Travelling is the best school of life. It expands our horizons, gives us new benchmarks, and makes us more aware of who we are in the context of the world.
I have loved travelling and the idea of roaming free and discovering new places since I was nine years old. This is when I first went abroad. To Turkey and then Syria over a summer month that forever stayed embedded in my mind. My parents and I travelled across dusty roads, visited the ruins of Palmyra, ate fresh pistachio nuts and prickly pears bought from street vendors, got lost in the underground souks of Aleppo, and saw the mighty Euphrates river. It was hot, exciting, and very colourful. And at times, it was hot, strange, uncomfortable, and even painful. Like, when a cloud of mosquitoes feasted on us during the night we spent in a Turkish city called Iskenderun close to the border with Syria.
This was over three decades ago now. And the soul-enriching excitement of seeing new places for the first time has stayed with me ever since.
In spite of a limited travelling budget through the years and my initially weak passport (which found its strength after Bulgaria became a full member of the EU in 2007), I have made an effort to see as much as I could when I could. Which could be something as small as making sure that I explored all the museums in the city where I was currently living to travelling solo across Scotland for two cold, cold yet totally unforgettably weeks in October 2002.
Hardly a groundbreaking stuff, I agree, but more than enough when you hold a full-time job and are trying to find your place in the world.
No matter what happened in my life, travelling remained my guilty pleasure, my little escape route, and I grabbed every opportunity to pack and go as a way to:
- celebrate personal and professional milestones – like when I went to Barcelona on my own after I landed my first big payment from a new translation client; and
- mourn large emotional blackholes – like when I went to Brussels after my then boyfriend and I split. Oh, OK, we got back together after all and are got married (hello, darling!). So, this is a happy story with a lesson learned: don’t go to Brussels with a broken heart. The city will make you even more depressed. Or was that just me?!
With us living in Italy now, travelling is something that we do often. At least weekly. When we can, even daily. After all, there is so much to see and experience here. There is always another medieval walled town to explore, another work of art to see for the first time, another dish to taste, and another gorgeous view to make you feel a bit lightheaded with excitement.
Yes, through the years my love for travel hasn’t changed. My travelling style though evolved quite a bit.
When I was travelling solo before the advent of the forward facing cameras, my biggest worry was finding a kind stranger to hand my camera safely to in order to have my picture taken. As part of a couple, I had to negotiate different travelling styles and expectations, with me wanting to cram as much in and my significant other taking it slow and easy. Then, as a mother, I started worrying about more practical stuff. Like what’s the right number of nappies to have on you for a two-hour flight and how to breastfeed underneath a hot and sweaty blanket surrounded by strangers.
And even though I never ventured beyond Europe after that first travelling foray to Turkey and Syria in the 80’s and I never quite conquered the world in the style of a daring fearless heroine of exploration, looking back I see so many unforgettable experiences. Sifting through my many travelling memories fills me up with joy, sometimes embarrassment, and occasionally with fear and pain.
It doesn’t matter if we travel halfway across the globe or just to the nearby city. When we make a conscious choice to travel, to see things, to put ourselves out there, we actively begin connecting with the world. We experience the full amplitude of emotions when we are on the road, we expose ourselves to new environments, we test our boundaries and in the process, we end up learning the most precious life lessons.
Here are mine!
Read on and let me know your thoughts…
18 Life Lessons I learned Travelling Solo, as a Couple, and as a Family
1. Always carry a bottle of water with you
The simplest things can have the biggest impact on you. Forgetting your bottle of water on a hot day of sightseeing is not a joke. Dehydration affects your physical wellbeing and your enjoyment of travelling in many unpleasant ways. From dry mouth and inability to focus to feeling faint and dizzy.
With a low blood pressure, if I don’t drink water at regular intervals when it is hot, I get a very unpleasant ringing in my ears and I get very irritable and snappy which could be rather testing for my travelling companion.
Plus, a thirsty child is a very unhappy child, too. And when you travel as a family, you want everyone to feel their best in order to maximise all sightseeing opportunities.
Getting a bottle of water with you is simple and easy. It could be a multi-use or single-use (please, recycle!) bottle. As long as you have it on you, things will be so much easier both for you and everyone around you.
2. Invest in experiences instead of mass-produced souvenirs
After having to pack my whole life twice in the past six years:
- once to move from London to quiet Kent; and
- then to move from England to Italy,
I really can’t stand clutter. I would rather sift through hundreds of memories than having to dust dozens of knick-knacks on the mantelpiece on a weekly basis. Not to mention how quickly all those souvenirs tend to accumulate – from quirky fridge magnets to tacky keychains.
