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Traveling Solo

When I announced retirement my sister said to me, “what will you do with yourself?” The immediate response was, “I’ll spend two years in spring.” The intent was to plot the movement of the sun in the northern and southern hemispheres and move on a northern then southern transect following the sun and recording local festivals celebrating the annual renewal of life. Unfortunately I stepped into another job and two years later bolted off on a trip without completing the detailed research I had planned. My incentive was my youngest daughter's semester abroad program located in Florence, Italy. Assuming that we could spend some weekends together traveling, I booked an apartment for a month on a mountain farm a 30-minute train ride north of Florence. California had experienced another of those horrendous 7-week winters and after two weeks of 70-degree weather I thought to myself, Mediterranean climate here, Mediterranean Climate there, should be the same weather, and packed 5 pairs of Bermuda shorts, my sandals and some other clothes and headed for the airport. You experienced travelers and geographers have already made mental notes of numerous errors of fact and logic in this story, which I will now try to enumerate for the rest of the readers.

Planning and preparation guides

Rick Steves and other popular travel authors repeat the mantra: “pack light, pack light, pack light” using a list they have developed over years of travel. They often suggest a trial packing and when you have everything you need take out a third then half the balance and you should be ready. In a rush as usual I bought my Rick Steves’ Italy 2008 in Florence and immediately began dumping stuff to lighten my load, this actually continued through France, England, and Scotland so now I evangelize packing light. As an aside buying and reading your travel guides before you leave not only helps you prepare for your adventure but also saves a bundle. For instance my Italy 2008 book was $14 on Amazon and I paid 25.80 Euros or $41.53. It still saved me considerably more than I paid but earlier planning and preparation would have lightened the experience and my load while reducing trip expenses. Using the globe to compare the latitude of your home with that of the place you are heading to for a quick review of monthly mean temperatures and precipitation along with daily highs and lows will give you an idea of the weather variations you should be considering while packing. Looking at this site: http://www.kataweb.it/meteo/cerca_comune?nomeComune=RUFINA
you can practice your Italian while learning about the weather!

After you have read the travel books once for the areas you intend to visit making copies of the information on the cities or sites you want to see will save you having to carry the heavy book away from the hotel every time you leave. Cutting out the pages as Rick Steves' suggest in his books is not very practical but it does sell a lot more books.

If you don’t travel overseas frequently you may feel a brief period of high anxiety as I did each time I entered a new country with different language and customs. It passes as soon as you realize that you possess the basic skills to survive i.e. pointing and grunting. It wasn’t pretty but with a handy phrase book the grocery store, library, gas station, hardware, and computer shop all became regular stops in my daily routine; however, I will practice more with the language tapes before I return.

Stuff happens

Accept complications as an inevitable part of your experience and grow through them rather than fight them. The unofficial Marine Corp motto is, “Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome” think of this before and during any trip. I use it daily as a way to lighten up any situation I can’t control and it is part of the experience so view it as that serendipitous event that becomes the highlight of your cocktail conversation. Missing train and plane connections can be very upsetting and expensive so urge your travel agent, or use caution when booking your own connections, to allow plenty of time. My " stuff happens" on this trip included: packing for good weather and getting snow, dead end roads with no turnaround, getting off the bus too soon in Salerno and loosing three hours of sight seeing, missing a train connection in Sheffield and sitting in Leeds station four hours waiting for the next train to Settle.

tight spot
Cute Country Roads may lead to a dead-end

Just accept that stuff happens, take a good book or strike up a conversation with a stranger and put it behind you. If its raining use the time to learn the Metro or underground routes to find the little known and outlying museums or other indoor points of interest on your list but always listen for opportunities. Walking through Florence with my daughter we heard the sound of drums! Drums and “No Trespassing” signs are guy magnets so off I ran and came upon this scene from a Middle Ages pageant:

