Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Travel and the Single Girl

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?

You: Yes.

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.


Sarah said...

Hm, I never thought about wanting to seem protected by someone in town. My first thought was simply the worry that the man would someday show up at the house where I actually did live.

But I was lectured a few times afterwards by my male friends, too. "Why did you let him follow you?? You should have said, loudly enough for passersby to hear, that you wanted to be left alone, and then come here so that if he kept following you, we could have kicked his butt. This kind of thing happens to my sister, too, and I don't know why you girls don't just tell the guy to shove off, etc., etc."

Anyway, you live, you learn, I guess.

Speaking of travel, though, my host mother's brother has suggested I take a weekend trip to Rome sometime. "By MYSELF??" I shriek. He's 33 and male, so the idea of finding one's way around a huge, crowded, foreign city, with few English-speakers does not seem so intimidating to him, apparently. I'm trying to warm myself up to the idea, but I hope I can find a travel companion instead.

sciencegirl said...

The way to deal with French hasslers is to give them the Icy Shun. If at a bus stop, stare straight ahead and act as if they are not there. They aren't dangerous, just hoping for a reply. They'll move on down the line of icily shunning women.

Traveling alone is one of the most fun, confidence-boosting things I ever did.

Seraphic said...

Rome is fantastic. I've been there many times, and I don't think it is particularly dangerous. Of course, I've always spoken enough Italian to get by, so I've always felt confident there. It is so busy and so cosmopolitan and so full of both visitors and Romans simply living their lives, that I think the solitary female tourist is unlikely to get into trouble. And there are many convents there that rent rooms, if you don't want to pay for a hotel.

Personally, I've never loved the idea of youth hostels because although I wouldn't worry much about Romans, I'd worry about backpacking guys who just want to drink and have a good a time as possible without any consequences. Drunk young men can get nasty quick. My number one rule for surviving life is to avoid drunk young men of any nation.

Seraphic said...

When I say "unlikely to get into trouble" I mean if she follows the same commonsense rules she follows in a big city back in her home country.

But mobs of men are unlikely to attack a foreign woman in the Piazza Navona just because she's blonde and foreign or reminds them of Jews or anyone else. This is in contrast with Tahir Square in downtown Cairo.

Nzie (theRosyGardener) said...

I think seeming connected is a good thing, but make sure it's plausible. I used an imaginary husband in Senegal when I was living with a family there so that I wouldn't be hit on (imaginary fiancees and real boyfriends were not sufficient for other girls)- that seemed to work. In the frightening experience I had walking home late once, however, it didn't work - I don't think it was quite believable that a husband wouldn't have met me at the metro and walked me home. In that instance, I would have been better calling a friend and telling him to get lost. Hindsight is blahblahblah. After that, I arranged that I could call friends to have someone to be talking to on the phone, and an NCB who lived not too far said to call and he'd walk with me any time I needed it.

I must say I am quite glad in this large city I'm at for the summer to be part of a program of other nice young Christian people, and the boys always make sure we girls get home safe if we're out late, even when we don't live near to them at all. It made me a lot more comfortable in light of my scary experience last year. :-)


Sarah said...

Good to know about the convents! Yes, the proposal that I stay in a youth hostel was met with much clutching of pearls. That would make a big difference for me.

This is a little--okay, completely-- off topic, but I am curious to hear more about the kind of spiritual motherhood you had talked about a couple posts back. Will you be posting on it again?

Seraphic said...

Yes, after I consult St. Edith yet again!

bolyongok said...

Loved this post! :) Single travel for the win! I went to Lithuania by myself two years ago and it was one of the best trips abroad I have ever taken! I can't recommend single travel enough- with two important caveats- 1. Plan carefully. Don't just know where your hostel is, know what means of transit you're going to use to get there. Know what sights you're going to see each day and have an idea of how to get to them before you leave. If you're not good with directions or not good without a map reference, consider writing down directions on a scrap of paper rather than waving around a map. If you must consult a map, duck into a cafe, have a coffee and consult your map.
2. Take care of yourself. When I'm on trips with friends I sometimes forget to eat or skip meals to have more money for souveniers. This is inexcusably dumb, in my opinion, if you are travelling by yourself. If you're travelling by yourself make sure you eat three meals a day and pack snacks just in case. Make sure you hydrate adequately especially if it's hot out. And if your feet are killing you or you're going somewhere a bit off the beaten path, consider taking a taxi.
Travel away! Oh- and on the subject of youth hostels, some of them have single or double non dorm style rooms that you can rent. And I've always felt pretty safe in hostels. Beer tourists tend to come back at odd hours when everyone else is already asleep, and then not wake up in time to bother the virtuous travelers who get up in time for breakfast. ;)

sciencegirl said...

I thought of another tip. If you don't want to look like a tourist, don't wear a backpack more than necessary. You may need one to get into your lodgings and unpacked, but have something else for wandering around sightseeing. Large purse, valise, satchel, canvas totebag -- anything but a backpack. Except a fannypack!

