Tag Archives: Solo Travel

Back in the Shire

Oxfordshire, that is.

I’ve put off writing because I didn’t know which angle to take.  Should I document all the things I’ve seen and done in the last 10 days?  Should I write about odd happenings, like me falling on an escalator and attracting the attention of dozens of shoppers and shop keepers, all asking solicitously, “are you all right?”  (I was embarrassed and bruised, but otherwise all right.).  I could contract American and British things. I could write about the history of Oxford and its famous university, or chronicle my inner journey of relocating to another country.

All this was a good excuse to procrastinate, but to be fair to myself, I’ve been putting in a lot of work hours and keeping busy gadding about town.

I’ll start with my base, the house where I am house sitting, which affords me a sanctuary from which I emerge and explore.  I will share some photos eventually, but I want to be careful about not creeping out the homeowners.

It’s a terraced house, a typical type of housing in the UK.  Probably dates to the Edwardian era, named for King Edward VII who reigned from 1901-1910.  There are windows and doors front and back and neighbors on either side.

I haven’t heard much of or even seen the neighbors.  I heard water whooshing on the other side of a wall one day, a door slamming once.  Last night around 3am I smelled toast.

On the ground floor, which in America we call the first floor, there’s a living room, which they call the lounge.  There’s a dining room, kitchen, and sunroom, which my homeowner calls The Cocktail Lounge. Up a steep set of narrow stairs is what they call the first floor and Americans call the second floor.  Here there are two bedrooms and a bathroom.  In this house, the owners have very cleverly opened up the rafters to build a loft office.  Getting up there involves climbing an even steeper set of stairs.

There’s a back garden, which in America we call the back yard.  With terraced housing back gardens are very long, narrow spaces.  In my case, the back garden has been bisected by a fence.  The front half is for people and the back half is for chickens.

Yes, I am tending four hens who my homeowners rescued from a laying factory.  They make adorable noises like “bwaaaaaaa, buh buh buh” and the usual clucking.  Every morning I go out to collect one to three eggs.  I let the hens out to free range and top up their food and water.  Once a week I clean out their little house and hose down the sidewalk that has become mucky with chicken poo (Americans say poop—why?).

One of the hens is hen pecked by the others.  She has hardly any feathers except on her head, which makes her look like a little pot-bellied naked person wearing a chicken-head costume.

There are also three cats, one of whom rarely makes an appearance.  They poo outside so I don’t have to deal with a litter box.  They have a smart cat door which reads their microchips and won’t open to neighborhood cats.

My seven housemates are low maintenance.  Caring for them gives me a little routine to ground myself each day.

I live in Cowley, the vibrant, diverse neighborhood east of Oxford city center where real people live.

I live a half hour walk from Oxford city center.  Since my arrival I’ve walked at least an hour a day just to get around.  I could take a bus, but why, if I am able to walk?

There is so much going on here, and it’s cheap or free if you look.  The highlight so far was a free concert at Christchurch Cathedral.

The program was Chopin, and the pianist played the funeral march from Sonata Number 2.

This piece has become almost a joke, but if you listen to the whole thing you will hear it is not only a beautiful piece of music but a celebration of life with all its ups and downs and frustrations and joys.

Which pretty much sums up my life so far.

Yukatas for Dummies

The night I dropped my phone in the toilet, I wrote a post which demonstrates my frantic thoughts and feelings about its potential loss.

Is that sad, to be so distraught about losing a phone?  It’s just a thing, right?  But it was my means of communicating with my people; it was my online community, for better or worse; it stored all my memories—in the form of photos that had not yet been backed up.

It would cost hundreds of dollars to replace … and how would I get to the Apple store again?  I was only planning to spend 12 more hours in Tokyo, and the store would be closed during that window.

Blah, blah, blah, my mind went on, wearing a groove in my brain, undoubtedly.

Using my laptop, I read that putting your cell phone in rice may be a short-term fix, but that the minerals in the rice can cause longer term problems.  So I wrapped my phone up like a baby, put it on top of the TV for warmth, and tried to not look at it.

