This road trip around France began as an act of defiance I guess. Have ferry ticket, car and 3 weeks to spare, will travel. It was also something of a challenge. Could little old me, all by myself, drive around France, going for weeks without any meaningful conversation, relying just on my own intuition and judgement…?
This morning I have a hangover from last night’s shenanigans with a great group of locals. So, naturally, I’m feeling a little delicate this morning. And the first thing to be affected is my Achilles heel – my mood.
Listless. Pinpricks behind the eyes. Desire to crawl back under the duvet. Being on the French Riviera, under the gaze of a beautiful sun has done little to shift this so far this morning.
It’s easy to carry on when life feels good, the emotions are in balance and positivity rules. The flip side is trying to wade through the treacle of life when the inclination is to let go and just drown into peaceful oblivion. Writing it down and acknowledging the feelings is a start. I always feel so guilty. I remember what the guys of the First World War battlefields went through, and my visit to the Somme and I’m ashamed to have so little to worry about and yet feel so angry. And resentful. And full of self pity. Because, you see, some great friends of mine are celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary today.
I’m here, in beautiful Nice, about to visit Antibes, a Picasso exhibition and then drive down to Marseille. In the glorious sunshine. I’m young(ish), intelligent(ish), independent with beautiful children and all that life has to offer before me. I’m not a girl, born into poverty in some appalling country torn apart with by famine or war. I should be happy. But I’m not. Because I see what Mr T. cannot see. I do things that he would love to do. And I want to do them with him. I would just do anything for him to be here. I miss him.
Yesterday I can safely say I became well acquainted with the ups and downs, the highs and lows of the French Alps.
To begin with, I was embarking on a simple little cruise on down from Grenoble to Monaco’s Monte Carlo. Around 450km. Pas de problem pour moi. I even stopped off en route to take in a jolly jaunt up the side of a mountain at Le Funiculaire de Saint Helene-du-Touvet. More of that later.
The weather was hot and sunny and my little black cloud of grief was doing its best to dissipate. The butterfly which fleetingly greeted me on my journey back down the mountain in the carriage had tried her best to reassure me that everything was going to be ok. That I would be ok. That the sick, empty, useless feeling would soon be over.
So I set the Sat Nav to my hotel destination in Monte Carlo, whacked up Led Zeppelin to full volume, ensured I had enough cigarettes and full fat Coke for the 5 hour trip (the time needed for 450km should have been clue enough about the future drive) and remembered to drive off in the right hand lane.
Bugger I forgot the petrol. Must learn to get my priorities in order…
What I hadn’t taken into account was the Alps. Well, I knew they were there. I just expected to…well…I don’t know really. I suppose I thought they would part miraculously, or there would be a magic button that I could press, to make them sink into the ground, Tracey Island fashion. What I hadn’t anticipated were two things: 1. That one can either drive over mountains. Or through them. Either way is a right royal pain, and 2. They dramatically alter the local meteorological climate. In fact, one is perpetually driving in cloud. For 200km. And if God really does sit on a cloud, then He needs some bloody good wellies. And a mac…
I also hadn’t realised that, in order to tootle down to Monaco, I was going to have to go through Italy. Not that I have anything against the Italians. In fact if you read my previous posts on Florence, you’ll see that I have quite a fondness for them. But having to suddenly switch from speaking appalling French to speaking appalling Italian without as much as a sniff of barbed wire, passport control or scary looking Italian guards in rather too tight trousers was more than my wobbly head could cope with. I just stared in disbelief when a rather gorgeous looking ragazza (how do they manage to look so bloody stylish even when cooped up in a toll booth?) in a starched collared, nicely bust-darted blouse garbled something to me. Presumably it was “Good God woman, didn’t you bother to look at a topological map before you decided to embark on this crazy idea? Have you taken your meds today?” Yes I had, but it all seemed a very long time ago…
Anyhow, off I set. If you ever want to know how it feels to be a sewer rat, and I’m sure you do, on a regular basis, then go to Monaco via the French/Italian Alps. In, out, in, out, speed up, speed down (well, in the case of the Italian drivers, speed up, stay up…). Stop for the road toll on at least 10 occasions. Remember that you’re on the wrong bloody side of the car, so seat belt off, lean over, turn down Lenny Kravitz (Are you gonna go my way? Not if it involves mountains. Not even for you, Mr Sex God). Peer up at scary looking Italian man (I’m in a Mini, he’s seated at the right hand of the Lord on his throne in his toll booth. Well I guess they have to be able to gesticulate wildly to lorry drivers too). And it’s pissing it down. Correction. It is torrential.
