This essay was first published on the HuffPost blog in April, 2017.
When traveling, we never truly get away. We might leave our daily stresses and responsibilities at home, but the best and worst of our personalities are always present wherever we go. Packed along with the toiletries and underwear are our greatest loves and deepest fears. We cannot escape them. We find ourselves in different surroundings, still grounded by the full range of our inescapable natures.
Optimally, a vacation helps us find balance, aided by the absence of the quotidian tasks that remain at home. We relax, regroup, and reflect. I recently spent a week in Venice. My friends surprised me by questioning my choice to travel alone. Won’t you be lonely, they asked? No, I replied confidently. I’ll meet people. It will be fine.
I’d been alone in Paris in 1988, not by choice. The friend I visited had a family crisis and departed for the US on the second day of my stay. I’d received sufficient guidance from him and from my brother, who’d recently the city to know how to get around. I met wonderful people in Paris every day. I schmoozed with elderly German sisters while on line to the Eiffel Tower, chatted with a French woman while taking a boat ride down the Seine, spoke to a Swedish man who sold Absolut Vodka while I dined on the Champs-Elysees, and met a recent American college graduate at the Louvre. Eight years later, I stood up at his wedding. I also took a cruise to Alaska, where I similarly encountered many friendly strangers. So I already knew that my outgoing nature, a trait shared by much of my family, would serve me well in Italy.
In Venice I bonded with an artist who made jewelry. When I popped into her store for the second time on my last day of the trip, she hugged my goodbye as we parted. Every day I connected with someone, even if for ten minutes. Those brief, sincere encounters were enough to quell any loneliness I might have felt.
Conversely, on the third day of my trip, I found myself overwhelmed with worry that I had eaten and spent too much. Overeating and overspending, or the urge to, are signs that I’m out of synch and stressed. I reminded myself that I always gained weight while on vacation but promptly lose it when I return home. I hadn’t purchased anything extravagant, and enough wiggle room existed in my annual budget to absorb some extra expenses. I calmed down, but not until I suffered through several hours of distress.
After my small meltdown, I began to find an internal balance, which is when the magic began. On the third day of my eight-night trip, the housekeeper at my hotel broke my shower door. I’d book the cheapest double room at a luxury hotel, taking advantage of an off-season sale. After the shower door broke, the hotel upgraded me six levels to a three-thousand-dollar-a-night suite, including a private hallway, a canal view, and a bathtub so large I could float in it. I’d always wondered what a suite in a luxury hotel might be like but never imagined I’d stay in one. Because I was in that movie-star-like-suite, the hotel treated me like a star. I’d return to the suite late afternoons to find complementary juices, alcohol, and food waiting for me. I felt like a princess.
I’d joked with friend about finding romance in Italy but never expected to have my wish fulfilled. Initially I met several young men with whom I had heartfelt conversations, but the vibes weren’t romantic. By the sixth day, I assumed that romance wasn’t in the cards on this trip. Then I met Giovanni. He spotted me as I entered a woody bistro and spent the entirety of my dinner wooing me, including hand-feeding me breadsticks, offering me alcohol, and sitting shoulder to shoulder with me. Giovanni reminded me of an aging Robert De Niro but with a thick accent, and he charmed me completely. He asked if he could spend the night with me, but ultimately we decided to part company with a simple embrace.
The balance of adventure-manifesting my finer qualities and overcoming my more challenging traits, combined with some magic and romance-resulted in the vacation of a lifetime. If I hadn’t been forced to face my deficits, I’m sure I wouldn’t have appreciated the adventures as much. Venice in winter is not crowded and is clean. It’s so beautiful, it’s hard to absorb. Much of the city barely seems real, with its winding, narrow streets, clear blue water, palette of soft colors, and medieval history. In Venice I did many of my favorite things: walked endlessly, looked at architecture and art, and ate delicious food.
When I first luxuriated in my movie-star suite, I thought, Well, I don’t need to ever visit Venice again. This is it. I’ll never again have a trip as good as this one. But on my last day, tears filled my eyes as my departure loomed. I realized while another Venetian trip wouldn’t be the same, I needed to return someday to discover myself again and have new adventures in that magical, beautiful place. Once back at home, my spirit was restored, having benefited from all that a sublime vacation can provide.
Photo credit: 1-4 Joanna Charnas