To Find Yourself, You Must Rome Alone
The FaceBook status of my dear friend posted: “…traveling to Rome, Italy.” Excited for her, I put the phone down and went tuck my daughter in for the night. As I snuggled next to her, I began to reminisce about my first trip to Rome. As a young woman, in her early twenties, with her first post-college job, I was putting in 60 to 80 hour weeks to prove my worth to be promoted to an executive position. It was grueling but I was thankful to have a job and anxious to make the money I needed to pay off college-debt and repair the results of ill-managed finances. After a couple of years at this pace, I was feeling the strain of the long hours and feeling unappreciated.
About this time, a couple of long-distance friends and I began to fantasize about taking a trip to Europe. We brainstormed over email about how we would rendezvous in Rome and make our way to Amsterdam for New Year’s Eve. Outside of a brief stint in Germany at the age of two and a weekend trip to Mexico, I had no experience abroad. I had envied others in college that had the means and/or courage to make a trip abroad happen. Feeling emboldened by my friends, I booked my airplane ticket to Rome, purchased my Eurail pass and excitedly shared the news with my friends. Crickets… then, one by one, each collaborator came up with one excuse or another to not make the trip. I couldn’t possibly go to Rome alone! Not only would I be in Rome alone, I would be in Rome for Christmas alone.
With a knot in my stomach, I contemplated what to do. A woman in Rome alone for Christmas! I didn’t speak Italian. At the time, it sounded like a horrible idea. I needed to cancel. Then, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to get out of my tickets so easily. When feeling stress, I often escape into a movie. I went to Vulcan and rented the DVD, “Roman Holiday.” Audrey Hepburn as Princess Anne rekindled my fantasy and I decided to go. Fortunately, I did find a friend willing to meet me in Amsterdam for New Year’s Eve, but until then, I was to be on my own.
Armed with my “Lonely Planet” guide, I remember trudging with my backpack to my affordable pensionne, checking in and quickly locking the door behind me, my back to the door and sagging on the floor with my heavy pack, I wondered how was I going to survive. My curiosity got the better part of me. Eventually, I was able to coax myself out of my room to explore the amazing city of Rome. To write that it was profound is appallingly inadequate. In a time with no FaceBook, Snapchat and WIFI, I was very much left on my own. I hit all the usual places: The Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Piazza di Spagna and the Vatican and so on.
Moved by all the architectural marvels, I sought refuge walking around and getting lost in the many the piazas. I remember images of laughing children on a carousel, a fashionable man wearing a mukluk and fur boots descending the Spanish steps, and young smiling couples scootering by on red Vespas. I remember taking café normale or a gelato standing at the bar attempting to blend in with the Italians. I remember the graciousness of Italians as I attempted to communicate in my paltry Italian phrases. I remember my first meal alone in one of the many caffe , a young woman eating a meal by herself in a swarm of tourist. Mostly, I remember my peaceful solitude and the whispering pines as I went for a Christmas morning run through the Villa Borghese.
Eventually, it was time for me to leave Rome and take a train to Florence. I caught a terrible cold. The staff looked at me oddly as I ordered ordered a large pizza to go at a nearby pizzeria. Exhausted by my illness and the strangeness of it all, I took my foil wrapped pie back to my room and slept for two days straight before feeling energetic enough to venture downstairs for a role and café au lait. There in my pensionne dining room, I met a kindred spirit, another girl my age traveling alone. Thankfully, Penny was American and spoke fluent Italian. We hung out visiting the Duomo and Uffizi. Accidentally, I ordered a dish with tripe and politely ate it. We went to the disco with the young, handsome Italian waiters who gave me a souvenir plate from Trattoria Anita. Eventually, I exchanged addresses with Penny and departed to Amsterdam to meet my friend for New Year’s Eve and plenty more adventure.
Traveling abroad alone was not something I had intentionally planned for myself. I was sitting day to day in a grey cubicle staring at a spreadsheet until my eyes blurred. Mind-numbingly stuck, my intention was a deep desire for self-discovery. The initial joy of escaping with friends had been prayer. God (Universe, Spirit) heard the prayer and this opportunity to travel alone was an unexpected answer. The souvenir plate eventually broke and I lost touch with Penny. What stays with me are the gifts from my unexpected journey to self-discovery. I learned resourcefulness, I learned patience, and I learned to ask for help. I learned to bask in the freedom of being alone. I experienced kindness, humility and a deep courage that I never knew was inside of me. I discovered a joy in connecting with people in other cultures. I remember staring out the window on a train bound for Amsterdam and seeing my reflection. I had gotten glimpse of someone and made friends with someone I never knew: Me. And though it had taken me several years to begin discovering her, I was on my way.