The main problem with travelling alone? You are travelling alone. I blame books and gap year students for its allure. Hemmingway’s expats all seem to have interrail passes and every gap year student I have ever met has given me a different version of the same ‘found myself’ speech. (No Piers, you are not Jack Kerouac…you worked a ski season in Verbier.) In all honesty, the prospect of finding myself terrifies me (I wasn’t even aware I was lost) and was something I hoped to avoid at all costs. But, spurred on by a huge financial incentive to avoid Ryanair’s peak travel price gouging, I decided to extend my holiday in Italy for a few days by traveling to Rome alone.
I tell myself that in peacetime I would have slummed it in a hostel, but since Rome is still reeling from its first wave of coronavirus, sharing a dormitory with 8 sweaty Australian backpackers was not worth the minimal authenticity kudos bonus. This is how I ended up in the euphemistically named ‘Hotel Sweet Home’. I cannot help but feel that its sweetness and homeliness was overstated. There was a veritable carpet of short dark curly hair on the bathroom floor (despite the fact I am strawberry blond). Additionally, my window was perfectly positioned to provide the 45 apartments opposite with a direct view into my bedroom and shower. But hey, it was €22 a night, and I quite like an audience anyway.
I dumped my bags and ran away from ‘Sweet Home’ and its unfashionable ‘Roma Termini’ neighbourhood as fast as possible. About half an hour in, I found my first problem with solo travel: starvation. If you look hard enough there’s going to be a problem with every restaurant in central Rome: there will be too many tripadvisor-ed troglodytic tourists, or the menu will be too expensive, or the maitre d’ looks like he would rather serve his right testicle as ‘il secundo’ than give you a table. If you aren’t travelling with other people, there’s no one to help make decisions about where to eat, or moan so that you make your mind up faster. The only restaurants which do not have these problems are the ones which both locals and tourists avoid, presumably because the carbonara comes with a complementary side of dysentery. Four hours later, having crossed the Tiber into Traverstevere, I eventually succumbed to the siren songs of a waitress when I almost passed out in the Piazza Trilussa. I was forcefully scooped up and frogmarched to the only table which was not shaded from the burning Roman midday sun.
The following 45 minutes were some of the most uncomfortable in my life. At some point in this sweaty, shaky, paranoid ordeal, I discovered the second problem with solo travel: Not only are you alone, but everyone can see you are alone. I could almost hear what the other diners were saying:
“Oi Gaetano. What sort of chronic social leper goes to restaurants and eats outside by themself”
“Ay Marco, The gall! Any self-respecting outcast would stay home alone to weep into their pot noodles and binge on daytime TV .”
“Si si Gaetano, But not this prick. He actually travels to our country and broadcasts his loneliness to good honest citizens like us. It borders on masochistic exhibitionism.”
“He’s also English…cunt.”
In a desperate bid to rebrand my loneliness as intentional, I ordered a ‘mezzo’ of the house red, chainsmoked intensely (€5 for a packet of Marlboro Golds…) and stared at my book. These efforts, I hoped, recast me as the reclusive, nonconformist maverick which I so clearly am. The thing that upset me most was the extraordinary amount of attention I received from the waitress. In any other circumstance I would have relished barely coherent small talk and pregnant glances with the fair ‘Sofia’ (currently studying law at Sapienza University of Rome) but as a solo-traveller, I dreaded it. With oppressive regularity she came over to enquire about my welfare. It bordered on harassment. It was as if I had inadvertently won a 3-for-1 bundle of a tour guide, a handmaiden and a therapist. I refused to be pitied. I scowled harder at my book, smoked more cigarettes and finished my pizza and half litre of wine within thirty minutes.
As the dough induced food coma set in, I felt sure I needed a proper sit down. Somewhere shady with non-judgemental company. It was a Sunday and I couldn’t find any AA meetings so settled for the next best thing: Roman Catholic Mass. I wandered into the Basilica Santa Maria and slumped into one of the seats (carefully spaced at 1m intervals). The service began and despite my strong protestant credentials and utter ignorance of Italian (or was the service in Latin?) I finally felt relaxed. The choir sang beautifully and I enjoyed scanning the eclectic crowd of bonafide worshippers whilst melting into my chair. This reverie was short lived. A suffocating fog of incense soon enveloped the parishioners who were expected to stand up for most of the service. After the mass passed the hour mark, I felt close to collapsing again. What I needed was a stiff drink. Right on cue, ‘fratelli something-or-other’ chanted the echaristic prayer and began to circulate the bread which I seized upon. When he poured a hearty glass of wine, blessed it and downed it at the altar, I was overcome by the prospect of spirits (holy and inebriating) and felt weak at the knees. To my immense disappointment and rage, the generosity that the Catholics showed with the bread was not extended to alcoholic refreshments…apparently to comply with covid-19 regulations. Face masks and zoom yoga I can deal with, but this almost broke me. I only refrained from launching a crusade for booze backed by the canonical importance of the wine to the eucharistic feast because I had only understood a quarter of the service.
Knackered, full of pizza and the (literal) body of Christ, I emerged back out into the piazzas which were starting to buzz with young people. I spotted a bar in Piazza S. Calisto which was reassuringly cheap and ordered my first ‘Peroni grande’ for €2.50. The terrace seats were full of other students drinking with their friends so I thought that I might be able to strike up a conversation with someone. This didn’t work for a few reasons. First, when I say the seats were full, I mean that my only option was to perch uncomfortably on a strange smelling stone ledge across the piazza. This also placed me at the fringes of a pack vest clad, Italian patriarchs who did not look like they were about to take in an English tourist for any reason, other than as a hostage. The second impediment to my cultural assimilation was, as already mentioned, I speak no italian. I’m no Gregory Peck, nor was meant to be. Suavely sidling over to someone and buying them a Negroni was out of the question. Instead, all interactions had to be conducted at nursery level English or at the balls-achingly slow pace of google translate. After two hours of further reading, drinking and chain-smoking, the words of my pretentiously dense philosophy tome were starting to swim…but salvation was at hand.
I don’t think that angels have classically been portrayed with black leather flares, raven tresses and a nipple piercing but the following 72 hours made me sure that they should be. I met Nica when she made the 20 metre walk across the Piazza with her friends and asked to borrow my lighter. Faced with another four hours of drunkenly nodding off into my book, I literally leapt at the opportunity to interact with other humans. We got talking. We got drunk. She took me to dinner. She taught me how to swear in Italian. We got more drunk in a flat. We saw each other for the following four nights.
Maybe I was lucky and happened to be reading the right book in the right piazza at the right time. But I don’t think it could have happened if I hadn’t been alone. Give solo travelling a stab. You’ll meet some great people so long as you can survive the first 24 hours of starvation, loneliness and crippling social anxiety.