“You’re still going…and you plan to go alone?”my co-worker asked me when I was quitting my job. It was the fourth time she had asked me this question. Yes, my trip was still happening. Yes, I would be getting on a plane and traveling to Europe without my husband or children. Despite the number of articles, books, and blogs written by women who prefer solo travel, people become curious when I mention I am traveling alone.
They invariably want to know whether I am concerned about safety or, alternately, want to tell me I just need to go on a “girlfriend trip.”[footnote]A girlfriend trip might be great sometime, but I’m not sure that girlfriends necessarily want to travel with me! And, ultimately I girlfriend trip does not really address the reasons I want to travel alone.[/footnote]
So I provide reassurance that, in fact, I am traveling alone by choice. After that, it seems, assumptions are made: that I am a misanthrope, that I desperately long to escape my husband and/or my children, that I only want to travel alone. Not all of these assumptions are true.
Question these following assumptions: that shared experience is the only worthwhile experience, that alone necessarily equals lonely, that wanting to do your own thing, sometimes, is selfishness.
“Awww, I feel sorry for him,” my daughter said about the man sitting alone in the gondola, surrounded by other gondolas filled with couples or families. Don’t assume that solitary man on the gondola is sad, or lonely, or has nobody in his life. We don’t know what he is experiencing or what his daily life holds. Maybe he is a busy executive enjoying a rare moment of quiet and peace. Perhaps he is a family man who needs an escape now and then — and this is it. He may not be lonely at all; being alone may be a choice.
I often enjoy dining alone, sitting in a coffee shop alone, taking a quiet walk. Usually, if I feel lonely in these times, its that I’ve been made conscious of the fact of being alone, as though there’s something wrong with it, kind of a less extreme version of the scene from The Lonely Guy.
When I was in Venice with my family, I needed a break. A break from the crowds, from the daytime heat, from the constant questions about what we were going to do next or demands that I move along and put away my camera. I wandered out into the early morning alone; the narrow walkways and bridges populated by only nuns, street sweepers, delivery people with their handcarts. A few dogs and cats. I mentally threw away my agenda into the canal, and wandered around. San Marco, usually full of tourists was quiet, nearly empty at that hour.
There was time to examine the (sometimes whimsical) details on some of the columns by the cathedral. One was decorated with faces: Greci, Goth, Turk. Another was decorated with swans, another with creatures: Grifo, Canis. A woman laughed and said “Buongiorno” as I ran for cover from a refreshing rain shower before I remembered that, hey, I’m a Seattleite. Vaporetto station schedules beckoned me off to islands: Murano, Burano, or Torcello. I could leave everyone behind at the hotel, hop on, and be there in 30 minutes more or less. [footnote]But I didn’t; I’m a good girl.[/footnote] Wandering, I found a sense of inner quiet, perhaps for the first time on the trip.
When I travel alone, there are more opportunities for taking time: pausing to watch the most beautiful moonrise I have ever seen without being dragged away because someone is “hangry,” staring at minute details of art or architecture, or even that crack in the sidewalk if I want to, practicing something I call “street photography” without embarrassing my children. When I travel alone, I am more likely to talk with local people, travel more affordably, take better photos. I can get on that boat if I want to.
When I travel alone there is nobody pressuring me to listen to the “Adventure Zone” podcast on the train. There is nobody to tell me that my travel pouch resembles a colostomy bag.[footnote]Or to give me unsolicited fashion advice! [/footnote] Nobody to remind me that, in fact, I’m not a “street photographer” or “videographer.” There is nobody to complain about my fingers clacking away at the keyboard when I journal in the evening.
There is also nobody, then, to give shopping advice, or do high tea, or share a romantic dinner. But those are things for another trip, not a solo adventure. There are definitely things I don’t want to do and places I don’t want to travel solo: pub crawls,[footnote]Actually, I’m not a pub crawler anyway, but I definitely want to be with someone if I end up crawling to or from a pub[/note]certain countries, longer hiking or kayaking excursions.
The reason I sometimes like to travel alone, is, perhaps, the same as the reason I shy away from tour groups: I’m a control freak. [footnote]Just kidding, but fearful that it may, in fact, be true.[/footnote] When I travel with others, I compromise. When I travel with you, I understand that you have needs and wants; that the trip isn’t all about me. But is it selfish to, sometimes, want a trip that lets me experiment with and explore what I want? That gives me a sense of independence and competence? That allows me to find my way in the world apart from who I am as employee, wife, or mother? Is it OK to be “selfish” sometimes? I think its OK to take time out to get to know yourself (again). It’s OK to go away by yourself and wander aimlessly.
“What’s the plan?” When I travel solo, it can be anything I want it to be.
“Do you know where we’re going?” The answer? No, I don’t and it’s wonderful.