A few weeks ago, over dinner, a woman I know asked me who traveled with me to Italy.
“No one,” I answered. “Myself.”
Like the silence I heard when I was a we, and responded to the question “Do you have children?” with a simple “No.” The quiet, uncomfortable space while they waited for some sort of explanation. Something to make them feel more comfortable with the answer that made them uncomfortable.
The same silence that often greets me when responding to the question, “Are you seeing anyone?” with “No.” The same quiet waiting, for “But I was…” or “Well there is this guy I just met.” Or my friend Patsy’s genius answer, “I am seeing a lot of different men.”
For a while I acquiesced…talking about my not-quite-relationships. My Divorce Buddy. The Southern Svengali. The friendships, flirtations and occasional dalliances that made me feel like I had something going on. The relationships that ended seemingly before they even started. I think it made us both feel better.
This time was different. I felt no need to explain my solo voyage. In fact, I was downright chuffed (to turn a British phrase), pleased with myself and the situation I consciously and happily put myself in – alone for 17 days in Italy.
A few days later, I was asked the same question about travel mates. And I watched as the woman’s smile wrinkled into a pained frown. “You were alone…on your birthday?” The same question my mother asked me before I left. The same question I had asked myself.
“Yes! It was awesome!”
I told her about my 15-hour layover in Paris. About walking along the Seine, seeing Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, laughing out loud, asking no one in particular, “Who goes to Paris for dinner on their birthday?” and replying, “I do.”
I told her about being present to the moment. About the real birthday present – of not wanting anything to be other than it was. Not wishing for a man or a friend. Not wishing I had worn something different, eaten something different, stayed in a different apartment.
She looked confused.
I’ve been thinking about why this trip was different. Why I was different.
I have traveled by myself before – on press trips and volunteer projects and meeting up with friends on the other end. But only truly “alone” once before – in the few days before and after participating in a volunteer project in the south of France.
I had longed to travel alone. It represented who I wanted to be. Adventurous. Glamorous. Strong. A world traveler. And yet, when I arrived in Paris alone in 2006 I only felt sad, scared and alone.
My answer, or at least part of it, came in an email from my friend Melinda. In it, she mentioned going to a play reading – by herself – completely spur of the moment.
“It kind of reminded me of your Artist Dates.”
Artist Date. Balm to my soul. Savior of my heart and mind. The simple suggestion by Julia Cameron in the book The Artist’s Way of a once a week “walkabout” to fill one’s creative coffers.
I took on the challenge nearly two years ago. Newly divorced and painfully licking the wounds of my first forays “back out there.” I had heard others talk about feeling free, having great sex, or at the very least, a lot of it, following the dissolution of their marriages. My efforts and experiences only left me feeling scared, desperate and crazy.
In a moment of grace, I turned away from convention, from the promises of partnership, and toward myself through weekly Artist Dates. To the opera. To the Art Institute. To ethnic grocery stores and new neighborhoods. To theatre and concerts. Alone.
Reading Melinda’s email, it occurred to me that perhaps all of this “structured aloneness” had prepared me for this – a seeming marathon of solitude.
Arriving in Rome alone last month, I felt the same anxious fear that had accompanied me to Paris. But this time I didn’t try to act cool. I didn’t try to pretend I was a local or that I even knew where I was.
I held a map in my hand, asked a lot of questions and opened myself to the possibility of getting lost, or worse, of looking stupid.
I challenged myself to not take cabs. To depend on trains, buses and trams.
On my feet. On myself. And the time-tested kindness of strangers.
Strangers who reminded me I was never really alone. Leonardo, the 19-year-old man/boy, who saved me from boarding the wrong bus – twice – in Arezzo.
Delilah, another volunteer at Altrocioccolato – the fair trade chocolate festival in Umbria where I began my journey – who sent me to her brother, his wife and cousin in Florence for Aperitivo – the Italian version of happy hour, but with a much better buffet, and a drive through the city.
Who organized a dinner party – which became my birthday party, complete with candles, singing and gifts – among her English-speaking friends when I arrived in Rome a few days later.
Seems my Artist Dates, my time alone, prepared me to be alone. For long walks, shopping at flea markets and eating fatty pork sandwiches while sitting on the edge of a fountain in Campo De Fiore.
It also prepared me to be with people – with ideas and experiences to share.
But mostly it prepared me for my life, the one I dreamed of not so many years ago in Paris— Adventurous. Glamorous. Strong. A world traveler.