Travel solo, never alone
I t’s really simple: the great thing about travelling alone is that there is no one else with you. No one whose wishes and needs you have to consider when you want to spend the day at your hotel in bed reading excursion brochures or gloomy Thomas Bernhard. You want to stay in bed? You stay in bed. You want to lie at the edge of an ocean and let the surf play with your feet? You do that. You want to see the sights? Really? Do you really? Well, if you must, you can.
You travel alone, you do exactly as you want. This surely needs no further explanation. But, of course, I’m from what Margaret Thatcher (that well-known communitarian) called the Me generation. Being with other people on holiday makes me anxious. Are they comfortable, happy, restless, resentful, bored? On the whole, togetherness requires compromise and why would you want to compromise (more than already required by the location and budget) while travelling, as well as in your real, everyday life?
Nevertheless, I know that there are those who find the word alone distressing. That scene in Les Enfants du Paradis where the insufferable toddler enters the theatre box, in which the gloriously tragic Arletty watches her secret love on stage, and pipes: Vous tes toute seule, madame? makes being toute seule a lifelong terrifying prospect. Well then, try solo .
The difference between travelling solo and travelling alone is a state of mind. I’ve been travelling alone for decades, long before I could call myself a travel writer – not that I do call myself a travel writer. But the word could is essential here. It’s true that, for different reasons in different places, people can be curious, suspicious even, of a woman (young, middle-aged or old) travelling alone. Yet tell them you’re a writer and not only is everything explicable but people will stay and talk to you, telling you sometimes wonderful stories about their lives. Use the writer excuse with a different look on your face, and people will understandingly leave you alone.
In those circumstances where you might feel awkward – eating alone in a restaurant full of holiday couples and families, lizarding on a beach hoping for perfect peace, ordering a drink at a bar in a small town – only think of yourself as a writer on an assignment and the unease falls away. You are, after all, doing what a writer does: looking, thinking, playing with characters or ideas, and idling. Once you’ve explained yourself to yourself it does wonders for not worrying about what other people think. It makes all social unwillingness acceptable. You can talk, not talk; join, not join; everything’s covered for other people and for you. You’re travelling solo, not alone.
I’ve chilled out in the Caribbean, encircled America by train, cargo-shipped across the Atlantic and explored the Antarctic peninsula, all solo and at ease, using my laptop as a flag of peace and quiet. Even before I really did write travel stuff, I went to Greek islands in that blissful condition of being alone but free to talk to people if I wanted, by using the journalism excuse.
There are other ways to travel solo without raising eyebrows, as I did when I went with my three-year-old to Lake Como and was stared at with deep suspicion and disapproval by the other, mostly elderly, Italian guests in the hotel. Eventually, I made it a point to find myself sitting in the foyer next to the crossest-looking elderly lady and explained how sad and yet comforting it was to return here where my late husband and I had enjoyed such happy holidays. She broke into a relieved smile to discover I was a virtuous widow and not a disreputable single mother, as I was, and passed the news around, so that the rest of the vacation allowed me to mourn while basking in benevolent glances.
As a young woman in Greece, I found a polite but very firm no, thank you was sufficient to send young Greek men, who were both practical and fatalistic, off to try their luck elsewhere.
There are limits to easing your way alone in the world. None of these strategies would have worked in the train I took in my late teens from Rome to Assisi. It was full and I had no seat booked, so I spent the journey standing in the corridor in a tube-like crush with what seemed like an entire brigade of the Italian army. This was awkward and uncomfortable.
For several hours the young men, every one of them, stared unblinking at me with that deadly gaze poised between loathing and lust, until the train reached Assisi, where I fought my way through hands, mouths and groins to the exit. I hadn’t thought of the journalism justification at that stage, but it really wouldn’t have helped.
Jenny Diski’s latest book is The Sixties