“I go alone.”
I almost always travel to Italy by myself. People used to question it, “Don’t you get lonely? Aren’t you scared? Isn’t it boring being by yourself?” And my response is always the same, “Well, no, not really.” After so many years, people got used to me taking off da sola (alone) and now it’s a normal occurrence.
It’s not that I don’t like travelling with others because yes, I usually do prefer to be around friends. The truth is I do get lonely. But loneliness is just part of the intricate package of positives and negatives. There is a lot to consider when embarking upon a new adventure all on your own. But this article isn’t about the list. Here, I am only going to talk about what is, to me, the single most important and interesting issue: making new friends.
Making new friends when you are far away from everyone and everything you know, can be the best but also the very worst thing about being out on your own. When you’re abroad, time is short. And when you’re in this situation alone, you have to take advantage of every moment and stay open and receptive to what is going on around you. Otherwise you might miss an important opportunity to discover a magnificent new place, learn something that will change your life, or meet a new person who could end up being your best friend one day. But even if you do make a new best friend, you are not at home and your time together has to end.
Travelling with a companion certainly has its benefits. It takes the pressure off. But from my perspective, it can also lessen the adventure. You’re not forced to be so keen on all that is going on around you. You don’t always have to speak your second language or strike up so many conversations with people you don’t know. If you want an easier vacation, bring someone with you. Personally, I prefer the adventurous challenge.
Actually, truth be told, Jane Eyre was my travel companion to Italy this fall. I had picked up Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Jane Eyre, about a week before I left and little Jane’s pensive and fiercely independent character immediately captivated me. Fortunately during my trip this year, when I was forced to leave some of my very favorite people, or they had to depart from me, I had Jane Eyre to fall back on. (If you go off by yourself, do take a good book—you never know when you’re going to be desperate for a simple dinner companion.) On one particularly lonely week, while I was eating out alone, I came across the following passage in the book, a scene to which I could completely relate:
“The day she left I was no longer the same: with her was gone every settled feeling, every association that had made Lowood in some degree a home to me. I had imbibed from her something of her nature and much of her habits; more harmonious thought: what seemed better regulated feelings had become the inmates of my mind … I walked about the chamber most of the time. I imagined myself only to be regretting my loss, and thinking how to repair it; but when my reflections were concluded, and I looked up and found that the afternoon was gone, and evening far advanced, another discovery dawned on me, namely, that in the interval I had undergone a transforming process; that my mind had put off all it had borrowed from Miss Temple—or rather that she had taken with her the serene atmosphere I had been breathing in her vicinity—and that now I was left in my natural element, and beginning to feel the stir of old emotions.”
Here Jane describes her inner turmoil and dark emotions on the day in which her favorite boarding school teacher left her school forever. When Jane had arrived at Lowood eight years prior, she thought of herself as quite likely an evil and unlikable child. But Miss Temple made Jane realize her virtues. Because of Miss Temple, Jane was able to discover her own value, talents, and good nature. Once her teacher left, Jane was quite aware of the “settled feelings,” “harmonious thoughts,” and “better regulated feelings,” that being in the presence of Miss Temple had offered her. But her challenge was to pick those up and walk away with them, even in the absence of Miss Temple.
Making friends abroad is, in a way, more valuable than making friends at home. What is so precious is their ability (without any prior knowledge of who you are) to reflect back upon you a new dimension of yourself, something in which you may not have believed, or ever discovered before. But the unique challenge with making connections so quickly and so far away from home, is realizing how to take with you all of the little insights, experiences, and memories that you’ve been offered instead of dwelling on all the great times you had and being depressed once they are gone. You must figure out how to pack yourself up and get going. And that is my challenge—taking all the gifts that my new friends have bestowed upon me, and moving on.
In the novel, Jane also doesn’t dwell too long. Instead she decides that without Miss Temple at Lowood, there is no longer a reason for her to stay there. She accepts a new job in another town and leaves behind everything she has known for eight years. This is a similar scenario to packing up your bags, leaving the familiar behind, and travelling on to a new place, despite a potentially soul-crushing fear of the unknown.
“It is a very strange sensation to inexperienced youth to feel itself quite alone in the world, cut adrift from every connection, uncertain whether the port to which it is bound can be reached, and prevented by many impediments from returning to that it has quitted. The charm of adventure sweetens that sensation, the glow of pride warms it; but then the throb of fear disturbs it; and fear with me became predominant, when half an hour elapsed and still I was alone. I bethought myself to ring a bell.”
We all have fear but what we do with that fear is what matters. How many times have I been afraid to move on to a new place because I didn’t know if the next would be nearly as good as the previous? A sense of desolation and loneliness can be enough to stop me. But I’ve learned not to let it. I’ve arrived in countless towns only to realize I am totally lost and I can’t even remember why I wanted to go there. I’ve come upon so many empty courtyards and locked gates with no signs. And how many rooms full of unfamiliar faces, speaking a language I barely understand, have I walked into? Too many to count.
My options are always the same: turn around in fear, or “ring a bell.” The potential of something even sweeter than I’ve discovered before always convinces me to take another step forward.
I take with me the experiences and gifts that others have given me, knowing that, around every unknown corner, the world has in store for me something much better than I could have ever imagined myself.
So I keep going.
Of course, I am always looking ahead to all the times in the future when I will once again cross paths with all of my old “new friends”!
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Below are some scenes from my last trip to Italy, with many of the people who have made this trip, and others, more meaningful, very fun, and in some cases, life changing!
The photos are ordered in time from the beginning of my trip to the end. Unfortunately not every important person is pictured here, but some of you appear more than once! Thank you for all of your individual contributions—old “new friends” and new “new friends.”
(One person below is luckily my friend at home and I get to see her all the time! Thanks, Jordana, for coming out with your mom to visit me in Piemonte this year!)