How a Day Alone in Pisa can Change Your Life (Even if you Don’t Drive a Ferrari)
I was sitting outside an Italian cafe sipping a coffee, eating a slice of heavy indulgent cheese cake and watching Ferraris drive by. The scene couldn’t have been more stereotypically Italian and more importantly I’d finally, in my mid 50s, become an independent traveller.
As a youngster we went camping each weekend, my parents had a caravan and I slept in the awning. You wouldn’t believe how much noise a tent zip makes when everyone else is asleep. There was always a closed Tupperware cup of milk waiting for me, with a digestive biscuit on the lid.
On rainy days the sound of pattering on the caravan roof accompanied the shouts of ‘rummy’ as we played cards as a family. It wasn’t until my very late teens that my parents finally had enough money to take the family overseas. My memories of camping in Bordeaux in France and the giant pinecones we collected are still cemented by the dish of similar pinecones in my home. I enjoyed it as I was able to spend time alone wandering on pine needles watching giant ants climb over obstacles I put in their way. Children don’t need expensive trips, but I wished for trips overseas like my school peers. It would be 40+ years until I got over my travel envy.
In my 20s, I went, just once, with a friend on the compulsory 18-30 holiday.
Those naive days of alcohol and sunburn. It was a total financial rip off, a taste of independence all the same. In hindsight I imagine my parents were having a few sleep-ness nights back home. I remember the escapades but it certainly wasn’t something I wished to repeat.
My 30s were the amazing years I watched my daughter grow.
I couldn’t afford many trips. I was lucky enough to be given some camping gear by a colleague, so I always tried to fit in a week or two camping near my parent’s Devon home.
We marked our spot by putting up the large umbrella over the table on the imaginary tent patio. It was emblazoned with a free brewery logo, I’d been given it by a friend who owned a pub! It lasted years that umbrella, one year we met up with old friends as they spotted it across the camp site, loud proud and weather-faded.
I spent the hard earned days fishing, cycling, swimming and watching my daughter make new friends by the pool as I read my books. I thought I was a bit of a misfit, and a little bit inadequate as a parent that it wasn’t Disney world. Who knew that it would be 20 more years before I got over that inadequacy?
For my 40th I managed to save up and take my daughter to the aspirational Disneyland in Paris.
It was the coldest holiday ever, souvenirs included a coat and a scarf!
It was expensive, the food was junk and expensive and we hurt our pierced ears banging our heads around on the rollercoaster. It was not a favourite holiday, for either of us, but I was proud I’d saved enough to allow us to watch Mickey and Minnie on parade. The photographs are still some of my favourite family shots. I realised my daughter was growing up, she didn’t ask for loads of expensive gifts, she admitted she’d enjoyed our previous holiday, with picnics on a beach with local bread and cheese, much more.
In my 50s I finally had some spare cash.
I’d almost paid off my mortgage. My holidays became global. I’d fallen in love, got married and discovered the exotic tranquil ancient joy of Asia on honeymoon. Asia is so vibrant, friendly and packed to the rafters with history and culture it finally allowed me to, at last, indulge my travel gene.
I met gap year travellers, mostly young people, but not all. I realised people travel to recover, to discover, to lose themselves, to find themselves, to work, to go back to basics, to move forwards to a new life. I saw women travelling alone. I saw men travel together. There was such a cross section of society from across the globe, it was empowering.
My fellow travellers were skint, counting the pennies, rich, drinking champagne, splashing out on investment art as souvenirs, working to pay for the next section of the trip, happy eating noodle street food, insistent on dining in the 5 star restaurant.
In my 20s I’d wished for more opportunities to travel. Instead I actually made a huge investment and started buying my own home, that’s still one of my proudest achievements.
In my 30s I’d wished for more money to take my daughter to fancier places. However I was becoming a positive role model as a working mum.
In my 40s I invested in an apparent trip of a lifetime but it wasn’t all that. Unexpectedly I did discover the rocks at Disney aren’t made of rock!
In my 50s I finally caught up with my daughter. I now knew time alone or with loved ones is not expensive but it is priceless. The aspirational isn’t always the inspirational. Beauty can be found on your doorstep, on a local beach, in a local pool. Happiness and a great holiday are often those hard earned but humble.
This was the time for me to stop hoping for something more.
So, I booked a flight. Just me. I then spent a week learning a new skill and a whole day wandering around Italian city streets. I walked through Pisa and it’s beautiful architecture and street cafes and loved every minute.
I may not own one of the gorgeous classic Ferraris. I didn’t have someone to hold hands with whilst gazing at the marble sculptures. My selfie skills are no where near those of the youngsters climbing on posts to capture that more flattering instagram-friendly camera angle. I had to eat the whole of the cheesecake, just me, alone. But, do you know what? I didn’t care.
In my mid 50s I finally travelled across the continent, alone. Travelled to the airport by train, packed and unpacked whilst going through customs at the airport, just me, alone.
Stayed in a city hotel, slept soundly, despite rowdy neighbours and dripping air-con unit, alone. I witnessed the stunning breathtaking beauty of one of the world’s most iconic buildings up close and personal, took pictures of one of the most photographed tourist sites on the planet, with and without a selfie stick, confidently, alone.
It doesn’t matter when you arrive at independent or solo travel.
It just matters that you don’t allow being alone be a barrier to your ambitions. If you want to travel, do it. If you don’t have someone to do it with, do it anyway and if you end up having a coffee in Italy and a Ferrari passes by, send me a selfie!
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I hope I’ve inspired you to travel, tweet me from your next coffee stop!