Taking your first ever solo trip can be as terrifying as it is exhilarating. When British guest writer Sophie Kingham traveled alone to Italy, she discovered she might just be braver than she thought.
A few months ago, I embarked on my first solo traveling experience. The destination was Garda, a small town on the Lake of Garda in northern Italy.
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A friend who works as a holiday rep there invited me to join her for a week and so I went. You could say it wasn’t a completely solo experience as there was a friendly face during my time there, but when she had to work, I was all alone, in a new country, with a strange language to contend with.
I’ve always wanted to go to Italy, so couldn’t say no to a fairly cheap holiday there. But after booking the plane tickets, as the day of departure drew nearer, I could feel a knot in my stomach getting tighter and tighter.
I went a bit obsessive checking that I had everything I needed and kept dreaming about things going wrong.
You see the thing is, in new, uncharted situations I can be amazingly shy, so the idea of being completely thrown into a new situation, out of my comfort zone was rather scary. It was something I felt I had to do though. I didn’t want to be held back by my own insecurities.
I didn’t put pressure on myself to explore and go on excursions as I don’t exactly have a grasp of the Italian language and didn’t fancy getting lost. I just wanted a holiday, a few days of rest and relaxation, which I felt I deserved having just finished up my university studies.
I got rather excited after booking everything and I had started to buy some things… a new passport cover, a summery robe, travel-sized toiletries. I do actually love travel, and get excited just to be packing and preparing for a journey. It’s just that this time round, my excitement was tinged with just a little bit of fear.
I had never been on a plane by myself, let alone in a different country entertaining myself, but I pushed those nagging fears aside as I got everything else sorted.
On the drive down to Gatwick Airport, I felt calmer than I thought I would, chatting away to my boyfriend who so kindly offered to drive me from Birmingham to Gatwick. It was when we stopped for a rest break that the calm left me. As we got closer to the airport, I felt decidedly sick.
In the airport itself, I felt very small amongst the rush of people, who obviously knew where to go and what to do. I, on the other hand, had to find somebody to point me in the right direction of security, having already checked in online and having never been to Gatwick before.
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It was then that the time had arrived to say goodbye to my boyfriend.
We stood at the bottom of the escalators that led up to security and I clung to him like I didn’t ever want to let go. He gave a bit of tough love and, fighting back the tears, I let go of him and stepped on to those escalators.
Taking a few deep breaths to calm myself, not wanting to break down in front of complete strangers, I fought my urge to look back and continued through the airport.
When I finally got onto the plane, my heart was in overdrive and my stomach was completely knotted. On take-off, my stomach flipped a few dozen times and my sweaty palms clung to the arm rests. I’ve never been a nervous flyer before but this time was completely different.
Landing at Verona airport, I was relieved that I had made it to Italy so easily, but my anxiousness wasn’t about to settle down for long.Ahead of me was my stay in this unfamiliar country, but before that, I had to get from the airport to Garda itself.
Sunita, my holiday rep friend who I was staying with, had already texted me, telling me where to get dropped off in Garda, and with my Italian phrase book, I had practised what to say to the Italian taxi driver.
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Coming out of the airport, phrase book in suitcase, I completely forgot what to say. I turned into a horrible Brit abroad stereotype, asking slowly in English, if he could speak English. No. I was about to turn and find another driver when he got someone to translate for me where I wanted to go.
When the driver and I were well and truly on our way, sitting in silence, with Italian radio blaring in the background, I had my lost in translation moment. I felt very inadequate, and I questioned if what I’d told the translator guy was what he said to the driver.
I could’ve been about to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere, lost and alone in a foreign country.
Thankfully, that was just my mind going into overdrive, thinking of the worst possible situation. I sighed with relief as I saw signs for Garda and was eventually dropped off at the bus station. Here I waited for Sunita’s boyfriend to meet me and take me to her.
I had never met him before, but seeing a white pasty boy cross the bus station forecourt, I instantly knew it was him. Not too long after, I was standing on the promenade of the lake, in front of a hotel, with Sunita running towards me, arms outstretched.