After 6 hours, 279 miles, countless tunnels, umpteen hairpin bend roads, aqua planing twice (not on a hairpin bend though, thankfully), watching 2 poor buggers being carted off in an ambulance (yes I did feel sorry for them in their road accident, even though it delayed me), 50 Hail Mary’s, God knows how many Our Fathers and a promise that if I ever did make it to Monte Carlo, I would never do this crazy trip again, I arrived at a lovely little hotel. Then I had to carry my backpack up 3 flights of stairs, after which I was nearly sick when I actually got into the room, so knackered, tired and hungry was I. Then, finally, city hotels rarely have their own car parks, so I had to go off and find one for Mini. And then walk back. at 11pm. In the dark. In a strange city.
After the hair raising trip from Grenoble the previous day, I was somewhat reluctant to bother with the Ferrari trip that I had arranged. I’d had enough of cars and being on roads for a while. I wanted to lie down in a dark room and sleep. For a few days.
It was to be at 12 noon. I could have done with a good lie in but, I’d booked and paid and by golly I was going to do it! I could sleep for the rest of the day afterwards.
Since I was travelling with one rucksack only, I had packed minimal clothing. Whilst in the glorious southern French heat, I determined to do as much washing as possible. The morning was thus taken up with my showering/clothes washing combo, where I stamp on the clothes rather like someone treading grapes, whilst attending to my ablutions. I had deliberately packed easy to wash and wear, cotton, no need to iron, vests, long hippy skirts and dresses. All could be hung up on door knobs, coat hangers and -well- anything really, to dry in the heat and be ready to wear….
So at 12 I went downstairs to be met by a gorgeous red Ferrari Spider and a rather cute looking French guy, dressed in a rather silly Formula One-esque outfit. Even he looked somewhat embarrassed to be in it! But still, it was cute…
JJ was a lovely guy. He instantly made me feel relaxed. The idea of a solo, female traveller, booting it around the notorious hairpin bends above Monaco with some flash guy who does this job because he has Ferrari envy, had crossed my mind. Was I being just a little bit sad?
Hell, no!! JJ took me around the Formula One racetrack (which can only be driven by Monaco and French residents), past the Opera House, the Monte Carlo Casino and seemed genuinely impressed with having a half decent looking bird alongside him. He told me that most of his customers are enormous, middle aged men, living out childhood fantasies. He spends most of his time ensuring that they drive safely and have control of the vehicle, than pointing out the highlights of the Principality.
His delight was to be able to show off his driving skills (excellent), the car (goes like shit off a shovel when out of town and on the narrow, bendy roads) and his knowledge of Monaco and the local area. Turns out he’s actually a Bio-Chemist and this is a job for the summer, for fun. Not a bad way to spend the summer…
We tootled off around the Formula 1 track on Monaco’s streets, being photographed by tourists, much to my amusement. It was a fancy way of doing a city tour and certainly a novelty. The trip up and around the mountains was more fun however, as we accelerated and the wind whipped my hair. Every so often the foot hit the gas and I screamed with delight at the funny feeling in my tummy and just the thrill of it all. It was so much fun!!!!! At no point did I feel unsafe but at the same time there was just enough thrill to feel what a Ferrari can do (even when never getting out of 2nd gear!)
JJ had the rest of the day off and so we decided to have some lunch and mooch around. Monaco is a strange place. Established in the 13th Century, it feels…well… fake. The old buildings are kept assiduously bright and clean and so look new. The Palace, for example, has been renovated and extended to the extent that the original medieval building is no longer visible. It’s a little like a toy town.
