I had an email about travel abroad today. My reader is 22 or 23 and wants to know what I thought about younger women travelling by themselves. What I think is that travelling alone is a great adventure that tests your resources and furnishes your mind with riches that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. The sooner you begin, the better. Just have a solid plan.
The first time I crossed the Atlantic on my own was to go to Italy, where I had wanted to go since I was 15 and deep into my first year of high school Italian. It took me over 10 years to get there, but I got there all right. I still remember my feeling of elation when the plane took off.
When I got to Rome--and very astonishing it was to me to see palm trees growing along the railway tracks between the airport and the city--I joined a tour group for Under-30s. The benefits of this tour group included having people to speak to every day, meals and accommodation arranged for me, a bus to take me from city to city and a vague feeling of belonging. The drawbacks were that the tour group had the social dynamics of co-ed school, complete with females competing for the attention of the status males, was more interested in drinking than understanding what we saw, and provided no opportunities to get to Mass. None. Not even on Sunday, and we were in ASSISI that day. How ridiculous.
Therefore, the next time I went to Europe on my own, I arranged everything myself. I spent a week in Florence and a week in Paris. In Florence I went to Mass every day, which was my one break from acute loneliness.(I knew someone in Paris.) I didn't have the talent of making friends on the road, as some people do, and I was perhaps a bit paranoid. "Come and drink with us," cried two young men leaning over a wall. "No thank you," said young Auntie Seraphic because they were young men, not young women, and young male strangers still scared her to death.
That was perhaps paranoid for absolutely nothing bad has ever happened to me while travelling. (Of course, this may be because I was so careful about (A) men and (B) not drinking too much & (C) staying in after dark.) Well, there was a Middle Eastern guy in a German city who tried to pick me up and simply would not leave me alone. He claimed to be a convert to Christianity--and very well may have been--and just yammered away in English, making me feel very uncomfortable.
All around me German men and women stood impassively, waiting for our streetcar, and I was told later that the correct thing to do was to address the nearest German older lady in German, asking for help. (Such phrases are included in most phrasebooks.) Then she would have told Herr Geistarbeiter where die Hölle he could go.
Part of the problem, of course, was cultural, and Canadians tend to err on the side of politeness and not-making-a-fuss. Women travelling abroad have to be ready to make a fuss, sometimes a loud fuss, when approached by strangers and to ask for the protection of older strangers.
By the way, one young reader reported here lying about where she lived to an over-interested male stranger. She lived in the town, but said she did not, and he insisted on showing her around. Bad idea. The impression I would want to give is that I was not alone and unprotected and that I could summon to my aid an angry local woman/foster mother with an umbrella and social clout. "I live here. I am staying with the Such-and-suches," I would say. "Do you know them? They are very kind people and have lived in this town for X years."
There are men who prey on unprotected young women, so the idea is to convey the idea that you are indeed protected, either by locals or by your own forthright temper. And unless you lie like a trooper by nature, lying is just going to make you feel more uncomfortable. So instead of making up lies, practice saying "Why do you want to know?" to any question that makes you feel uncomfortable. There is also, "No, thank you. I prefer my own company today." And there is also the ever-handy mobile phone, which you can whip out at a moment's notice and say "Excuse me, I must call my friend now. Good-bye." That friend could be the desk clerk at your hotel, come to think of it. I am sure a desk clerk's dull day would be enlivened by pleas for help.
Imaginary Desk Clerk: Let me talk to him.
You: The desk clerk wants to talk to you.
Stranger: To me?
Stranger (takes mobile): Hello?
Imaginary Desk Clerk (in Foreign): Give the phone back to our guest and ****ing leave her right now or I will call the cops.
Don't forget to tip your imaginary desk clerk afterwards and write a note to his boss saying how marvellous he/she is. Of course, you do run the risk of Mr Weird running away with your mobile. Hmm. Well, judgement call.
Travelling in social comfort is very much a balancing act for me. To tell you the truth, I prefer to travel alone and have to work very hard not to be beastly to travel companions. Travel companions tend to talk when I want to look at the sights and listen to the locals. But I don't like never having anyone to talk to. Therefore, what I like best is travelling by myself to visit friends abroad.
I am (I hope) an easy guest because I don't expect my friends to entertain me much but just to chat between their ordinary tasks, e.g. during meals. I prefer just to wander about looking at things and listening to people or sit with a cup of coffee staring at things or people and writing all about them in my notebook.
Oh, and that reminds me. Because I have never been very good at making friends "on the road" but feel lonely without conversation, I prefer some structure built into my trips. For people like me, I recommend travelling abroad to take a class. It could be a language class. It could be a cooking class. But whatever class it was, you would meet regularly with a group, but be free to spend your time as you wish.
I would love to go to Krakow or Warsaw and take an intensive, month-long Polish course. I would LOVE it. But I can't. I can't because (A) I'm married and (B) we don't have the money to cater to such mad whims. Married ladies, even married ladies without 9-5 jobs or children, simply do not have the freedom of Single women. And this is why, once again, I encourage Single women to travel as soon as they can.
Update: But don't be stupid or naive about it. If you live in a western country, you may have been told again and again not to be prejudiced against people who look different from you. However, people who do not live in western countries are not necessarily told this noble sentiment. In fact, often they are told rather the opposite. And many countries that are advertised as wonderful travel destinations are in fact really very very dangerous indeed, especially to young women travelling alone.
These include Mexico and Egypt. In big European cities, avoid suburbs teeming with resentful migrants or perpetually unemployed natives. (This includes the outskirts of Edinburgh,) While planning your trip, don't just read travel guides. Read the news. Avoid Egypt, especially Cairo, especially right now. Go to places whose culture you are most likely to understand.
For most of my readers, this is going to mean Europe and English-speaking countries outside Africa and Asia (e.g. England, Ireland, Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand). As you get older and more travel-savvy, then perhaps you might want to go further afield on your own.