I used to have this thing about being a tourist.
I never wanted to ask for directions. Carry a map. I didn’t even want to do anything “touristy” – including going to the top of the Eiffel Tower. (Thank goodness it was rainy and cold and there was no line, so I submitted. And, of course, it was fabulous!)
Instead I got lost in the neighborhoods of Puerta Vallarta – where a kind stranger took pity on my ex and me, intuitively knowing we couldn’t possibly be in the right place and asked us where we were trying to go.
Somehow I associated it all with white Reeboks. A fanny pack and speaking very loudly.
The last time I traveled alone – and by alone I mean not meeting a friend or traveling together as a group, which means Dublin and Rwanda don’t count – I went to France.
I was participating in a volunteer project, but I started off with a few days on my own in Paris. Intent on playing the part of the Parisian.
That night I wandered the streets of the City of Lights, slightly drunk – alone. I was scolded for smoking in the non-smoking section of an outdoor café. (Who knew there was one? In Paris!) And I called my then-husband sobbing. I had wanted to travel alone. And suddenly I felt very alone. I didn’t like it.
The days that followed weren’t much better. That is, until the day I left for Avignon to join my volunteer team, when I was able to remember a single word of French and use it, thus communicating with an old woman at the train station. “Plutar.” She lit up. “Plutar! Plutar!” Yes, yes, I was going to Avignon too – later.
So I was a little bit nervous about coming to Italy alone. Even though I chose it.
I know traveling alone can be lonely. And scary. There is no one to get lost with. And it has been my experience that getting lost together is far less scary than getting lost alone. And yet, at the end of my first day in Rome, I haven’t gotten lost. And I don’t feel lonely. Or alone.
Perhaps because I’ve asked a lot of questions. Of the teenage boys on the train from the airport. “Why did so many kids get on all at once at this stop? Is there school on Sunday?” (Nope. Game and comic festival.) Of the man behind the counter at the newsstand. “Can I buy a ticket for Tram 8 here?” (Yes.)
And of a woman on the platform in the middle of the street. “Is this the right stop for Tram 8 going towards the city center?” (Yes. And she even reminded me when we got to the third stop, my stop. I had mentioned it to her.)
I asked my host where I might eat and he suggested the very same place as a friend of mine in the United States had. And then I asked him to show me on a map how to get there.
I ambled. I rambled. I looked for street names on buildings and found them on about one-third. I held out my map and “stood in it” like Joey did in London on Friends.
I got lost. I got found. Or maybe I just got turned around. But I didn’t panic. And along the way I heard music in Piazza Santa Maria Trastevere and enjoyed my first gelato of the trip – yogurt, pistachio-hazelnut-chocolate and single-sourced cocoa. And just before handing me the cup, the server lopped on an extra spatula full…just because.
I took things slowly. I found my way to the river, crossed over and made my way to Piazza Campo De Fiore. Yes, given the time I can read a map. I also found the famed Grom gelato – there’s an outpost shop in Manhattan – but decided to save it for another day. However that didn’t keep me from checking out the flavors at another shop and tasting the ginseng and one with candied fruit when invited to.
I finished with dinner at Ai Spaghettari – where my host and my friend had suggested and I had the carbonara, also suggested, along with melon and prosciutto and a macchiato.
All around me were Italians glued to the soccer match on television, and a fair number of Americans plotting their next move. And I was one of them.