The Changing of the Guard occurs outside the Palace, protecting the Monarchy. The soldiers however, wear soft leather shoes, not army boots. And the trousers are just a little too snug around the bottom. Even the march has its own quirky little movements as the Guard turns around to march back the other way – a little flick of the foot as he makes the turn… more of a dance move than a military stride. In fact, Monaco’s military defence is the responsibility of France, so the whole thing is for show anyway. Everything looks fake. Too clean. Too shiny. As though it was bought in the 1990’s from “Principalities R Us”; everything you need to build your own country.
The Police officers look as though they were chosen from Models One Agency rather than the local populace. I’m not sure if they actually need to do any policing here, or if they are just glorified traffic wardens, making sure that you not only park in the correct places, but that you park TIDILY to avoid making the place look a mess.
So, all in all, Monaco is a fun place to visit, and it is possible to stay there for a reasonable price. I stayed at a hotel called Hotel de France (www.monte-carlo.mc/france). For a clean, modern, twin bed room with modern shower and sea view, the price was £297 which, for 3 nights in Monaco is quite remarkable. Breakfast is E10 per person, continental. This includes fresh juice, a pot of proper tea/coffee, bread, cheese, patisseries, jams, crackers, yogurt and certainly set me up for the morning. I tried buying breakfast at a local boulangerie or Patisserie but the price was similar and there was only one coffee, so I think this is better value. There is no lift and it can be a pain to lug your backpack up 3 flights of stairs, but hey ho, we could all do with the exercise. Parking is available in a local car park with discount rates for Hotel residents.
Monaco is a fantastic place to visit, but do it as part of a general tour along the French Riviera. Next stop for me… Nice.
For me, the First World War was something that happened to other people. There were no accounts of family members’ involvement in any battles; no Victory medals proudly on display, or ornaments made out of old shell cases, fashioned by a boredTommy. In fact, no one really seemed to speak of the Great War where I lived. My parents didn’t speak of Grandfathers who went off to war. I grew up thinking that you had to be special to have a family member in the war – maybe we were too common? Both of my grandfathers were dead and my grandmothers spoke little of their childhoods.
Paternal Grandma Kate was born in 1908 so was 8-10 years old when her father was apparently gassed at Ypres (all I’ve managed to glean so far – still conducting research). Maternal Grandma Beatrice was born in 1915 whilst her father was in France. Her middle name was Louvain, presumably after theplace in Belgium whose population was the victim of war atrocities and which was razed to the ground. One of the first casualties of the War to end all Wars. Louvain had been ransacked months before Beatrice’s father Arthur Greenhill went to France.
I have O levels and A levels in British and European History. I was taught not one single nugget of information about either the First or Second World Wars. For a post 60’s UK generation, the fight for freedom had been won long ago; we could vote for whoever, had a free health service, free education, a welfare state and an acute knowledge of our rights. We had scant little appreciation of what was sacrificed to live in our world. We made jokes about old people always going on about the war and couldn’t see the relevance of any of it to our lives.
I remember an old man with one leg who used to wheel himself around my local shopping centre in the 70’s in one of those bath chairs with a steering wheel. He was always alone. I guess he was a war veteran. And I remember wandering whether the Haig of the annual poppy day was a distant relative of one of my teachers – known as Mr Hague (the only Hague I was familiar with).
