If I’m completely honest, when I booked my trip to Italy I didn’t really think it through. A friend of mine suggested that I see a little of Europe before settling into my study abroad program. At that moment, all I could think of was how much I loved pasta – so I chose to go to Rome.
At first, the complicated parts of the trip – the summer weather (hot), the language barrier (frustrating), traveling alone (amazing) – didn’t register as very significant. Despite being an incredibly organized person – I keep four calendars at a time – I quickly realized how low-maintenance I could be, and needed to be, while traveling.
As I stepped off the plane, I practically fell over hitting the near-solid humidity. The terminal was filled with locals returning from vacation, so few people spoke English and plenty of them stared at the clearly lost American girl wandering through the airport.
My plane landed late in the evening. By the time I had to find my Airbnb, it was already dark and I was hopelessly lost. My taxi driver spoke no English and was unfamiliar with the area, and I couldn’t figure out how to get in touch with the hosts I was staying with. I eventually found the apartment, and I can’t describe my relief at hearing English after what felt like days of confusing Italian. It had been three hours.
I stayed in a residential area about 30 minutes outside of downtown Rome. The people in the area already had little reason to speak English. Few tourists ventured out that way, and since it was August, when many Europeans go on holiday, there were even fewer people around, shrinking the pool of English speakers even further.
But while that isolation felt lonely at times, it was also freeing. Without anyone else to travel with, there was no expectation to stick to a particular schedule. I wandered around various neighborhoods in Rome with no idea where I was going, and ended up seeing more of the city than I would have otherwise. Naturally, this could have been because my sense of direction is exceptionally poor. But without anyone to really guide me toward the big attractions, I ended up exploring smaller neighborhoods and lingering over the quieter attractions.
My favorite spot was Largo di Torre Argentina, the site where Julius Caesar was murdered, which is now a stray cat sanctuary. It became my home base while out of my Airbnb, since it was near the center of downtown Rome, but quiet (and shady) enough to catch my breath and get reoriented. The sanctuary is set below the pavement, but is surrounded by busy streets and shops. Every once in a while a stray cat would appear, looking perfectly comfortable and entirely wrong on the ancient, sacred ruins.
Since I was by myself at all these places, people-watching often invited some strange interactions – one Italian man asked me to sniff a leaf and then rambled in mangled English about Roman fountains and his trip to Boston.
And eventually, I got used to only hearing Italian. It became somewhat startling to easily understand what people were saying, and I can’t explain how proud I was when I could manage a halting conversation in Italian. I picked it up through the laborious efforts on the part of my hosts, and the hour or so they spent on my first night in Rome teaching me very simple words and giggling politely behind their hands at my horrific accent. From there, a few waiters took pity on me and would repeat everything they said in both English and Italian, until I could ask for water and other basics with a passable accent that has gone dormant since.
The strangest thing about traveling alone was that I wasn’t scared. Even with all the warnings I received about pickpockets in Rome, I didn’t feel especially threatened. The most threatened I felt was when I wandered into a coffee bar that was filled to bursting with construction workers getting their midmorning espresso. And even that was only scary because they clearly knew what to do, and I somehow managed to trip over my own feet and then gag on the incredibly strong espresso.
In Rome, I got to be completely independent – I set my own schedule, I chose where and when to eat. I got to be truly on my own. By the end of my nine-day trip, I knew the general layout of the different city neighborhoods, I could speak very, very basic Italian and had perfected the language of charades. I also came to realize that having four calendars is useful, but it’s just as useful to be able to relax and do what suits me in the moment – even if that means getting gelato three times in one day.