8 am on a warm Monday morning. I am stranded somewhere in rural Italy with no phone, €3.33 in my pocket, no water, no clue what to do.
I do not speak a word of Italian and there is no one around who might have a language in common with me. My bag, although minimal, contains almost everything I own and is growing heavy. I am jet-lagged, and dehydrated.
On a grassy sidewalk, I almost step on a dead rat, lying belly-up in the sun. A shaggy dog runs up to a gate and when I go to pet him, he indicates that coming any closer will result in the loss of a finger. I limp on, reminding myself that at least my day is going better than the rat’s.
As I tried not to panic in that seemingly hopeless situation, I knew that I could have been back in England. I could have been in bed with a book, reading about life but not living it. I could have been in my comfort zone.
I was, however, deep within my discomfort zone. Somehow, as always, I made it out of the situation. I found my way out to the opposite side of Verona, to the burnt umber building where I am staying now. I dumped my bag, waited an hour for a bus then began exploring. I took the wrong bus back and got lost again in a dark mountainside village.
The next day I had gotten the hang of the buses and spent it in a castle/museum hybrid, looking at Medieval religious art.
Solo travel can be uncomfortable. It’s scary to wander the world alone. To try to communicate in a new language. To figure out the technicalities of transport. To stay in the homes of strangers and hope they will be kind. To take trains and buses late at night, wandering foreign streets in search of a certain address. To not be bored in dull situations.
Sure, we can make it comfortable. Plenty of people stay within their comfort zone when travelling. We can plan everything in advance, stay in hotels, take taxis, go on tour guides, let someone else decide.
Or we can use it as an opportunity to push yourself out of your comfort zone. To be terrified, lost, confused, alienated and then to use our wits to get out of that situation. To be changed by the process.
My travel heroes are Jack Kerouac and Patti Smith. In Just Kids Patti described arriving in New York alone: no one expected me. Everything awaited me. Each time I arrive in a new place, I remind myself of those words. The lack of expectations or commitments creates the total freedom to explore everything.Kerouac reminds me that travel can be gritty, uncertain, confusing. I think of his reckless nature and remind myself to enjoy even the rough moments.
I have been using this trip to force myself out of my comfort zone. The pressure makes me dig deep and find the resources to overcome doubt. That has involved everything from using new languages and couch surfing, to taking boats and going out to eat alone.
My subsequent realisation is that we have far more control over discomfort than it seems. Irrational fears are an unconscious choice. The only way to widen the borders of our comfort zones is to leave them.
Unlike Patti and Kerouac, my travels are not some era-defining journey. I am not creating a movement which will change the world. They are, however, my travels and mine alone. Mine to enjoy, to embrace, to spin in whichever direction I choose.