So it was to my surprise when, 20 years later, courtesy of ancestry.co.uk, I discovered that my maternal great grandfather, Arthur Henry Greenhill fought in the Somme. To my great astonishment, and thanks to the British Army WW1 Service records, I was able to discover which regiment he was in. He was in the Twentieth Light Division. At the beginning of the war, in 1915, he was in the Cyclist Division. This was later incorporated into the First Tank Division (I guess war machinery moved on very quickly from being blown up on a bicycle, to being incinerated in a tank). I was even more surprised to discover that he actually survived the war and came home, to live until he was 82. I never met him, he was never really spoken of and I guess there’s some family stuff going on there…
The internet is a wonderful thing. Through the vast numbers of websites available, containing information regarding soldiers of the First World War, I was able to obtain a map (Mr and Mrs Holt’s Battle Map of the Somme). This, together with the publication of “The History of the Twentieth (Light) Division by Captain VE Inglefield (an intriguing compilation of official records and field notes) meant that I was able to follow the course of my Great Grandfather’s battle, as he and his companions dug in the mud, up to their waists in blood, sweat and tears as they fought to free French villages such as Guillemont from the German army. Moreover, I was able to visit those villages. So today, 100 years later I found myself in Guillemont, north east of Amiens; a scene of heavy fighting and loss of life, in the middle of the Somme…
As far as I am aware, I am the first member of my family since Great Granddad Arthur, to visit the French fighting fields. I am surprised at how strongly I feel for these innocent young men of all nations, caught up in something of which they must have had such little understanding. Such sorrow. And such enormous pride. Thank you Great Granddad, for what you and your comrades did for me and my fellow citizens. I salute you xx
Well that was it. Once I heard the smooth, soothing tones of my friend Nick’s voice, the homesickness flooded in. There was no stopping it. Except 846 miles (1094 km), torrential rainstorms in the middle of France, the fact that every French person alive was going in the same direction as me….and the English Channel.
I was in Avignon. Which is a medieval town in the South East of France. It wasn’t designed for cars to drive around, a fact I discovered when trying to get out and onto the autoroute. Yes, I had a satnav. But the satnav assumes that road signs don’t really change over time. It’s a bad assumption to make in a medieval town at the height of the tourist season. Every left or right turn that I had to make seemed to be blocked with a “no entry” sign. Frustration escalated as Mini and I were blocked at every turn. I seemed destined to stay in Avignon forever, and as much as it is a beautiful town with heaps of history and a nice bridge (it is nice but it wasn’t in the forefront of my mind at this point), I just wanted to get out.
Eventually I followed a French car which seemed to have a purpose in mind and I just hoped that its purpose was the same as mine, to escape the gilded cage of Avignon. Hurrah! After an hour of driving around, reversing around corners, 23 point turns and countless numbers of apologies to the ambling tourists that I nearly ran over, I was free and onto an A road which would eventually lead me to the autoroute (I hoped).
Amiens is within an hour and a half reach of Paris by train, and about 2 hours by car from Dieppe, avoiding the toll roads (if you’re English, driving at a slower speed on the wrong side of the road etc). It has a beautiful olde world bohemian area behind the Cathedral, down by the river which is well worth a visit (or in my case, several). It is not overpriced and serves local delicacies as well as more traditional tourist fare. For a local lunchtime meal try http://www.restaurant-tantejeanne.com/. Very friendly (English speaking) staff who welcomed my request for a solo table by putting me in a wonderfully shady little nook where I had a fine view of everyone in the restaurant and could indulge my favourite pastime of people watching behind sunglasses. I wasn’t even seated near a toilet! Luxury indeed!
Locals and students alike gather down by the canal, where the old town of Amiens – Ste Leu is situated. The solo traveller will feel at home here, wandering through the old streets, listening to snatches of conversation as each open window is strolled past, and finding a quiet step to rest on whilst watching swallows diving in and out of the guttering in which their nests are carefully hidden. The solo traveller notices so many things that can be missed when in the company of others.
Amiens was all but destroyed during the Second World War. Luckily the Cathedral survived, and for me is more impressive than Notre Dame in Paris.
Maybe I feel this because I had the privilege of wandering around its glorious gothic interior more or less by myself. It was 35 degrees outside, and humid. The relief of finding sanctuary within its cool walls was palpable. Amiens Cathedral was built to house the supposed head of St John the Baptist (which was served up on a platter to the wife of King Solomon). The head that is in the church (which I didn’t photograph out of respect) was very small and withered (I guess it happens to us all) and there’s no documentary proof of it actually being that of St John, however it is someone’s head and for me, that fact alone meant that a candle should be lit. After all, presumably there’s a body lying around somewhere, wondering (if headless bodies can wonder…) where the rest of it is….
The first thing that struck me about Amiens (especially as it was the first stop on my tour de France) was its friendliness. The city has a large student and migratory population, and is very welcoming to those new in town. I was made to feel at home here and enjoyed 3 nights in the city’s company.
