I’ve had enough…time to cut and run

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Ponte Vecchio in my widow’s weeds. And the beginnings of a change from dark to blonde hair.

My first experience of travelling solo came 6 months after my husband suddenly died. It was less of a rational decision and more of a subconscious uncontrollable urge to run away. The urge came on a Wednesday, built up through Thursday and by Saturday I was in Florence, Italy. By myself. In a country I didn’t know with a language that I didn’t speak.

I prepared well for the trip. I went to the hairdressers and dyed my hair blonde. I then rang my sister and told her the news. She was more shocked about the hair than the sudden trip to Florence. “Why?” she asked to both. “I just needed to” was my response. Lucky for her, I hadn’t done what I really wanted to do, which was to shave my head completely, in a outward display of the inner pain that I felt.

 

Anyway. Solo travel to Florence. Why Florence? Well, firstly it was a place that I hadn’t visited with Mr T so there weren’t going to be any memories. Keen to secure a First Class Honours in Widowhood, I had read and promptly acted on the idea that, to cure oneself of constant reminders of the past, it is necessary to create new memories. Secondly, it was a place to do things. I dreaded being alone and having nothing to do but stare at happy couples, in love, or even not in love. Everywhere I went, people were in couples. Meh…

Having a love of Art and Art History, I knew that if anywhere was going to soothe my aching soul it would be Florence, city of Renaissance Art and Architecture, where I could get lost in history, culture, anything. I also love Italian food so I knew I wouldn’t starve. It’s only 2 hours from home so it was practical, in case anything should happen at home and I needed to rush back. It was only 2 hours from home so that if I should have an attack of mad cow’s disease I could be returned back to my local psychiatric unit, which was keeping a close eye on me at this point due to my manic depression.

 

It wasn’t so much the practical issues of travel that concerned me. I was always the one to book the holidays, arrange the transfers and pack the cases. Solo travel meant being alone. Having no one to share my thoughts with. No one to enjoy a glass of cold wine or beer with. No one to share the joy of visiting places only previously seen in books or magazines. No one to say “I can’t believe I’m standing in front of ….” for the umpteenth time. Was it really going to help?

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Looking up for God in the Duomo… not finding Him. Feeling abandoned in the presence of serenity. A desperate feeling…

How does one travel alone without feeling isolation and like everyone is looking at you, feeling sorry for you and wondering just what you did that was so bad that no one would go on holiday with you? When I’ve spoken to people about solo travel, they tend to fall into one of two camps. There’s the “oh yeah, I do that/would love to do that”. Or, more often, there’s the “God, I couldn’t do that. What? Just you? No one else? I wouldn’t have the guts”. Is it guts or lack of choice? Or just a desire to be hidden amongst a multitude of people who didn’t know my story and frankly, didn’t care. I needed to escape the cloud of despair. I needed to forget what had happened for just a short time and be somewhere where no one knew Mr T. I seem to have been married to the most well known landlord in Britain.

 

It began that fateful night when the lovely police officer, whilst taking my statement, recognised my husband and  said “Is that Richard Taylor?” “Yeah”. “Blimey, I was only in the pub a week ago”. The following day I had a phone call from a local Funeral Director. “Hi Vickie, I don’t know if you remember me but it’s Debbie from the pub. You know, Gill’s friend”, “Hi”. “Er, I hope you don’t mind but the case came through about Richard and I wondered if you would like me to organise the funeral”. “I didn’t know you were a funeral director?” “Yes, would you mind?” “No, that’s a great idea”. Mr T was off to meet his maker with the help of a friend. What could be better?

 

Over the course of the next few weeks, I came into contact with: a random AA guy because my bloody car broke down (still in Mr T’s name) “Oh, I heard about Richard. Great guy, so sorry”. A taxi driver who happened to start a conversation as we drove past the pub that what was my home and now wasn’t (I moved out) – “Poor bloke had a heart attack”. “No he didn’t.” “Oh, how do you know?” “Because I’m his wife and I was there”. The teachers at my girls’ school knew what had happened before we had the chance to tell them – they used to have lunch every Friday in the pub.  My eldest daughter was having her hair cut at a local salon when one of the other customers started gossiping: “Richard from the Nurseryman had a heart attack and died” (No he bloody didn’t!) I couldn’t get away from him.

 

This still happens albeit on a less frequent basis. I learnt very quickly how much my husband was loved and respected. This had increased my anxiety about the funeral. What if people thought it was  rubbish? What if we forgot the cutlery and people had to pick up the chicken with their hands? By May I’d had enough. I was off.

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Veni, vidi, vici…

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 Basilica di 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.

 

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Florence Bapistery

 

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Florence Cathedral – as beautiful at night as during the day

 

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!

 

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A selfie at the Boboli Gardens

 

 

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Proper photos are so much better than selfies!
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Getting the hang of asking strangers to take photos!

 

 

All by myself… or not.

 

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.

 

alone in florence

 

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.

Florence in the rain

 

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.