That cooking apron with the depiction of David’s torso (and other bits) may have seemed like a great idea at the time, but once back home, how often are you actually using it in the kitchen. And the money you paid for it, wouldn’t it have been better spent on seeing the real thing or eating more of that amazing Italian gelato?!
3. Actively seek beauty
The world is beautiful!
Nature and human hands have created some staggering beauty. Seek it out actively. When you notice it, spend a moment consciously drinking it in and making a mental note about how happy you are to be able to be there right then, to be able to see it and experience it.
It could be something as simple as blooming flower boxes adorning balconies and porches all over Italy. Or something as dramatic as the view of the ruined Urquhart Castle overlooking the mysterious Loch Ness.
Life can be ugly. And difficult, and crushing. Soul-destroying at times.
Actively seeking beauty can make all the difference when you are feeling a bit vulnerable, a bit misunderstood, and just a bit on the edge of a sad, depressive mood.
4. Travel every day
Travelling is a state of mind. You don’t necessarily need to be in a plane heading to an exotic destination in order to experience it.
Planning new trips, no matter how short, popping into local galleries to see their new exhibitions, arranging to meet friends at a new coffee shop, walking around town with my camera in hand looking for new points of view, reading travel magazines, and lusting over majestic travel photos. I feel like I am in a constant state of departure. Which is a great thing as it gives me something to look forward to, something exciting to expect to happen.
In fact, I have noticed that when I don’t make an effort to travel every day one way or another, this is when the dark moods settle in with self-doubt and procrastination rearing their ugly heads up.
5. Being frugal pays off
When you think that you can’t afford to travel, start a piggy bank. Loose change accumulates very quickly. Instead of letting it roll at the bottom of dozens of pockets and/or bags, make a point to collect it. Then, at the end of each month (or three, six months, a year – it depends entirely on you), count it and treat yourself and your travelling companions to a new experience.
The piggy bank is a start-up concept. Expand it by putting a small percentage of your monthly paycheck into a special savings account. Or, drop one thing you can’t live without each day (like a fancy coffee or a chocolate bar) and gleefully redirect the money to your travelling fund. Think about what the euros spent on a new top or yet another shiny new lipstick can buy you when you are at a new exciting destination. Then, squirrel away the money.
I used to be addicted to buying coats. At one point, I had over a dozen in my wardrobe. Then, my size changed drastically twice over the course of two years and I gave all coats and over forty bags of other clothes to our local charity shop in England. Since then I have made an active effort to streamline my wardrobe and use any money I would have frivolously spent on it on getting places instead.
6. It is OK to change as a person
I think society often discourages change as people are easier to keep under check when they remain the same.
It could be something as basic as your parents still treating you like a small child even though you may be in your thirties. Or something as big as friends putting you under a lot of peer pressure because for once you want to do something different than the crowd you have been associating with for years.
Yet, change is good, to evolve is good and one of the best ways to do it is to travel, to get to know new places, new people and new ways of life. Once you have seen that there are other ways to do things, you may reconsider old habits that have been instilled in you for decades. You may discover new depths to yourself or it may become crystal clear to you that it is OK to move forward, to leave certain people and certain circumstances behind as they don’t fit your needs as a person anymore.
7. Take the path less travelled
If you don’t challenge yourself on a daily basis, where are you going to be at the end of the year?!
Routine is a nice and safe thing but in a world where something new and exciting is happening each moment, do you want to stay in the same spot or keep moving forward?!
If you find it difficult to get out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself in terms of your career, relationships, and even hobbies experiment with travelling. Choose a destination that speaks to you and spend a few days there just taking things in, navigating your way through new streets, new foods, and new highlights.
The experience will give you a fresh understanding of your ability to seek new roads forward, to experiment and to grow. Then, it becomes easier to apply the same attitude to the important things in your life so that you begin to focus on your aspirations and dreams rather than conforming to other people’s expectations.
8. No matter where you are, be a local
In a globally connected world, it is only too easy to fall through the cracks and feel completely disconnected. Self-doubt, lack of friends, dark moods, they take over before you have realised what is happening.
For myself, I have found that the best way to combat this feeling of not-belonging anywhere and of not-caring for anything, is to make a conscious effort to become a local.
It could be something as simple as popping every now and then in my local Italian coffee shop and having a little chat with the ladies working there. Or making sure that we join in the local celebrations and way of life. I remember we went to Arco – a small and pretty town just off the Northern end of Lake Garda – a few months ago. In the evening, we found ourselves at the main square in the full swing of the celebration of Carnival.