My first night was a fantastic introduction to Friday night entertainment, French style. A lively band playing electric and acoustic guitars, all 3 of them achingly beautiful, including the female singer/tambourinist. The songs were classic British and American (pleased to say most of them British – The Beatles, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Oasis). I indulged in a “Janvier” cocktail – my birth month and a nifty way to entice tourists to pay 6E for a cocktail that they wouldn’t ordinarily bother with. This was followed by several glasses of local beer and some delightful garlicky canapés which helped my stomach to cope with the rather large amount of cigarettes and alcohol that I was consuming, such was my enjoyment of the evening.
Cigarette intake for me is a kind of barometer of emotional bouyancy. No smoking whatsoever usually means either 1. I’m not at work or 2. I’m not drinking or 3. I’m not either high or low. Just mooching about in the middle. However, if I’m as high as a kite, or in the pits of despair, you’ll find me chuffing for England, on some seedy little menthol number. Or 20. Yes I know it’s bad for my health. But so is banging my head on the wall, which is the alternative if I don’t have a smoke when I’m on a downer…
So much did I enjoy the entertainment that I awoke at 9 the following morning with somewhat of a headache. Still, it was worth it to be a part of the “scene”. Everyone was friendly and warm – although in these parts, not a lot of English is spoken and I appear to have forgotten every French word that I ever learnt.
I imagine that the smell of the wild garlic would have got up my Great Grandfather’s nose long before the Hun did. For a man whose life before 1915 had been submersed in the iron foundries of the Black Country, central England, the sounds and smells must have been new and strange.
Driving through the fighting fields of the Somme, it seemed as though the whole area was asleep, but not a peaceful sleep. I switched my radio off. It seemed incongruous to witness acre after acre of battlefield whilst whistling along to “I get by with a little help from my friends” . The deaths of so many men in such a small area have rendered the whole of this part of France to be permanently shell shocked. A total of 1,304,000 men died here. The earth seems to scream silently at man’s inhumanity to man, yet only birdsong is audible. Whilst many soldiers were exhumed and reburied in war graves, the majority proved to be unidentifiable and indistinguishable from one another. This band of brothers lived together and died together. Nationality was no barrier to destruction. Everyone lost.
Farmers toil the land now, rich in the nitrogen left behind by the lifeblood of the fallen; providing nutrients for the crops. British ex-pats are busy converting barns into holiday homes. Local children go to school, and then move away with the need for employment and prospects. Life does carry on here, but a walk in the fields and through the woods surrounding the villages, and it’s easy to imagine the pounding of the machine guns, the screams of the men and horses and the groaning of the land, ripped apart and bleeding to death. I wandered how long it took for the birdsong to reappear…
There are few old buildings in the local villages. Everything is 20th century made. Each village has its own war cemetery, honouring both foreigners and locals alike. Monuments mark the sacrifice made by groups of British guys who marched off to war together, such as the Manchester and Liverpool Pals. The only time I can imagine that these two fiercely rival cities would be happy to have their names carved side by side.
My Great Grandfather fought to liberate Guillemont, an unassuming village but vital to breaking through the defences of the German line on the Western Front. Little remains of the Guillemont that he would have marched/crawled into; the village was virtually razed to the ground thanks to the monthly pounding of machine gun fire and the constant shelling from both sides. On the crossroads outside of the village sits a memorial stone to the Twentieth (Light) Division who played a key role in the liberation. It took 4 attempts from July 1916, and the use of the new tanks between 3rd-6th September 1916 (and massive loss of life) to finally capture Guillemont from the German army. By the end of August 1916, British casualties were 251,000 men. How my Great Grandfather survived, is a miracle. But with what consequences? The conditions were tough:
“Preparations for the attack were being pushed forward. Unfortunately just at this time, bad weather set in, and this, together with the continued and heavy hostile shelling in which gas shells were largely used, made the work extremely difficult. The trenches were deep in mud and water and were constantly being blown in…both No Man’s Land and the ground behind the trenches were covered with dead bodies which had been lying out for weeks, and the state of the whole line was foul.”
(Captain V E Inglefield “The History of the Twentieth (Light) Division”, 1921).
