Rome: Traveling Solo for the First Time
The summer of 2016, I traveled solo for the first time. My sister Julie and her husband got married in Florence, and it was an international affair. I recapped the family Florence experience briefly when I first started this page, but I never ended up detailing my journey after leaving Florence. The below captures what I had detailed in my journal during this trip (yes, I often keep an actual notebook with me to write with a pen and jot my thoughts down).
I shared a suite with my parents in Florence, and they left early in the morning to catch their flight back to Boston - they had already been traveling prior to arriving to Florence around Europe with some other family members, and it was time for them to go home. As they left the suite, it felt surreal: I was on my own.
I double-checked that I had everything packed up in my backpack, triple-checked even, before feeling comfortable to head out to the train station. I hadn’t purchased my ticket for the train yet from Florence to Rome, but I looked up the schedule and figured I would just buy my ticket when I arrived at the station. Aside from this unplanned moment, everything else for my solo trip was planned out well - from the hour by hour itinerary, to day to day activity. I planned this trip perfectly - so I thought.
I got to the station a few hours ahead of the train, and grabbed a sandwich to eat while finding somewhere to perch and wait for the train. The train ride was generally enjoyable, with a gorgeous view along the way. It was very easy to figure out which ticket I needed to purchase for my train, and I got on from Florence and off from Rome seamlessly.
According to my research, the train station in Rome is highly known for pickpocketing, so I was particularly cautious of anyone coming near me, and bolted to a taxi to take me to my Airbnb. I was a bit nervous to stay in a hostel for my first time traveling alone - I had only known the misconceptions of hostel-life (which I will detail my hostel experiences in another post), and decided to take it one step at a time with my first solo traveling experience - there would be more, I told myself.
The taxi pulled up, telling me that my Airbnb was on a road for pedestrians only, and dropped me off. I walked another ten minutes up the way to my Airbnb, up the stairs, and I was greeted by my host in shared Airbnb space. She and her husband did not speak English, and simply pointed around to where I was staying, where the bathroom was, and a note stating breakfast was available in the kitchen every morning. It was early afternoon at this point, and I knew most businesses were closing for midday sleep, so i decided to partake and also take a nap after washing up.
My Airbnb was about a fifteen minute walk outside of Trastevere, and once I woke up from my own midday sleep, I left to walk to Trastevere before it got too dark and went to Ristorante Roma Sparita for a dish of cacio e pepe - a la Anthony Bourdain on one of his episodes. After dinner, I walked over to one of the bridges, but it was getting dark, and I was getting scared, so I rushed home and decided to call it an early night - I had an incredibly early morning ahead of me the next day.
For this trip, I didn’t think to have international cell phone service because I borrowed my sister’s Tep pocket wifi and thought this would be enough for me to need regarding communication. I saw that Rome utilized a taxi-hailing app (they did not have Uber or Lyft available), and I downloaded that on my phone and it was accessible via the pocket wifi. I also researched that hailing taxis that are driving by doesn’t work in Rome - you have to go to a taxi stand specifically, or call one to directly to your location.
My first full day in Rome, I had a full day trip planned to head out to Pompeii, hike up Vesuvius, and stop over to Naples before circling back to Rome at 8:30 PM. The group was meeting at one of the many plazas of Rome at 7:15 AM, with the bus leaving at 7:30 AM. This plaza was located about a 90 minute walking distance from where I was staying in Trastevere, and there was no public transit available at the time — so I decided to take the taxi.
It was 5:30 AM, and I began to try calling a taxi to the location ten minutes away from Airbnb where cars can go. I spent about a half hour trying to call a taxi, but kept receiving notice that there were “no taxis available.” I began to Google where the nearest taxi stands to me were, and walked to three different taxi stands, unable to find a single taxi. By the fourth taxi stand, I finally found a taxi and immediately jumped in to take me to this plaza… arriving at 7:33 AM and watching my bus drive away without me.
I was devastated. I just spent two hours trying to get to that plaza and felt like I had made so many mistakes - not doing enough research, not being prepared. I sat at the plaza fountain and watched the sunrise in tears. Yup, I just sat at the plaza for an hour and cried. I messaged my sister (who was on a flight to one of her honeymoon destinations) via WhatsApp in a state of panic, being truly upset. She didn't respond for a bit due to being on the flight, and I felt truly alone. I had a walking tour planned the following day to see all of the historic sights of Rome, what was I supposed to do that entire day now that I had it free and wasn't going to Pompeii anymore? I was not mentally prepared to make this kind of mistake.
Eventually, my sister responded, and talking to her helped me realize that I was having a moment. Julie helped me rationalize that this was the big miss of my trip - hopefully there weren’t going to be more. I decided to change my perspective, and instead of thinking the day ruined, this was a day of opportunity. At this point, it was 8:30 AM. The plaza was bustling with people getting to work, and so I got on my phone and began looking up where the best cafe was in my area and walked over.
I stopped into My Bags and got myself a cappuccino and a honey-filled croissant, sat outside, and wrote in my journal for about three hours, recapping my Florence trip and my thoughts up to that exact moment of where I was. During my time at My Bags, I spoke to the server here and there, but otherwise, I was more or less in my own element.
I headed back to the plaza, over to a taxi stand I had walked by previously, and headed back to my Airbnb. As soon as I walked in, the husband of the host immediately offered me coffee. This language barrier was deep, as I did not speak Italian, and he did not speak English.
I sat at the kitchen table and was reading my book while drinking coffee when he approached me with his phone, pointing to the charging port and making a hand gesture of a cord. I realized he was asking if I had one, so I went to my room and grabbed my cord for him to use, and he sat a the kitchen table with me. After several minutes of silence between us, he began trying to talk to me, saying a few Italian phrases here and there, but recognized I didn’t understand him. Soon, he began talking with his hands and pointing at things to help me know what he was saying.