Drums in Florence
Palazzo Vecchio with the copy of David in the Background

Knowing your fellow travelers

I have always talked to my fellow travelers and most of the time I’m rewarded with interesting tales of adventure along with travel tips and sound advice. While standing in the ticket line at SFO I noticed the couple in front of me speaking one of the Slavic languages so I struck up a conversation and found that they were on their way to visit a son who was working in Moscow. I explained some of my family background and the origins that I knew about . The 86 year old gentleman began looking at me very carefully, finally he said, “you are Hutzue!” He told me that "my people" live in the forests of the Carpathian Mountains in what is now Slovakia so finding out more about my roots will be the focus of another trip. There may even be time for romance; worn hiking boots, faded jeans, and the way the day pack hags off one shoulder are often tips that your fellow traveler has his or her own tale to tell, which passes time on the long flight home and may lead to more!

Journaling and communication

Of late I’ve kept a journal for every trip and encourage my kids to do the same. Thus far my journals have been individual books but the next one will be electronic and on my own laptop. For those of us who touch type and haven’t traveled abroad since the beginning of the electronic age the frustrations of foreign keyboards in Internet cafes can be overwhelming. While the use fees run from two Euros to the equivalent of $10 per hour learning to use the keyboard for simple email can take hours. Phone communication was a little better. After arriving in Florence I bought an inexpensive phone from Wind for 29 Euros. It came with 10 Euros worth of time and I could add more minutes anywhere by buying additional coded cards at any tobacco shop, dialing Winds access number and entering the code. This phone had open versus closed technology and could be used in the other European countries by simply buying another SIM card and more minutes, which I did in both France and England. I understand that buying a phone card for use from a phone booth or other land line is the cheapest way to go if you have access to someone’s private phone. I saw very few pay phones on around Europe and my experience is that many pay phone companies and hotels have a minimum 12 to 20 minute charge for making the connection plus the actual number of minutes you talk. I find keeping a pen and 3 X 5 cards handy to essential for everyday communication and especially for travel as temporary addresses and phone numbers need to be stored for ready access.

This was a two-month trip so I used many forms of transportation but my favorite has always been the trains. Sleek, fast, and comfortable the trains of Italy and France were a joy to ride.
Euro Rail train
One of the EuroStar Trains Leaving for Rome and Naples

Much more expensive and slower than flying the allure for me was seeing the countryside up close and with a rail pass, being able to jump on and off in any town that looked interesting. The railroads of England and Scotland are undergoing huge infrastructure upgrades and as a result have less on-time efficiency than in the other countries I visited. I’m a bit of a romantic when it comes to train travel and was chagrined to find that a lot of the Euro-Star system is built underground or below grade so you miss much of the mountain scenery since you are running under them. Picture taking on these trains is also a challenge because you are running at speeds of 100+mph and the window reflection, or in some areas graffiti, spoils the picture.

Renting cars and driving in rural areas is always fun, having so many little roads to explore. In the big cities it’s another story and this is where traveling solo looses some of its glamor. Having a copilot in that situation makes a big difference especially when neither of you speaks or reads the language. Train, bus, and ferry schedules are often at a premium and it is best to try and download some of that information just before leaving on your trip. Rick Steves and other travel guides recommend that you calculate your rail fees carefully before deciding about the rail pass. They also recommend a number of combination passes that work for museums, buses, metro, and trains. I enjoyed significant saving following Rick’s advice along the Amalfi Coast, at Cinque Terre, in Paris, and throughout England and Scotland.

In addition to packing light consider the size of the bag you choose to take on your trip. The medium bag in most sets will roll down the middle of the train aisle and fit between the double seats on most trains. Along with a day pack they will do nicely for a two-month trip.

If you do rent a car here are some tips: make your arrangements before leaving the states, prepay and try to lock in you total cost, make no changes in your contract. Make sure you understand how to get back into the lot before you leave. Some rental car places are not clearly marked and the signage leading you back to the facility may have gaps. Ask for maps in English, if you chose to rent GPS expect to pay 11 to 18 Euros extra per day. I found it best to do a Map Quest of my destination and carry it with me. When you return check your bill carefully before leaving, gas charges as well as a fee for fueling may have been added even though you filled the tank before turning in the vehicle.