For the solo traveller, especially one on a road trip with hundreds of miles to cover, it can be useful to break up both the solitude and the driving fatigue with an organised tour. I chose to hop a ride with a jolly bunch of Aussies, most of whom were in the middle of wonderful travel trips themselves. They were travelling through Europe having stopped off at London and Paris, and were making their way down to either the south of France or on towards Switzerland and Italy.
I had the pleasure of their company for a whole day, lunch included. I also had the interesting addition of seeing the First World War from the Australian perspective. The tour was excellent, organised by Terres de memoire (www.terresdememoire.com). If you think that you know all there is to know about a part of history, try taking in a tour catering for visitors from a country other than your own.You will soon find that your view of history is very one dimensional. Where yesterday, I had visited the places that my great grandfather, Arthur Greenhill had fought alongside his British comrades, today I learnt about the vital roll played by the Anzacs in breaking through the German frontline. I also learnt about the appalling loss of life on behalf of a nation which volunteered to fight alongside its Motherland, and how it marked the transition from a nationbeing tethered to the British apron strings, to one creating its own history. They played their part in the theatre of war which occurred along a 30km line, for a gain of 12km of ground, killing around one million people.
1916 saw an impasse between Germany and Britain. Trench warfare had set in, with neither side being able to break through the other’s defences. Loss of life was high on both sides. Approximately 60,000 men died on the first day. The Australians came to relieve the beleaguered Brits whose numbers were dramatically depleted. Pozieres was the place that would see the Australians’ finest hour.
Attacking during the night, from the low land up to the German high land vantage point, the Anzacs succeeded in breaking through the defences. Here stands theAustralian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. From here it can be seen just what a magnificent tour de force the troops must have been.
The German army could see for miles across the French countryside, and as they were always in a defending position, and as they had prepared for months in advance, with carefully constructed trenches and defence mechanisms, the Australian victory cannot be underestimated. It also marked a psychological change in the German army. It demonstrated the fact that they could be beaten. In all, around 624,000 Allies and 500,000 German died at the Somme. The numbers are unimaginable. Environmental studies show that iron levels in the fields of the Somme and other battlefield areas continue to be significantly higher than average, due to the large number of casualties and the intensity of the shelling.
It was a joy to travel on a bus (luxury – being able to stare out across the countryside, and no trying to overtake tractors) in the company of those who shared my history but a different one. The French guide was friendly, informative and genuinely seemed to take delight in discussing all matters war. They were as curious about this solo female traveller as I was about them travelling halfway around the world. A wonderful lunch hour was spent in the company of people who thought I was a little bit crazy, but full of guts.
One of the highlights of the day was when a lady found her great uncle, buried in one of the many Commonwealth and German cemeteries that we visited (she had emailed the guide beforehand with details and they managed to find him), and share in her tears of sorrow and pride. This was a memorable day for us all…
A read of “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque will show just how horrific the war was for Germans as well as the Allies…
Mooching through oneof the farmer’s fields, I came across some shrapnel. The fields continue to give up First World War artefacts, with soldiers being found and sometimes identified, on a regular basis.
On the way to the largest British Memorial to the 70,000 British soldiers still unaccounted for, in the Somme alone, we met a lovely 82 year old lady called Madame Christine. Her late husband was a farmer and would regularly come home with empty shell cases that he had ploughed up:
She also had 2 live ones:
The Département du Déminage, an arm of the French government operates in as much secrecy (to allay citizen concern) as possible to eliminate the unexploded shells which litter Northeastern France. This department has, since 1946, collected eighteen million artillery shells, ten million grenades, six hundred thousand aerial bombs and six hundred thousand underwater mines (this figure does, of course, include ordnance from W.W.II) and cleared and reclaimed two million acres. The department also receives about two million calls for the pick up of unexploded devices per year; these include grenades, mines, shells and bombs.
Mme Christine spoke no English but seemed to be able to understand me when I asked if she would mind having her photo taken with me, and adored the fact that my name is Victoria. She lives alone, her only regular contact with the outside world being the occasional group of tourists that turn up to admire her collection of war memorabilia, courtesy of the lovely tour guide Sylvestre. I would have loved to have shared a French brandy with her and discussed past times (with the help of a translator…Sylvestre perhaps?)
