting with locals and fellow travelers that will stick with you long after you’ve returned home.