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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

On Traveling Solo June 14, 2016

I traveled by myself to Greece one year. It was in the mid eighties, when I was a divorced mother of three, administering a clinic for the evaluation of children and adolescents for mental health issues in a large city. I had planned the trip with an enthusiastic younger single woman who worked with me at the clinic. The itinerary was set, the airfare saved, the tickets purchased --when she met a man who changed her life. His birthdate was the same as hers. This was her destiny and therefore mine as well. I decided to travel solo. Athens, the Peloponnesian Islands, the Oracle of Delphi  and Corfu. I was intrigued at how I was perceived by others. All the waiters and other service help proposed that I meet them after their shift was completed. They spoke halting English with an accent that was adorable and I received excellent service. I rode the hop on hop off bus and saw the Acropolis, visited the museums and I enjoyed the Meridien Hotel's amenities. My guidebook kept me company at dinner time, but the weather was fine and I often dined outdoors at a cafe where I watched the coupled world go by. Dinner is the loneliest hour for me as a solo traveler.

When I climbed aboard the large bus for the Peloponnesian Island tour, I was among many Asian travelers, who spoke no English. Anyway no one spoke to me. We stopped at each site, hearing the description of the site through our earpieces which were available in several different languages. We visited the places where each of the discoveries I had seen in the museum originated. I bought a tatami mat and slippers and spent some quiet time on the rocky beaches, reading favorite mystery stories based in the Greek islands. I took the overnight ferry to Corfu and remained on deck all night. The below deck cabin was suffocating and the motion of the boat made me dizzy. I was looking forward to some comraderie at the pensione I had booked for the week. I was also anticipating speaking French or German to fellow travelers.

The reality was quite different. As a solo American woman traveler, no one except the staff spoke to me. When I asked if I could join folks at table for meals, they were polite, but turned to each other and continued whatever conversation they had been having. I asked to transfer to the HIlton Hotel where there were other American tourists where I felt more at home.

My subsequent travels over the next thirty years were with my husband until he died last summer after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease. I am a solo traveler once again, but this time I decided to go with a group that caters to us. We went to Sicily; the group met for the first time at the airport in Palermo. I arrived by myself, after receiving lots of email and brochures with all kinds of advice about packing, the anticipated weather and portage services which would be provided.Three others arrived at the airport within a certain time period and we drove together with a company representative to the hotel. I was in a foreign country but I was with American tourists. What a huge difference immediately.

There were four recent widows in the group, one of whom is much younger and two who knew each other prior to the tour. The younger one aligned herself with a group of three, a mother and daughter and the partner of the daughter. The rest of the group included three couples and two sisters traveling together. We were busy, we had fun, the organized time and activities were enjoyable and I relished the free time for shopping by myself. I generally prefer to shop alone, except when I need encouragement to purchase a piece of jewelry I love, but hesitate to spend the  money to purchase.
Lunch and dinner "on own" as the guide described it, were the most difficult for me, as usual. Once, the two widows invited me to join them but the next time, they chose a cheese and sausage restaurant that was unacceptable to me and I joined the group of four women for a delicious cod ceviche lunch at a delightful spot nearby instead. I felt tolerated. There was interpersonal tension within the group that I felt, but no topic I introduced was accepted, even about the food we were eating.

One evening turned out to be a charm. We were in Catania. Our guide had suggested a restaurant near the hotel, but on the night he mentioned it, the restaurant was closed. On the following night I decided to try it, thinking perhaps I would meet others who were similarly intrigued by the name or by the young couple who had recently opened the space. Through the restaurant window, I saw an empty space at 8:40 PM. The door was open, but no greeter was present and no one was seated at either of the two long white-dressed tables in this white-painted room. I hesitated to enter alone and I walked away. At the corner I spied one of the two other widows. She was by herself. Her friend had claimed tiredness and wanted some alone time, so I invited her to join me at this restaurant. We were able to learn much about each other's lives in this one on one situation, we enjoyed the well prepared fresh local food and we drank Mount Etna white wine.

So, why travel solo? What is it I am really looking for? Adventure? Putting another red pushpin on my imaginary world map? I had fun in my young thirties traveling with a friend to a Club Med site and speaking French or German with other participants in Martinique. Is it fun I am after? On this trip the joy I found was mostly tempered by the pain involved. I visited the recently found Jewish ritual baths of Siracusa, Sicily. They hadn't been seen since Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews in 1493.I climbed Mount Etna--in the bus-- and rode on donkeys who walked on volcanic ash which came from volcanic explosions which happen as frequently as hail storms. I saw the twenty foot high piles of cooled and cooling lava that stretched twenty miles toward the sea in 2002. I admired the meticulous placement of gold mosaic pieces on a concave apse of a magnificent cathedral in Montreale, outside of Palermo.We ate wonderful bread and many fruits, apricots, strawberries, mulberries that have not been Monsantoed--read genetically modified. And we drank delicious, rich coffee imported from Brazil?? Why so far away? It seems that the coffee may be accompanied by cocaine on its trip from Brazil to Sicily.

When we saw how the Phoenicians saved drinking water and how they buried their dead, we recognize again how much people knew so very long ago. The Greeks built their temples with perspective, the columns were indeed narrower at the top than at the bottom--to make them appear larger to potential invaders from the sea. The Christians built their cities around the cathedral, the Greeks surrounded their cities with temples.

In today's world when we use the categories of countries, we can't speak of a unified group of people. We are all fractured, diverse in our adherences, in our beliefs and in our practices. "We the People" does not seem to exist anymore,

So why do I travel? To make new connections. With history, with the Jewish People, with new friends in all walks of life, to connect over a cup of coffee in an airport, a dinner or a ride in a bus with someone I ordinarily would not have met in my daily life. The solo part is still hard for me and lonely, but this organized trip for solo travelers makes it so do- able it becomes fun.

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