That night I got about three hours of sleep.  It was the usual boring Restless Legs.  I had piled up six futons in an attempt to create some padding.  They were all firm around the edges and saggy in the middle.  My head and feet were well supported while the rest of me drooped down to the hard tatami floor. Turning over was a major operation.

Finally, I couldn’t stop wondering what time it was and if I’d wake up in time for the meditation.

I needn’t have worried about not having an alarm.  A gong began to sound for the morning meditation at 5:30.  I rolled off the futon onto my knees, then slowly rose to a standing position.  Yep, I could still walk.  I hobbled to the sink and brushed my teeth, slurped down a cup of instant coffee, threw on the yukata, and half slid, half stumbled down the steep stairs.

A half dozen people stood on one side of the cavernous main hall, where the man in black was collecting visitors to lead us to the inner shrine.  From across the hall, he spotted me and shouted, “Yukata, no!” while making dramatic gestures with his arms in case I didn’t understand.  Everyone stared.  I did a 180 and scurried back up to my room.  How could I have made such a mistake?!  I threw on some clothes and joined the group, keeping my head down.

I have already described the meditation, which was intense, beautiful, and really did take me away from my stinkin’ thinkin’ for at least part of the hour.

No one made mention of The Yukata Incident.  They’re focused on the meditation, not me, I thought.  It’s not about me.

Afterwards, I wandered through the shrine with the Aussie wife who had dined next to me the previous evening and a young woman from Chicago who had blue hair.  I could tell the Aussie woman wanted to hang out more.

I felt a familiar internal tug-of-war.  I want to be with people but I also want to be alone.

But it was time for breakfast, so we all retired to our respective private dining room.  Breks was every bit as spectacular as dinner but you’ll have to take my word for it since I no longer had a camera.

On the positive side, you won’t be subjected to my horrid photos for a while.

As I passed Mick and Mary’s dining room—for those were their names, I would learn—they hailed through their open door.  I hesitated, then did what I do when I’ve been traveling alone for a few days—started babbling about everything I’d seen and done and not done.  They took it in stride.

I let them get a few words in and learned this was their fourth time in Japan and second time at the monastery.

I knew if I hesitated a bit, they might invite me to spend the day sightseeing with them.

“I have to run to a Skype call,” I lied.

“Be sure to attend the fire meditation,” Mary called after me.

Crocodile Adventures!

Day 21 of my Australia sojourn. I waited eagerly in the reception area of the resort to catch my 7am bus to the Daintree Rainforest. As I’ve mentioned, I’m sort of obsessed with plants.  I also love heat and humidity, so rainforests are my kind of environment.

A German couple sat on the couch opposite and we chit chatted about where we were going. Their bus came and went.  An Aussie couple I had made small talk with at the pool came out, said they were going on “a brekky reccy,” and left.  It was 7:15.  An English family of four came and we didn’t talk because their bus pulled up as if queued to their arrival and whisked them away.  I began to feel anxious.

Jim had said 7:00, right?  Maybe I had misunderstood.  Maybe he had said 7:30; it was just 7:30 now, and maybe the bus was late.  It was probably me—I had gotten too relaxed yesterday.

People came and went.  It was just past 8:00.  The Aussie couple returned and were surprised to see me.  Maybe I imagined it but I thought they looked at me pityingly.

Pangs of emotion welled up.  It wasn’t all the couples and families and no one else sitting by themselves waiting for a bus that never came.  It was not wanting to waste a day.  One day of leisure was enough for me.  I want to do and see everything.

Jim arrived to open the office and did a double take when he saw me.  It turned out there had been a mix-up on the tour company’s end, and he apologized.

“It’s not your fault,” I told him.  “What can I do, still today?”“All the tours are either full day or half day,” he said as he rifled through piles of brochures.  “It’s too late for the full day ones,” so the reef and the Daintree are out.”

“The two things I came all this way to see,” I replied glumly.

“There’s Hartley’s

Crocodile Adventures,” he suggested weakly.

