I leave for Italy in 39 days.
I only recently bought my plane ticket, and just last week decided exactly where I will spend the days following my volunteer work in Umbria. I have not booked a single night at a hotel, pensione, hostel or airbnb.
This is highly unusual for me.
By now I would have secured a room for all of my nights, and outlined a rough itinerary of my days – making certain I knew when each museum closed. I learned this from my friend Tim, who saved the Louvre for his last day in Paris, not realizing it closed on Tuesdays. He has lovely pictures of the outside.
I would have purchased my train tickets and made copies of my passport. My travel books would be dog-eared and yellowed with highlighter.
I have done none of this. I’m not sure why.
And so I find myself tucked into a big chair in the back of the Book Cellar, pouring over travel guides – more out of necessity than anything. Fodors. Rough Guide. Lonely Planet. Thick books on the whole of Italy. Thinner versions on Rome, Florence and Tuscany. Artist Date 86.
I recall my first travels overseas – press trips to Germany and Israel. I was in my 20s and had dreamed of traveling abroad. Everything was handled for me. Flights. Hotel. Itinerary. And yet, I sat at San Francisco International Airport before each trip – terrified.
Flying out of SFO in 1999 to Spain – my first overseas trip with my then boyfriend, now ex-husband — felt wholly different. I wasn’t alone.
One Saturday morning we somewhat impulsively bid on Priceline tickets to Madrid. By afternoon, we were sprawled out on the floor of Borders Books – leaving a few hours later with copies of Frommers – Europe on $100 a day and Madrid, Barcelona and Seville.
We traveled overseas together several times over the next few years – me carefully crafting an itinerary each time. Yet, a part of me longed to travel alone, as so many of my friends had done after college.
And at 37, I do it.
At the time, I feel too old to throw a rucksack on my back, sleep in hostels and shower in train stations. I find a trip volunteering in the south of France, building walls as part of an architectural restoration project.
I spend a few days in Paris by myself when I arrive. It does not feel glamorous and exciting as I had imagined. It feels scary and lonely. I wander the streets alone, slightly drunk and call my then husband — crying. A few days later I join my team in Avignon. Surrounded by volunteers from around the word, ranging in age from 21 to 73, I feel joyous and free. I have found my place, my role. I am the friendly American who drinks too much and gives massages.
Eight years later, (I will turn 45 in Italy) I do not drink anymore. I do not have a husband anymore. These things that I leaned into ceased to serve me long ago. This time, this trip, I must lean into myself. My hesitation in planning suddenly makes sense. I am afraid.
And yet, I have a plan, a purpose – I am again joining volunteers from around the globe. This time, at the Altrocioccolato Festival – known as the “other chocolate festival” – outside of Perugia. This time, my alone time is on the back-end of the trip – and I will have a better sense of place. This time I have people, “waiting” for me in church basements. People who also used to drink too much but don’t anymore – people like me.
My friend Pam says I will go to Italy and meet a boy on a scooter and never come home. She tells me that I am brave. That she doesn’t know anyone else our age doing what I am doing – traveling, alone. I do not feel brave.
And I remember what I’ve been told, that bravery isn’t the absence of fear, it is walking through it anyway.
Or perhaps flying through it – direct from Chicago to Rome on Alitalia. Or riding a scooter through it – an Italian boy in front, and chocolate in my pocket.