People were dancing dressed in fun costumes. Kids were running around. Everyone was throwing confetti. It was a mayhem. We joined in.
At first, I admit, it felt a bit silly to be this free but soon it felt liberating and, before we knew it, we were chatting with other people, laughing and having a great time.
9. A bit of TLC goes a long way
Everyone wants someone to love him. The most important thing though is to love oneself. Which can be surprisingly difficult, too.
We can be incredibly tough on ourselves. Noticing faults with everything, talking ourselves down, completely refusing to believe in our own skills. Here the ability to take care of ourselves, the conscious choice to treat ourselves to something nice every now and then comes very useful.
You know how when you travel (especially, if you have had to save and scrimp to afford a nice city break or a few days away from the daily grind), it becomes such a treat to have one lovely dinner out in a good restaurant or booking in the hotel spa for a couple of hours in order to fully relax.
Transferring these moments of self care into our daily life is an important thing. Showing ourselves some small acts of love and appreciation only strengthens our spirit and our resolve. It could be anything, really – from buying a ticket to see a new exhibition to booking a staycation in a luxury hotel when you can stretch to it.
The important thing is to keep taking care of ourselves through new experiences and by fostering new emotions in us.
10. Strike a balance
It is quite difficult to maintain a work-life balance and when you add travelling to the mix, you can feel on a very shaky ground indeed.
Do you work to travel, do you travel in order to feel like you are living, do you stop travelling so as to develop your career prospects more. There are so many questions and so many potential answers, your head may as well explode.
Striking a balance means a different thing for everyone. It is important to look inside ourselves and try to honestly decipher what really matters to us as opposed to what expectations the people around us might have.
After sacrificing my personal life over five years for a fast-paced job, I realised that having a child and being able to travel to new places on a regular basis is very important to me. After a difficult couple of years of trying for a child, we succeeded and then, as soon as we could, we moved from England to Italy in order to feel like permanent tourists even though my husband works full time and I split my time between being a mother, blogging and writing for other outlets.
With Brexit and being a third-culture family, our happy balance will at some point need to re-adjust itself. Yet, I am happy that we gave it a try and learned and experienced so much in the process instead of always wondering what could have been.
11. Always ask questions
There are no stupid questions. The more you ask the more information you are going to obtain.
Being curious is an important quality. It allows you to discover new things and, in the process, of finding out who you are, what interests you and what makes you feel connected to the world and alive.
Nowadays, we can always ask Google but it is much more exciting and (at times, unpredictable) to ask the people around us. You never know when a precious tidbit of information is going to surface. From a recommendation by a local as to the best places to eat at to coming unexpectedly upon an expert and learning so much more than you could ever imagine.
Once, we were at Esapolis – a museum in Padua, Italy where they have living insects from all over the world. In one of the rooms, we asked an amiably looking fellow a question about one of the exhibits. It turned out that he was the director of the museum, a professor of entomology, no less. We were treated to a great talk about insects in Italy and learned about amazing expeditions and the newest discoveries in the field. It was a great half an hour. All sparked by a simple question.
12. No is a full sentence
Honestly, no means no. Don’t feel like you have to explain or justify yourself. Be brave in your decisions considering the circumstances.
Quite often women (especially) feel like they need to elaborate on the reasons why they don’t want to do something. It is this image and expectation that society imposes on them to be nice and agreeable, to never say no outright.
If you find it difficult to say no, then you can work on many different ways to communicate it both verbally and non-verbally in situations where you feel like you would rather be left alone. These can vary from people trying to impose their opinions and wants on you to attracting unwanted attention when you are in a brand new place where customs may largely differ from home.
You can make yourself look as unapproachable as possible (no smiling, no direct eye contact, employing the so-called ‘resting bitch face’, no turning around if someone whistles at you). You can use non-committal language like: ‘Not now, maybe later.’ or ‘I will think about it.’ Or, depending on the specific circumstances, you can be very firm and just say ‘No!’ without elaborating further.
13. Always have a plan B
Things not always work out. Plans fall apart. People split. Life moves on.
For those moments when everything looks like it is about to get very messy indeed having a plan B can the difference between being stressed and acting appropriately to limit any potential damages.
It could be something as tiny as having a small sum of money put aside so that you are not stranded penniless if you lose your valuables or they get stolen. Or having a snack tucked away when your flight is cancelled and you need to queue for hours with a tired child in order to get booked on the next plane and get a hotel room for the night.