I had seen ads for this place in the airport, on the street, and in brochures for other attractions. They certainly were good self-promoters.  I felt a surge of fear at the word ‘crocodile.’  Did I want to spend 5 hours in being surrounded by them?  The place sounded like a totally tacky tourist trap.

“Sign me up.”

Hartley’s turned out to be pretty fun.  There was much more wildlife than crocs.  Did you know Cassowaries are prehistoric Kung Fu fighters with giant claws with which they can disembowel you?  They’re actually very shy and avoid humans, but here’s video about how to survive a cassowary attack in case you decide to plunge into a jungle, locate one, and provoke it.

There was an interesting small exhibit about the break-up of Gondwana, the mega continent that had included almost all the continents.

And about first encounters with kangaroos.  People back in Britain thought the explorers’ tales and early depictions of roos were tall tales until someone managed to bring back a live specimen.

There was the obligatory croc boat ride, where a young blonde guy named Matt fed dead chicken parts to gigantic crocs and made dismemberment jokes.

Having worked up an appetite, I had a burger in the café.  It had beets in it; beets on burgers are an Australian thing.

I toured Hartley’s crocodile farm. I’m not sure to which end of the spectrum this sign was directed—animal rights activists or poachers.  Maybe both.

Our very earnest guide downloaded so much knowledge about breeding and raising crocs I felt confident I could start my own crocodile farm.

You could pose with a Koala for $$.  The poor things.

I bought yet more souvenirs in the gift shop.  All my unsuspecting friends’ and family members’ birthdays and holiday presents for the next year were now covered.

Which nativity scene would you have chosen—kangaroos or koalas?

I went to pay, the cashier asked for ID, and that was the moment I realized my passport was gone.  She let me pay anyway.  I said the only logical thing: “It must be in my room.”

But I knew it wasn’t.

Be Mine, Be Thine

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

On the heels of Valentine’s Day and the last story about my worst trip re-entry ever, and having arrived home late last night from a group trip to Central America, I’d like to wish you all a Happy Valentine’s Day.

The composition of the group tour was typical of other such trips I’ve taken.  There were 10 of us plus the guide.  It was two married couples, three married people whose spouses hate the outdoors so they had come solo, and three single women.  I used to spend a lot more time wondering, “Why are so-and-so married and I’m not?” or wondering if I would meet a guy on one of these trips.  It could happen.  But all I could think of by the fourth or fifth day was “I want to be alone!”

I’ll write more about this trip once I’ve covered Spain, but for now I just wanted to repeat the theme I’ve written about annually on Valentine’s Day.

According to all the standardized tests I’ve taken, I am an extrovert.  I am sure that I’m not.  I get along well with people, I think.  I like meeting new people.  I like spending long blocks of time with certain people.  But when I am exhausted or stressed or just need to recharge, I want to be alone.  I think that’s the definition of an introvert.  Maybe because I’ve always worked in communications and development, I’ve learned to be comfortable being “on.”  But come Saturday, all I want is to hang out home alone.

Society has names for introverts: Loner, recluse, hermit, withdrawn, antisocial, wallflower, solitary, shy.

I am struggling to come up with a list of similar negative words for extroverts. The ones that come to mind are neutral or positive: Larger than life.  Life of the party.  Outgoing. Sociable.  Genial. Affable.

Think about it: The police catch a serial killer. The TV news interviews his next door neighbor. What does she always say? “He kept to himself.” As if that explains why he murdered people.

I happened to catch a TV show about eccentric people in Minnesota.  Apparently we are number one in that regard. They were interviewing the sister of Frank Johnson, maker of the world’s largest twine ball. When asked what she thought motivated her brother to undertake such an endeavor, her answer was, “Well you know, he never did marry.”

I never have married, but I’ve seen plenty of couples here and while traveling who look miserable together.  I just don’t buy society’s message that you have to be partnered to be fulfilled, happy, a valid person, whatever. It’s not that I’m opposed to it, I just don’t believe that being part of a couple fixes life’s problems. It’s like any other of life’s big choices—both being single and being partnered contain different trade offs.