As we embraced I fought back more tears, thankfully hidden behind my sunglasses. I think at this point they were tears of relief at seeing a friendly face amongst my new surroundings.
The next day, after a tasty lunch of bruschetta with ham and mushrooms, Sunita had some work to do, so I wandered around the promenade, getting a feel for the place and taking a few pictures.
I spent the days on my own, wandering around the little town, and spending time with Sunita in the evenings. I wasn’t really equipped to explore the mountains in my floppy sandals, so I stayed local, not quite confident enough to go on a boat trip to elsewhere on the lake.
I didn’t mind my lack of confidence though as I was content to be sitting on the beach, attempting to tan my bright white skin and reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. If I needed a break from reading, I’d just look at the view.
Everything was beautiful, not a blemish in sight at all. There were lots of lush greens, with clean pavements, crystal blue skies, and the smell of fresh water filled the air.
It was exactly what I had imagined Italy to be like, with its rustic building style. The buskers along the promenade made it feel even more Italian.
When I was on my own, I was too scared to eat in a restaurant because of the language barrier, but I was confident enough to go up to kiosk stands and order gelato. Reading out the flavour marked by cards and handing over the money was fairly simple, especially when I already knew how to pronounce Tiramisu. Two incredible Italian desserts combined into one super dessert: delicious.
I didn’t just eat gelato for the week though, I visited the supermarket a few times, picking what I wanted off the shelves and handing over the money. It was perfect for my native English tongue to cope with.
Buying gifts and souvenirs, one shop-keeper was happy to help me with my pronunciation of a few basic words. I did feel a little bit guilty that his grasp of my language was so much better than mine of his and back at my room that night, I read my phrase book from cover to cover.
I was definitely held back by my language struggles, not confident enough to butcher a beautiful language in front of its native speakers, not willing to face it head on, but I still think I managed okay considering I was in a strange country, and for the most part, on my own.
During a little bit of reflection when I was on the beach, taking a break from reading, I actually questioned whether I was brave in traveling on my own.
I consider bravery to be having the courage to do something you wouldn’t normally do. Traveling on my own is not something I have considered doing in the past, but knowing that I wouldn’t be in complete isolation, knowing that a familiar face would greet me on my arrival in Italy, kind of lessens the bravery factor for me.
I’m still proud of myself for going, for not talking myself out of it and for coping in a strange place on my own while Sunita worked to make sure other holiday makers were having a great time. And being in a relationship, I like that I have done something without the other half, giving ourselves a chance to miss each other by doing something independent.
Sitting on that plane coming home, with a flower in my hair, sitting next to a guy in a suit reading up on some business stuff, I felt like such a free-spirit.
As I looked at the expanse of cloud below, Italian mountains breaking through, I thought about how short life can be and I was content that I am actually living life, not just watching it pass by.
Would I travel alone again? Well, I’m not going to rule it out, but there are no plans as yet to repeat my lost in translation moments. I will definitely invest in language lessons if I do though.
Looking back on my trip, I do feel I should have made more of an effort to attempt the language or even to explore more of the lake, but shyness is a part of me and my personality and it’s not going to change instantaneously by throwing myself into something.
Just being in Garda on my own was a big step for me.
So while I may have been too shy to go to a restaurant or go to elsewhere on the lake, I still count this trip as a victory. I had the courage to be on an aeroplane on my own, wander round shops on my own, and even sit on the beach on my own surrounded by Italians, and French and German travelers.
It may have only been a small step in improving my confidence but it’s much better than taking no step at all.
From Birmingham, England, Sophie Kingham is a graduate in English and is currently pursuing a career in writing.
She writes flash fiction and article pieces on a variety of subjects including travel, food, art, books and more. When not writing she enjoys walking through the countryside, going to the theatre and enjoying time with friends and family.
She can be found online at sophiekingham.wordpress.com
Do you have a story of traveling solo? What were your fears and your triumphs? Tell us in the comments below!