As they say: Expect the best. Prepare for the worst.
14. Put the camera down in order to see things
Travelling twenty years ago meant that I felt lucky if I got back from a destination with two whole canisters of film shots. 36 frames per film equaled the crazy number of 72 photos!! That was huge.
Nowadays, I realised that I can spend as little as half an hour at a particular spot and end up with double that amount. Which is crazy. As, it means that I spend longer looking at the place through the lens of the camera and then, my composition skills perhaps need a bit of work if I am never satisfied with the result.
In order to see life, feel it and experience it truthfully, we need to put down the lens we are looking at it through. This lens could be, literally, the lens of a camera or, figuratively speaking, the lens of social media or other people’s expectations. It is addictive to present the world around ourselves through curated sets and perfect filters.
Yet, we need to re-train ourselves to see things for what they are with our own eyes. Putting the camera or the phone down is the first step. Spending time simply observing things is the second. Then, suddenly, everything looks brand new and different and we start noticing details and visual information which we have been only too busy to spot before.
15. Never stop travelling solo
Even with a child and a husband, travelling solo is something I still do nowadays. To be perfectly honest, it doesn’t happen that often and, normally, it is just for half a day or a whole one, if I am lucky.
I believe that being able to explore places on your own is a great skill. And a great freedom! To fill the time seeing things that interest you, to feel comfortable enough to have lunch or coffee by yourself, to give yourself the headspace to think about things and see them in any order you like and in any way you want. It’s my little personal bliss!
You know, we are conditioned to surround ourselves with people and feel part of a community. Yet, when you are on the road by yourself (no matter how small or large the journey), this is when you discover what you are capable of.
On the other hand, travelling solo every now and then also makes you appreciate so much more your regular travelling companion. How level-headed he is when dealing with problems on the road. How interested he is in things you never felt attracted to before you met him (like caves, for example!). How patient he is while you take yet another photo of the same old thing.
16. Safety first
No matter if you are travelling or staying put, personal safety comes first.
Call it sixth sense, spidey feeling or primal instincts, don’t discard whatever they are telling you even if you are afraid you may come across as overreacting and/or awkward. I was attacked and violently almost mugged in Barcelona’s underground all because I didn’t want to make a fuss when I noticed that a man was following me.
Even though he was obviously shadowing me, I felt apprehensive to ask people for help, ignored him and went on my merry way. Until he got me cornered in a quiet tunnel off the main walkway and almost made away with all my valuables and my passport. I was incredibly lucky that a couple appeared out of nowhere and chased him off.
Since then I would rather appear silly than put myself in the same situation again.
Through this and other experiences I learned that just because a certain place is busy with people, it doesn’t mean that it is safe. Also, some people may help you but other people won’t, so don’t rely on others to protect/stand up for you if need be. Take all necessary precautions no matter how stupid they may seem. Don’t let the emotions of the moment take over you and blindise you. Know your surroundings, who is in them and how close the nearest exit is. And, don’t think that it won’t happen to you. Finally, always lock your door when you are waiting and/or driving in your car. You can’t imagine how quickly someone may get inside until it happens to you.
For more details, please, read: 28 Travel Tips and Tricks to Minimise the Risk of Pickpockets and Muggers
17. Leave some space for surprise
In a world where you are constantly asked (by teachers, recruiters and even family members) where do you see yourself in five years time, it is only too easy to forget to be spontaneous and to overplan everything to the last detail.
In all honesty, by the time I was 23 I thought I had it all worked out and envisaged myself at a particular job in a particular city for, at least, a decade.
It never happened. Since then, I changed three countries, several occupations, got my heart burned, my passions changed several times. And, here I am today – in Vicenza, Northern Italy out of all places, dishing some life advice.
So, believe me, when I say that you should always leave some space for surprise. Don’t turn up unprepared. Know yourself and what you want. Yet don’t plan everything to the last minute and then feel dejected when life happens and changes your intentions, expectations, and your grand designs.
18. Always wear very comfortable shoes
This is the best life lesson I have learned so far.
Don’t buy shoes based on how they look. Make sure that you can actually walk long distances in them. Heels or flats, boots or slip-ons – they need to fit like a glove so that your exploration of this beautiful world and this beautiful life is comfortable and steady, taking you from point A to point B without fail and with a lot of fun along the way.
What do you think? What are the life lessons you have learned travelling solo, as a couple and/or as a family? Share them with me.
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