Whilst having a sort out of all of my photographs recently, I came across the photo above. This image of myself was taken when I was just eighteen years old, towards the end of my seven-month au pair placement in Italy.
Some of the memories from my time there are so fresh in my mind that it could have feasibly been just a couple of years ago. Yet in other ways it feels more like like a lifetime ago, as my life since then has changed beyond recognition. These days, I feel the need to plan most things such as a holiday or even just a day trip in precise detail. Not much in life feels spontaneous.
It wasn’t always this way, though. The eighteen-year-old me merrily accepted an au pair placement in a foreign country that she had never visited before (let alone held a grasp of the local language), without even speaking directly to the family she would be living with and working for or seeing a single photo of them beforehand. This was pre-internet days and the entire placement was arranged by snail mail. Oh, and of course that girl booked a one-way Alitalia plane ticket with insufficient funds in her bank account to buy the return ticket if things didn’t work out… I blame the impulsiveness of youth!
On reflection though, I think I took the breezily optimistic view that I simply had to make it work and was determined that I would master my duties and the language quickly once I arrived. When you’re on your own in a foreign country and want to make friends and integrate into your new place of residence, learning the language becomes a top priority.
Therefore I purchased a stack of Italian language books after being informed that there were no Italian language courses available within the small city of my placement, so learning the language was going to be solely my responsibility. I made a start on self-tuition the week or so before departing to il bel paese, but found it easier to learn once I arrived. It’s true what people say about the best way to learn a language being to immerse yourself in it. And immersed I truly was…
The very first words I heard each morning were the animated conversations of the maids working in the lavanderia (laundry room) of the hotel my host family lived in. On balmy nights I had to leave the window open and it was inevitable that loud and lively discussions would drift from the adjacent lavanderia to my bedroom. Often, I was treated to their singing, too! I was fortunate to have a small television in my room but it only had Italian channels, but I saw this as a good thing, so determined I was to expose myself to as much Italian language as possible. It was rather amusing to watch familiar shows such as Friends that had been (badly) dubbed into Italian and knowing the gist of the storylines did help too. My radio was permanently tuned to Italian channels, as well.
All those types of passive language learning can’t be used as a substitute for actual conversations in the desired language, though. Attempting conversations that you know will be clumsy and mistake-ridden can feel daunting to anyone of any age. Fortunately, most of the natives were very encouraging of my efforts and forgiving of the endless errors I made. Trust me, I made a couple of real bloopers by substituting similar words with VERY different meanings in highly inappropriate situations…but that’s a whole other story! 😉
When travelling alone you have to rely solely on yourself to deal with awkward situations. However scary the prospect might seem, once you have dealt with it your confidence grows and dealing with a similar situation in the future seems less daunting.
The very things that you may fear happening could indeed happen while you are alone. To take one example, I used to worry about being harassed by men before I went to Italy, having read about pale skinned, young foreign women being particular targets for unwanted attention. Well, I can tell you that I definitely did get harassed by plenty of Italian men when I ventured out and about by myself at first, even while sitting minding my own business reading a book by the marina. But I faced the fear head on and learned in time the best way to deal with it. Attempts to studiously ignore them and carry on reading occasionally worked. Failing that, ‘saying ‘va via’, firmly and with a stern glare, usually did the job. I often used to wear my cheap ring that I’d bought with birthday money as a sixteen year old on the ring finger of my left hand and wave it at them, too!
Not everyone may have had the chance to travel alone in their teens. There are still opportunities to get out and spend time on your own at any age, though, and doing so can be a liberating experience.
Would you go by yourself to the cinema, if there was a film you really wanted to watch but no one else was available (or willing) to watch it with you? Or go to a great new restaurant serving a cuisine that no one close to you appreciates? How about sitting through a moving opera performance? Lots of women would feel a little awkward at the prospect and avoid doing these things for fear of feeling self conscious. Yet just focus on all that you stand to gain- the pleasure of seeing a great movie or delicious meal.
When you experience things alone, you have the peace to relish and focus on all the small details that make up the experience too, which you might not have appreciated fully had you been drawn into conversation with a companion or worse, had to contend with their complaints and whinges.
Self-consciousness causes many of us to avoid going in public places where individuals do not usually venture alone. It’s easy to develop a sense of paranoia that people are staring at us and thinking or saying negative things. Generally, though, most people are so caught up in what they are doing themselves that they won’t even notice you, let alone think negatively of you.
Often in life, the things we fear doing the most, provide the greatest opportunities for personal growth. Feel the fear and do it anyway as the saying goes. It’s easy to dwell on the potential negatives and what might go wrong, but we are more likely to regret missed opportunities and the things we didn’t do, I think.
So, seek out experiences to spend time alone, indulging in things that really appeal to your specific interests and tastes.
Life is peppered with opportunities, large and small, that are yours for the taking to enjoy- get out there and grab them.
You have everything to gain and nothing to lose.