I have often wondered if I could adjust to living with a partner.  I think I could; after all I’ve adjusted to living in other countries and had housemates and am in general an open-minded person who is comfortable with who I am.  I’m usually good at speaking up for what I want and don’t want, which seems like the basis of good communications.

Yadda yadda yadda.  Have a good Valentine’s Day with your sweetie, even if it’s your kid, or a friend, or your mom, or yourself.  Lord knows we can use all the love we can get in this angry world.

A Bumpy Landing

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I decided to write one more post before I leave for Belize.

In my last post I noted that I have sometimes returned home in bad shape or to dicey situations.  This post is about that worst time ever.  There was that time I got bumped up to first class on a London to Minneapolis flight, was seated next to a handsome, single, and presumably rich man my age—but I had a terrible cold and I went through an entire box of Kleenex blowing my nose.  He expressed sympathy at the start of the flight, then faced away from me for eight hours.  I can’t say I blamed him.

This was worse.  I was dating a guy I’ll call Jed whose parents were Italian immigrants.  He had been to Italy many times.

Before I met him, Lynn and I had made plans to meet in Venice, and Jed was excited for me to see the country he loved so much.

By the time the trip happened, Jed and I had been dating for about two months.  By this point in a relationship, things have usually … erm, progressed … but not with Jed.  He made the trek from Minneapolis to St. Paul every Saturday night to pick me up, sometimes with flowers or a nice bottle of wine, Italian of course.  We would go out to dinner, have great conversations, maybe see a movie, then he would bring me home, kiss me good night, and leave.  There was no groping, no heavy breathing, no frustrated desires.

It kind of felt like a first date, every week.  It was all very nice, but there was no sizzle.  I thought that maybe if I was gone for a couple weeks, he would be dying to see me—and more.

So I went to Italy and Lynn and I had a great time as usual.  I bought a purple felt deco-style hat that Lynn said looked very “fetching” on me.

I had an early flight home from London, so I booked myself into a Yotel at Heathrow.  Yotels are cool little hotels in airports.  The rooms are tiny but mirrored all around to prevent claustrophobia.  For once, I was good and didn’t drink a bottle of wine the night before a long flight.  Instead, knowing Jed would be picking me up, I hydrated like crazy and went to bed early to get my beauty sleep.

I started feeling funny as soon as the plane landed.  I stopped in a bathroom to check my makeup before meeting Jed, and my face was ashen and gaunt.  The purple hat that had looked fetching the day before made me look like some sort of demented Dia del Muerte skeleton dancer.  Still, I had plane hair so I kept it on.

The look on Jed’s face told me I hadn’t just been hard on myself.  He asked if I wanted something to eat and I said yes, thinking if I got some chicken soup it might make me feel less queasy.  It didn’t.  It made me want to hurl, violently.

“I need to get home,” I said weakly.  But I couldn’t remember which ramp my car was parked in.  We drove around for a very long 15 minutes, me Trying Not to Throw Up in Jed’s SUV.

Finally, we found my car and I made a dash for it without even kissing Jed goodbye.  Thankfully he drove off so he didn’t have to witness me blowing chunks in the parking ramp.

Oh, did I mention it was the coldest night of the year, around -20F (-29C)?  Shaky, I managed to drive out of the airport before I pulled over, threw open the car door, and chundered on the side of the road.  This happened three or four times more before I reached home, where the heat was turned down to 55F (12C).  I cranked up the thermostat then started a bath of scalding hot water and lay in it shivering and shaking.  What a long night.

And Jed?  I broke with him a few weeks later after a couple more Groundhog Day-like dates.

Seafood Fellini

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

It was my last night on the Amalfi Coast, and I was determined to find some good seafood.

I had tried the places listed in guides and struck out.  Then I turned a corner and saw what looked like a stage or movie set.  It was a restaurant set on a crazy 45 degree angle street corner, and they had put about 10 little tables out on the sidewalk, which jutted way out into the street and dipped down at an angle. The maître de led me over to a table and when I sat down I felt like I should have memorized my lines.  I was the only customer.