Setting up a base of operations

I personally like to have a base of operations where I can leave most of my stuff and take day trips to nearby sights. My reasoning for taking a place for a month was that I could see my daughter more often, hangout in the sun with the other old guys in the town square drinking wine and telling jokes while practicing my Italian. Flawed reasoning; my daughter had a very busy schedule, it was cold and rainy most of the time, I didn’t see anyone drinking in the parks, and my Italian wasn’t sufficient to introduce myself! let alone carry on a conversation. Living and traveling solo often means you have no sounding board or someone to say, “are you nuts?” So my lesson from this latest experience is to breakup a long stay in one country with several bases each for a week or two so that you have time to absorb some of the local routines but you are not paying for your base and another hotel while visiting distant sights. Next time I’ll do more research on rentals or house swaps and select small town places where I can walk to the train station with a major rail hub nearby. This would have eliminated the need for a car and saved $1500.

Sunday Market, Rufina
Sunday Market, Rufina

Photo journal the beauty around you

With a lap top and digital camera you can upload your journal from anywhere.

photo journal
A Door with Character Vernazza Cinque Terra

Fruit stand Italy
Fruit stand in Sienna

Settle tation, Yorkshire
Settle, Yorkshire. Entrance to the Yorkshire Dales National Park

I often find myself photographing food. I see a well-dressed table and elegantly presented dish as a celebration of life and one to be recorded. A friend once said to me that it is at dinner that solo travel leaves something to be desired: for it is in that sharing of the days events and discussing plans for the days to come that we connect and cement the bonds of love and commitment.

Dinner in Paris
Chez Tante Alice, Paris


Solo travel isn’t always about choices it’s about playing the hand we are dealt. Some of us are single by choice and traveling solo is second nature, while others are alone by circumstances beyond their control and yet have a yearning to travel while their health still holds. Finding the confidence to take that first step in solo travel and make a plan outline is simple. Acting on that plan by making the financial commitments to leave your comfort zone will be fraught with anxiety, stepping off that plane into a foreign land where men with dogs and guns meet you in the airport is damn scary. You are saying to yourself, “Toto we’re not in Kansas anymore” then you realize it doesn’t really look too much different that La Guardia except that nobody is speaking English! You find your room, wash your face, get something to eat and walk around your new town, and soon you find that it’s filled with people who are “just folks” just like you and the anxiety begins to subside.

Tours versus solo planning and executing your plan alone is always an internal debate for many of us as we review our money and time options. My experience has been that the personal growth in overcoming my fear of the unknown along with the chance meetings and experiences was well worth the effort. So my advice is to go for it! Get a good guidebook and read it carefully as you are making your plan outline, take good notes and make copies of the stuff you really want to see. Don’t be like me and miss the great Roman ruins of Vaison la Romaine because I forgot my guidebook and assumed the 1180 castle, two blocks away, was Roman. Easy travel takes experience and by keeping a journal you should learn by your mistakes.

Regardless of weather or unscheduled mishaps - have fun! Everything is an experience to be talked about later. My first spring transect took me from Salerno, Italy to Perth, Scotland and I watched the same flower emerging and blooming along the entire route so part of my goal was achieved. I had snow, freezing rain, and just plain rain in every country but that’s spring so if you choose to do “Two Years in Spring”, make it late spring!

Editors Note to Larry: check out Connections For Women Travel Partners!

Larry Costick PhD is a Research Ecologist retired and a Natural Resources Management consultant living in the Mother Load gold country of the Sierra Nevada. Finding ancient erosion control structures along the road less traveled is his passion. He is currently preparing for his first trip into South America as part of his “Two Years in Late Spring” adventure.

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