Katie said...

I agree with science girl about the icy shun - this has worked a lot for me in foreign cities. Dont be afraid to be rude (or just very direct) if you feel a bit threatened.
Once of the best trips I did was with 'Intrepid Tours' around south east Asia. Accommodation and transport was all sorted but there was flexibility to do what you wanted at each destination. I did pray before I went for a good group of fellow travellers and God really answered that prayer. I met people from the US, Australia, Switzerland, Canada and Japan.

Sarah said...

Oh, speaking of not looking like a tourist... Don't wear t-shirts that say, "I <3 [insert current city's name]."

In some countries, wearing a shirt with a big American flag on it will make you blend in and seem like a native more than wearing a souvenir FROM the place you're visiting.

I see native Europeans wearing American city advertising all the time, but as soon as I see someone with "Munich" printed in big letters across their chest, I think, "Oh, look, an American."

Claire said...

A coworker of mine was debating aloud today on our dinner break whether or not she should spend next summer working at a 12-week job that could further her career or go to an immersive, studio-based 6-week textile design course in Prague. She has never studied abroad and she has a few years left in college. I encouraged her to "GO!" by all means necessary while our older male colleague was far more skeptical. "You should do something that will develop your career as a designer," he said pragmatically. She hasn't made up her mind but I think she'd have a wonderful time in the Czech Republic.

Having done it myself, I think traveling alone - at home or in foreign countries - is a wonderful and confidence-boosting experience and enough good things cannot be said about it. Good planning is absolutely necessary! The youth hostels I stayed in felt very safe and clean, but that was partly due to carefully picking them out ahead of time so that I was staying in all-female dormitories or private rooms with friends.

Learning how to say "hello," "please," "thank you," and, most importantly "Where is the bathroom?" in the language(s) of the countries you are visiting is also very helpful.

Seraphic, are there any tips you would give to someone who is interested in traveling to Edinburgh/Scotland sometime in the future? I went once when I was a child and I would love to visit again someday.

Seraphic said...

Edinburgh tips:

1. Come before August unless you really want to go to a lot of shows. So many visitors come in August for the Edinburgh Festival that the population of Edinburgh doubles. It is difficult to find a room and some people have to resort to sleeping rough.

2. If you come in late spring or early summer, come prepared to wait in a very long queue to buy tickets to see Edinburgh Castle.

3. It is almost guaranteed to rain in Edinburgh in summer. It is not guaranteed to rain in winter. Edinburgh is not as rainy as Glasgow. Sometimes our springs are much nicer than our summers. I am holding out hope we have a nice July this year. My favourite shoes are Wellington boots.

4. Almost nobody eats deep-fried Mars Bars. I think they were invented for tourists or as a self-fulfilling prophecy by some Scot-hating Englishman.

5. The buses are great. To see Edinburgh thoroughly, buy a £3.50 all day ticket and just take buses at random. Make sure it's the right company, though, as there are two big local public transportation firms. And don't get off the bus in a sketchy looking neighbourhood, e.g. one with high rises in it. High rises are okay in New York, bad news in Scotland.

6. Tartan wool scarves can be had 2 for £10. Don't break the bank on expensive tartan wool scarves. The Royal Mile is beautiful and I love it, but it is full of cheap little shops devoted to selling tartan junk to foreigners.

7. There are Highland walking tours. The Highlands are beautiful, so I highly recommend a Highland walking tour.

8. Deuchars is the beer to order. Don't go into pubs by yourself unless you want a lonely Scottish bachelor too old for you to talk your ears off.

9. Historic Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland have catalogs of all the amazing Scottish castles, historic houses and battlefields. Look them up online.

10. Avoid drunken young men whose English you can't understand, especially when they are wearing blue, green or green-and-white striped football jerseys.

Seraphic said...

leonine has left a new comment on your post "Man Down":

I was fortunate to discover that a good friend made a fantastic travel partner, so most of my early travel was done with another woman.

We figured out early on that "chain" hostels, ie. YHA or HI or YMCA, were much more our scene. We could get single-sex dorms, no drunk people coming in at 2am... and we found that, in some places, a small independent hotel was just as reasonable as a hostel.

So really, I'll just back up what everybody else said: have some options, know what they are, THINK ahead even if you don't plan ahead, and keep your wits about you. (This means no more than one glass of wine, developing a good sense of direction, and never walking around with headphones!) Always, ALWAYS carry some cash in the local currency in your pocket... at least enough for a taxi.

I've never really been messed with when I've been traveling alone -- I tend to walk with purpose and a "don't mess with me air" anyway -- but I agree that you should feel free to make a fuss. I'm not so keen on the chat-on-the-phone idea, though. You want to be really aware of what's going on around you, and the phone chatting doesn't necessarily help that.

But I'm an American who's only really traveled in the States and in Western Europe, so take all that with a grain of salt.