The tables were draped in shiny dark blue satin, the chairs and table were wobbly, and the menu was grimy.  There was one of those big placards at the entrance that should have warned me to keep walking.  It promoted daily “specials” like fish and chips, hamburgers with fries, and pork chop with sauerkraut—something for every nationality of western tourist.

The maître de, whose namebadge said Enrico, appeared to be in his 60s.  He was dressed in worn dark blue trousers and a zip-up sweater that looked like what I wear at home when I’m not leaving the house all day.  Yet despite his rather shabby dress, he acted as though he was working in a fine establishment.  He had a napkin draped over his arm and snapped his fingers and yelled, “Waiter!”  Maybe the food would surprise me and be astoundingly fresh and flavorful.

The waiter, a tall skinny blond kid in his twenties, sprang out of the door, trotted to my table, and filled my water glass.  His name was Radu.  “Bring-a the Limoncello,” Enrico ordered gruffly.  Radu leaped back and forth, supplying my table with Limoncello, olives, and bread.  I wondered if he was in love for the first time and just couldn’t contain his excitement.  He brought my wine, then bounded across the street, grasped a light pole, and swung around it several times like Gene Kelly in “Singing in the Rain.”

He bounded over to my table.  “Guess where I am from!”

“Uh … Slovakia? Poland? Ukraine?”  Was Ukraine part of the EU?

“No—Romania!” he exclaimed delightedly, as though he had fooled me, then bounced away.     

Enrico continued to stand by my table while I perused the menu, which did not give me hope for a great meal. “What do you have with seafood?” I asked optimistically.  Enrico pointed out the only item on the menu that I had already passed on, seafood linguini.  Maybe the photo just didn’t do it justice. “I’ll take that,” I said, trying to muster some enthusiasm.

Enrico told me his life story.  He had worked in the “hospitality industry” in London for 13 years.  That explained why he kept calling me “love.” It was so dead in Sorrento in the winter that even the cats went south.  He would go to Orlando in a few weeks; he had a condo there.  “I will sell if Trump is elected President,” he laughed.

My food came and it was as disappointing as I had expected, with obviously defrosted seafood mostly consisting of mussels the size of peas. But I was hungry, so I ate, and Enrico continued to stand next to me and talk.  I began to wonder if he was hoping for some lady companionship later, but just then some tourists came walking along the street and he moved off to try to entice them in.  They looked at my food and kept walking.  Enrico circled back to my table.

“Say, do you know why there’s such a crowd in front of the Church of St. Antonino all the time?” I asked.

Enrico screwed his eyebrows together, thinking. “Ah, yes, it is the Virgin of Pompeii.  She is a visiting for the month of November.”  Just to be clear, we are talking about a plaster statue with magical properties, not a real virgin.

“Visiting, from where?  From Pompeii?”

“I don’t know from a where.  She came from far away.”

Just a Child

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

It was time to move on from Amalfi to Ravello.  From across the road I watched as a bus signed RAVELLO pulled away.  I walked to the schedule board.  There had been something online about the bus leaving every 10 minutes so I didn’t put a lot of effort into it but it was indecipherable anyway.

A tall pensioner dressed for a safari was also trying to make sense of the timetable.  After a few minutes we gave up and started to chat.

“I haven’t got much time left,” he sighed, “to see all the places I want to see.”  This made me uncomfortable.  Did he have cancer?  I had just met him and I didn’t want to but I felt compelled to ask, “I hope you’re not ill?”

“Oh no,” he laughed as though this were a silly question.  “My GP says I’m healthy.  I’m just old.  One of these days there will be a fall, or a burst blood vessel, and then I’ll be bundled off to a home.  Sometimes I think I should just jump off a cliff and get it over with.”  And here we were, surrounded by cliffs.  I didn’t ask if he was widowed or had children; they had probably been killed in a tragic accident.

He eyed me and said wistfully, “You’re just a child.”  This made me feel more awkward.  Was he just a nice old man, or a lecher trying to flatter me?