So Florence it was. I visited in May, 6 months after Mr T died; when it’s not too hot to walk around but lots of sunshine in between the showers. Kind of what I was looking for in life, really.
The first thing to think about when solo travelling, is how to keep yourself occupied. We spend so little time alone that, after the first half an hour of amusing ourselves by playing “spot the nationality” of other tourists (baseball cap, shorts, socks, trainers – American. Unless he’s Japanese…never was much good at stereotyping), the solitude can become wearing, not to mention the uncomfortable feeling that everyone thinks you’re a loser because you’re sitting alone. So I tried a little experiment in Florence.
After balling my eyes out at the first sight of the stupendous green and white marbling of the Basilicadi Santa Maria del Fiore and the Baptistry where Dante was baptised – both because of their beauty and because Mr T wasn’t with me to share the magic – I stood in a shop doorway, blew my nose, checked the face for mascara runs and sat down opposite the cathedral for my first Italian beer. Actually, it was German but that’s not really relevant. I was in a fine spot to do some people watching. I decided to count how many people were, just like me, alone.
By alone, I don’t mean they’d left their significant other whilst they went off to the ATM machine, or to pick up cigarettes, or to find out where the nearest public toilets were. I mean actually alone. Carrying a map or a guide book, staring at the architecture, taking photographs, soaking up the atmosphere, minding their own business (which wasn’t what I was doing). Then I watched how many people were sitting outside cafes, having drinks or meals, chilling, watching me watching them (and probably wondering what Alice Cooper was doing in town). There were loads of people. I can’t say hundreds, but there must have been around 30-40 people, just minding their own business, doing their own thing and not worrying in the least about being alone.
I again looked around and realised that I was the only person who seemed to be the slightest bit interested in looking at people alone with their thoughts, or their iphones, or their books/laptops/coffees. In other words, no one cared that I was sitting alone. So why should I? The waiters didn’t avoid my table “Oh God, watch out, lone woman at table 28. Look, she has no friends, obviously a loser”. No one even batted an eyelid. And no one has ever batted an eyelid since. Unless I’m attempting my “mysterious lady” impression with my sunglasses, sun hat and book about existentialism which has never been opened but looks cool. So go on. Just do it. Quick. Whilst no one’s watching.
The following day I joined a tour of the Uffizzi Gallery and the Academia, had a good nosey around Michelangelo’s David and all in all felt extremely cultured. Florence is full of solo travellers, just mooching about. I spotted a couple trying to take a selfie on the Ponte Vecchio and, having just sampled a limoncello so feeling a little brave, I mimed the offer of taking their photo in return for them taking one of me. Bingo! First proper photo with me in the picture!
My first night in Florence was a bit surreal. During the day I had been busy, booking into my hotel, crying and smiling intermittently at the beauty of everything and the sorrow of my broken soul. I had drunk some beer and eaten a salad. I can handle solitude during daylight hours, when the world is up and about, and there are hundreds of us solo travellers milling about. Night times are a different matter however. The night belongs to groups of friends with good food and wine. Or lovers. I was in neither camp.
By the evening of my first day, I was a little tipsy and tired. I wanted to be where other people were. I wanted to be laughing with friends. I was too scared to move out of my room. I was feeling very sorry for myself. So I went to bed.
The following night, after a day of museums, art galleries and people watching, I went back to my hotel room. I dressed for dinner, had dinner, sat on my bed and wondered what next. Then I gave myself a telling off. I was in Florence for only 4 days. What the hell was I worried about? I wasn’t going to find any life in my room alone. I’d find some tourists to chat to, and pass the evening in pleasant company, over a glass or two. So I headed for the hotel bar.