He was trying to have a conversation with me even though we both didn't speak each other's language.
Two hours later, I had a, primarily, non-verbal conversation with him, and learned about his three children, his dog who died the year prior, and how he is actually from Florence but had moved to Rome about 50 years ago.
I think about this conversation a lot to this day - two and a half years later. This experience taught me that anyone can communicate with anyone, even if we don’t speak the same spoken language. If the intent in effort is there, it is possible.
After our conversation, I took a midday nap (as one does in Rome), and decided I was going to go out. The night prior, I went back early because of my fears of being out in the dark alone, but I decided I wasn’t going to let my fears hold me back — I already was overly cautious earlier that morning, but despite my caution, I still missed my tour! It didn’t matter how well I planned, things still happen, so I am just going to go out and live my life, I thought.
Around 3:30 PM, I walked out to Trastevere, about ten to fifteen minutes from where I was staying. I headed into La Proscuterria, got myself a small salumi e formagi board for 5 euros, and a glass of Chianti for another 5 euros, sat at the table, enjoyed my food, and continued reading my book. It was a relaxing hour I spent snacking and reading in the company of others without actually interacting with others. Once I was done, I walked out, perusing the streets of Trastevere, finding myself at one of the fountains.
As I walked over to the fountain, I noticed a girl sitting by herself on the bottom step spacing out. I took a seat facing Blue Ice Gelateria, and began people watching. I watched as a street artist began unpacking his boxes of supplies onto the ground. I watched as couples made out, as children ran, as tourists looked at maps and planned. Outside the gelateria, I saw a middle-aged man eating gelato when his scoop on top of his cone fell onto the ground and immediately wondered if he was thinking about how ice cream ever falls on him before the way I had thought when my gelato fell on me in Florence.
And then I watched him pick up his scoop of gelato from the ground and eat it, and I knew that was the sign for me to stop people watching.
I figured I would go get a drink somewhere and go from there with my evening. It was almost 5 PM, and I got up from the fountain, when I saw that girl sitting by herself still at the bottom step. I'm not sure what came over me. I thought - maybe she'd want to get a drink with me. I marched up to her and asked "Hey, are you traveling alone?" Immediately, I panicked. If someone came up to me and asked this question, I totally would have darted.
This is how I met Natalie, the Australian girl who had been traveling abroad since November throughout Europe, and I met her on her very last day before flying home to the land down under.
The two of us headed over to Ombre Rosse, grabbed a mixed cocktail each, ordered a salumi e formagi board as well as a carbonara, and eventually a bottle of Lambrusco to share. We sat there for about four hours, talking, getting to know each other, joking, and having a great time. Two strangers who happened to be alone on that day in Rome together.
We decided we should have fun, that this was her last day in Europe, it can't go wasted. We migrated to G Bar because there was a happy hour for 2 euro shots and super cheap glasses of wine. We took some shots of tequila, continuing our conversation and eventually moving to the window seats looking onto the street. We met an Australian couple and a Scottish couple. The Scottish couple was so cool. They all made fun of me because I had an accent wen speaking English to them, which was hilarious because to me, they had an accent.
Across the street, I saw a guy having a drink and sitting by himself. I looked at Natalie and asked - do you think he's by himself? I told her I was giving it fifteen minutes, and that if I didn't see anyone sit down with him in those fifteen minutes, I would walk over and invite him to sit with us all. We were a rowdy group of strangers all having a great conversation, of course he should join us. She joked about how he looked like Ryan Gosling, and I couldn't stop laughing over it. To be honest, at first, I didn't see it, but I totally saw it when I had the galls to get up and walk over to him, asking him to join us.
And he did! He paid for what he got and headed over. The irony of it all was that Ryan Gosling look-alike's first name is actually Ryan. I can't even make this up. It was also Ryan's last evening in Rome, as he was heading to Naples for a friend's wedding. The Scottish couple left, and the three of us continue chatting and getting to know each other. Ryan had mentioned a bar he went to earlier on his trip around the corner, where the bartenders were great mixologists and loved him. That was our next stop - 8 Millimetri.
Over drinks, we talked about various walks of life, from politics, to world issues, to dating and love. Every time Ryan got up to get another drink, random men would try talking to Natalie and me. Finally, after Ryan joked about how there were these guys sitting next to us wanting to talk to us, we gave in, and let our little circle talk to these two Italian men... ultimately leading to us making a quick escape out and looking for pizza and paninis. The evening ended with the two of them walking me back to my Airbnb around 5 AM. Natalie was saying that if it weren't for me, the three of us wouldn't have been there talking to each other the way we did. We said our goodbye's and hugged it out, not before exchanging social media contact information in order to stay connected.
I only had a couple of hours of sleep before I went off to my Viator walking tour around 7:30 AM - this was misery, and I was exhausted. The tour itself was pretty great. Thank you to my younger self for somehow being able to thrive on minimal hours of sleep. Don’t forget to bring something to cover your shoulders at the Vatican — I brought a scarf I bought in Florence from Desigual. After the walking tour finished, I got caught at the Vatican because the roads were closed, and eventually found my way back to my bed. I packed all of my belongings, and went to sleep early - I had my flight to Paris early the next day.
Meeting Natalie and Ryan on my trip was definitely the highlight of my short time abroad alone. If I hadn't missed my bus that morning, I would have never met them. I realized everything happens for a reason. To this day, I accept that I don't have control over every aspect of my life, and I learned to be more flexible in my decisions.
I also learned a lot about myself. I can let go of my fears of being alone. Yes, I may be alone at any point in time, but I was put in a position where I could either accept that I was by myself, or I could do something about it and talk to someone. And I did.