Based on his accent, I made the mistake of saying something about tough English people who were independent well into their centennial year.

“I’m not English,” he exclaimed.  “I’m from Jersey.  Have you heard of Jersey?”

He proceeded to inform me about the history of Jersey, the relationship between the UK and Jersey, and Jersey cows.  “You have heard of Jersey cows?”  Ye-es.  I don’t think he was patronizing me.  I think he was depressed and lonely—at home and everywhere.  He was one of those people who badly wants friendships but isn’t good at them.  He never asked me about myself, but launched into monologues about Italian history and his favorite country, Morocco.

He was one of those men who is a walking encyclopedia, with a library of books at home on history, geography, world religions, warfare, anthropology, and politics.  They have seen every war film and documentary, have visited Normandy and Pearl Harbor and spent days in the Churchill War Rooms at the Imperial War Museum.  They can name every regiment and what kind of tanks or planes were deployed and how many men died in the Battle of Nanjing and the siege of Leningrad and the Bataan Death March.  And now that these men have Google, it’s like they’re on steroids.

I sometimes worry that I have this tendency.  I am always conscious of not spewing people with verbal diarrhea, especially if I’ve been traveling solo for a while.

Of course there are men, and women, like this in every land, but the British and their cousins seem to produce more, maybe because of their national fixation on World War II.  That’s not a criticism—they had the #@$% bombed out of them and then my country forced them to pay war reparations, which prevented them from rebuilding as quickly as they could have.  We Americans would do well to emulate their habit of reflection.

Forty-five minutes passed and people were crowding onto the platform.  A young guy who turned out to be honeymooner from St. Louis asked if we thought they should go to Venice.  He was a stereotypical super friendly American.  A nice guy, to another American.

My new Jersey friend and I endorsed Venice.  “It’s dark and decaying, in a lovely way,” I offered.  “Don’t miss the cemetery island.”  Me and my cemeteries.

“Oh, I give up! I’m going back to Sorrento,” Jersey declared and walked off.

Five minutes later the bus arrived.  As we pulled away I could hear St. Louis behind me saying, “That old English guy is one of those people who knows something about everything.  Thank god he went back or he’d be talkin’ our ears off.”

Alt Amalfi

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I had seen the one attraction in Amalfi, the Paper Museum, in under 15 minutes.  I wandered back toward the center of town, then saw a little sign that said “Ancient Stairs.”  Of course I had to follow it.

Whoever wrote the sign wasn’t kidding.  The stairs were stone, worn concave by thousands of footsteps.  They were also slippery as hell—at one junction my left leg slid left and my right slid behind me, leaving me face down, arms splayed in the “worshipful peon” position.

Having torn my knee ligament two years ago, I was relieved to get up and feel okay.  I was also reminded of one of the pitfalls of traveling alone.  The town was deserted.  Who would have helped me up, then down all those stairs if I had torn my MCL?  I began paying more attention to my steps.

The stairs led up and around and up and back and down and up and around.  Here are a couple scenic views along the way:


These mailboxes may seem unremarkable if you are Italian, but in Minnesota everyone is named Johnson, Swanson, and Anderson, so they were charmingly exotic to me.

There was another sign that pointed to a Cimitero.  I love cemeteries and, having no other plan, decided to visit.

There were no more Cimitero signs, just crude arrows hand-painted here on a wall and there on stair.  Some of the walls were so close together that the sides of my umbrella brushed against them.  I climbed, and climbed, and counted steps: 200, 300, 400 … every so often the view would open up before me:

view view-3

Heartbreakingly beautiful, eh, even with the rain?

There were more lovely mysterious entryways.  I would have loved to be invited in for lunch:


500, 600, 700 … Here’s a tip: Go while your knees are still good.

800 … I wondered why the cemetery was at the top of the mountain.  Wasn’t that kind of unhygienic?  I had not seen a single human until now, when a couple came my way and said with in rough English, “The trail is closed.”