Perched at the bar (where I feel safe as a solo traveller), in my 5 star hotel, I felt eyes on me. There was a group of tourists (American I think, or maybe Canadian. I haven’t got the hang of the different accents yet) probably in their 60’s. Husbands and wives by the way they were talking. I felt furtive glances yet no attempt to acknowledge me. Sitting on a stool in my black dress, black heeled boots, red lipstick (Mr T’s favourite), I looked around the hotel bar. Everyone was in couples. No one saw this sad, lonely widow, desperate for some interaction. Who knows what they saw? A confident business woman? Someone waiting for their significant other to join them in the bar? Maybe they thought I was a whore. Women do not sit alone, at the bar, dressed up. This was an exclusively “couples only” club and I was no longer eligible to belong. “Sod this”, I thought, and sauntered out.
It was a damp evening. It rains on and off in Florence during May. It’s warm but an umbrella is needed. I walked up and down the glistening streets. There were very few people around and even fewer in the restaurants. I stopped in a nearby church and listened to an organ recital for a while. This just made me feel more sad, so after a while I got up and moved on. I was restless and lonely.
I walked down an unprepossessing street. Minding my own business, with my umbrella up as it was drizzling, I suddenly heard a voice. “Madam, would you like some food?” I peered around my umbrella and saw a chef. I knew this because he was wearing chef’s whites. With a chef’s hat perched jauntily on his head. He was smoking a cigarette outside a trattoria. “No thank you, I’ve eaten” I said, and carried on walking. “How about a glass of wine?”. The guy was the first person I’d spoken to all day, and the two glasses of red gave me a devil may care attitude. Sod it, I’ll have a bloody drink. I also liked the fact that he was smoking. I badly wanted a cigarette and a glass of wine. And a conversation.
I crossed the road and immediately he set about getting a bistro table and a couple of chairs set up. Amused, I sat down. Il Italiano disappeared and then reappeared moments later with a glass of Prosecco, and no whites. He had changed into a t shirt and jeans. He was friendly and well trained in the art of chatting up tourists. But his conversation wasn’t the cheesy kind that makes you want to run. He was good at genuinely appearing interested in who I was and what I was doing, alone in Florence, on a drizzly Monday night. Aware of my situation as a lone woman, I had prepared my story in advance. My husband had gone off somewhere and I was planning to meet him later. I thought of this story as the Prosecco went down and the truth came out.
Il Italiano asked me if I would like to go inside and watch the rest of a football match that was on the TV. Napoli (Naples) was beating another Italian team in the Serie A. Il Italiano, and in fact many Italians in Florence come from Naples, which is considered the fag end of Italy, so people leave to do low paid jobs in Northern Italy, which turns its nose up at them whilst being happy to hire them for the jobs that no one else wants. I decided to watch the match. It was in a public place and I felt safe. I enjoyed a brilliant game. Il Italiano’s team won and in typical Italian fashion, he tore around the trattoria, shouting my name (which incidentally is Victoria – appropriate for the Napoli victory) only stopping to refill my glass.
The rest of the restaurant staff were also celebrating and thought nothing of including this English lady, all in black, with not a word of Italian to her name. There were no diners in that evening but everyone was chatting and gesticulating excitedly, the way that only Italians can do. They made me laugh and smile. When Il Italiano asked me if I would like to go somewhere else for a drink, it seemed the most natural thing in the world. So I did.
We visited bars, restaurants, and finally a nightclub. Everyone knew il Italiano. And I felt, for the first time in 6 months, alive. We laughed at anything and everything. Mostly at our complete inability to understand each other, so that we had to do silly mimes to try to get our messages across. He was a breath of fresh air in my suffocating existence. So when he asked if I wanted to be walked back to my hotel room, or if I would like to go to his apartment (right next to the Cathedral), I knew what I wanted. I didn’t want to be alone. Not that night…
He shared an apartment with the General Manager of the Uffizi Gallery. Conveniently, he was asleep. We crept in, giggling like a couple of teenagers. We spent all night making me feel new again. Forget bereavement counselling. This was the kind of therapy that I needed. To be held, and kissed and made to forget all the pain and the fear that had haunted me since November. It went against all my norms and values, yet it felt so right. It could have been so wrong. But it wasn’t.
When il italiano finally did walk me to my hotel the following morning, the group of tourists from the night before were waiting outside. They stared at me. The red lipstick had long since been kissed away, leaving only a huge smile on my face. And a triumphant look in my eye. I had found my own entertainment for the evening.