I figured they couldn’t possibly be headed for the cemetery.  Only I was weird enough to hike 800 stairs to see headstones.  So I smiled and kept going.

“But it is still beautiful,” said the woman over her shoulder as they hiked down.  And it was:


This was as far as I got because when I turned around from shooting this photo I saw the sign for the cemetery, which had closed five minutes earlier.  FIVE minutes!  Again, this is one of the hazards of traveling in the off season, many sites have limited hours.


The hiking couple had been right, there was an orange plastic fence across the path just beyond the cemetery entrance.  I stood there a moment, waiting for some special feeling and, feeling none, turned around and walked back down the 800 steps.

All that hiking had helped me work up an appetite, and not for a protein bar.  I found a hole-in-the wall pizzeria (it seemed like every restaurant in Italy was a “pizzeria”).

For 4€ I got an enormous sandwich with grilled red peppers, eggplant, and onions smothered in melted mozzarella, and a Coke Pink, which was everywhere.

Since I come from a land where we must huddle inside for six months of the year due to the cold, I always sit outside when I’m traveling, even if it’s raining, which it still was.  I pulled up a café table under the awning, leaning in to stay dry.

There was a bored English middle-aged couple sitting nearby, and a pair of middle aged Italian women.  Suddenly one of them said to me in perfect English, “You made a joke.”


“You made a joke in the museum.  I’m an English teacher.  I understood.”

We laughed and chatted about languages; it was nice to have a little human interaction.  Then the English guy asked me what I thought about Donald Trump.  What a buzz kill.  I made a noncommittal comment, wolfed down my food, and walked off.

Benvenuti a Roma

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

This is Rome’s air traffic control tower:


I would find it to be emblematic of Italy—colorful and confusing.

The guide books and websites tell you to take the Michelangelo Express from the airport into the city.  I scribbled down directions for walking from the train station to my hotel.  How hard could it be after flying 5,000 miles, on no sleep, and with a full-sized suitcase and a big backpack?  Why spend 10€ on a taxi when I could walk for free, right?

Fortunately a coworker had been to Rome recently.  “Don’t take that Michelangelo Express thing,” she said.  “Go to the generic ‘Ticket Counter’ and tell them you want the bus that takes you directly to your hotel.”

“But won’t that be super expensive?” I asked.  “It’s like a half-hour ride.”

“No.  It’s only about 6€ more than the Leonardo Express.  It doesn’t have a name and there are no signs for it anywhere, but if you ask for the “door-to-door bus,” you get in a little van with a couple other passengers and they drop you off at your hotel door.  They call it a bus but it’s not a bus—but ask for the bus.  Got it?”

“Why wouldn’t everybody do it?” I wondered.

“Because they don’t know it exists,” she laughed.

It sounded too good to be true.  Since it had no name, I couldn’t Google it.  I couldn’t find anything on Trip Advisor or in guide books.  But it did exist, and it was great to go directly to my hotel instead of schlepping myself and my luggage from the train station.  Plus, since it wasn’t a train, we drove through the city and I got a nice little sight-seeing tour as a bonus.

Welcome to travel, where mysteries abound.  All you can do is laugh a little, go with the flow, and hope for the best—or at least for a little adventure.

I had found the Hotel Italia on Trip Advisor by Googling, “women traveling alone in Rome.”

I have spent time in hotels known as romantic getaways, and it can be depressing to be surrounded by couples mooning over each other.  There are safety considerations, and it’s worthwhile trying to find a place where you don’t pay a double occupancy rate.  Sometimes it feels like I am the only one traveling alone, but I’m not.  We’re out there, and dozens of women had taken time to suggest solo-female-friendly hotels.

I’m not aware that the hotel category “single” exists in the US, but it does in Europe.  In fact, maybe due to the age and quirkiness of European hotels, I have stayed in rooms with three twin beds, four twin beds, and now at the Hotel Italia, I would stay in a tiny room with one twin bed.

The front desk guy was Indian, of course.  He seemed melancholic and perhaps a bit resentful, that he had been meant for greater things than running a two-star hotel.  But he was nice enough. He opened a city map and did what he had clearly done many times—marked the hotel with a big “X”, circled the Big Sights and told me how far they were, and described how to take the metro to the Vatican.

“What time does it get dark?” I asked.  It was already 2:30 and I wanted to get out there and see what I could before nightfall.

“5:00 o’clock, and I would advise you to be very careful after dark,” he said, then retracted slightly. “I don’t mean to discourage you from being out a night, but as a woman traveling alone ….”

Well.  That was discouraging, but I wouldn’t be able to stay awake much beyond 7:00 anyway.

The Hotel Italia website proclaims itself a “Cheap Hotel” and they aren’t kidding.  It cost $85 a night to stay in central Rome, within walking distance of the Coliseum, and included breakfast and a free bottle of Prosecco to boot.  I tipped the bellman who showed me my room, tossed back a glass of Prosecco, then headed out to find the Coliseum.

Fears of Flying

Here is a photo that summarizes my trip-planning progress:


I depart in 15 days.  I am in full-blown “What if?” mode.

What if I get pickpocketed in Rome (not a far-fetched scenario—my nephew’s wallet was stolen in Rome last year).  What if I’m packing too much into this itinerary and I won’t be able to appreciate it all?  What if I miss a flight/train/bus?  What if people feel sorry for me, a woman traveling alone?  What if I forget my phone charger?  What if I show up at a hotel and they have no record of my reservation and no rooms? What if I rent a car in Spain, and I forget to ask them to give me an English-language GPS, and my Spanish isn’t good enough for me to follow the directions?  What if my son doesn’t water my plants while I’m gone and they all die?  What if I fail to blog along the way, which means I’ll have schlepped my laptop all over for no reason?  What if I trip and fall into a cistern at Pompeii and it gets dark and no one knows I’m there and … are there wild jackals in Italy?

So you see, I have been busy.  I really should have pursued a career in disaster planning.  I would have been a natural at it.

I laugh kindly at myself as I observe the endless chain of what ifs come and go. I will prepare as well as I can. I will resist the urge to over prepare, because that would allow no space for spontaneity. I will deal with anything unexpected as it arises.

On Friday night my sister joined me and some friends for happy hour.  Long-time readers of this blog will remember that while my son was in prison, there was plenty of additional excitement in my life.  It’s never just one thing, is it?  There was a plumbing problem in my apartment which caused me to have no kitchen for six weeks. I tripped and sprained a knee ligament and was on crutches for about the same six weeks.  My mother was her third major car accident, which caused micro fractures in her spine and led to her giving up driving.

And then … my sister was battling Stage 4 colon cancer. She went through hell.  She’s been cancer free for a year and a half but she’s still dealing with the lingering effects of it all—the  surgeries, chemo, radiation, and all the other aspects of life that are affected by a life-threatening illness—finances, keeping up with a house and yard, two teenage kids, getting her strength back.  The list goes on.

How is this connected to traveling?  Because at happy hour we talked about the phrase “You’re so strong.”  My sister hears it a lot.  I used to hear it a lot when I was a single mom pulling myself up by the proverbial boot straps.  Other friends had been through trials and had heard it too.

We all agreed that we hate the phrase.

“What choice did I have?” my sister asked.  Right.  I had thought the same thing many times when people had said “You’re so brave!”  What choice did I have?  I admit I had occasional fantasies about dropping my son off at my mom’s and running away to Florida. I know there are people who abandon their kids, and people who avoid getting treatment for serious illnesses because they’re in denial or afraid.  But the vast majority of us just do what needs to be done because the alternative would be hurtful to ourselves or others.

“Being strong is when you are afraid of something,” said a member of our group, a psychotherapist who is also a cancer survivor.  “And you do it anyway, even though you could choose not to and there wouldn’t be any consequences.”

And that’s how this relates to travel, especially for someone like me who travels solo a lot.  I do have anxious thoughts about getting lost, being swindled, being disappointed.  But I go anyway.  The fear of regretting that I never saw the Amalfi Coast is stronger than the what ifs.