In January of 2004, I found myself alone in a hotel in Rome — my very first time alone in a foreign country.
I was about to start a semester of university in Cortona, Italy and did not know a single soul who was going to be attending school with me. Not only was it my first time travelling alone, but it was my first time travelling in a country where few people spoke my language.
There were no smartphones, few students had laptops, wifi was not an option, my camera used film (no seeing what your photos looked like until you developed them!), and social media sites didn't exist. If I wanted contact with home, I had to buy a phone card and hope that the call would connect. And if someone from home wanted to contact me? They couldn't.
This is the story of my first few days alone in Rome — taken from my journal and my memories — that have helped empower and shape my travels ever since.
DAY 1 — I'm a huge wimp
It is six in the morning and the clouds are turning pink outside my window. I can just barely see the moon through the mist.
This is probably going to be the only view I see today.
I am terrified to leave my room.
My hands are shaky and I can't stop crying. It would be easier if I could have a good, all-out sob and be done with it, but instead my tears are silent ones that steadily pour from the corners of my eyes.
I am scared and ashamed of it.
Four floors above the foreign streets, all I can see is rooftops. Eerie, lonely rooftops with weathervanes standing out against the rising sun. There is no sign of life at this level and no sound of it either.
My only consolation is the television that I have kept on all night turned to the only English station that I can find — a never-ending loop of BBC news.
My room is a shoebox, not large enough for Italian leather boots though, more fit for bargain children's shoes. The door opens into my tiny bed, a closet, and a desk. The bathroom is almost bigger then the room, but it is clean and has a window with a nice view of, well... rooftops.
What was I thinking?!
I have never been outside of my country alone before and here I am on an entirely different continent, alone in a strange hotel!
On top of the emotional goodbyes I made to family and friends just a few hours ago, I have lost and found both my bag and passport already, which, now that i think about it, may be part of the reason for the shaking.
DAY 2 — Feeling brave(ish)
This morning I am determined to leave the hotel.
I wake up early, shower and go up to the breakfast room on the eighth floor. The continental breakfast looks more like dessert — platters heaped with pastries and strong black coffee bolster my confidence (or at least give me a much needed energy boost).
About thirty minutes later, taking a deep breath, I take my first step out of the hotel and into the cobblestone streets of Rome. It is sunny and surprisingly warm for a January day which helps life my mood almost immediately.
I am walking along a street that borders the ancient city wall and am so busy looking at the map and trying to figure out where I am that it is there before I can prepare myself for it — the Colosseum.
I don't know why, but I can't hold back my emotions and without warning I burst into tears. It suddenly hits me how real the world is and I get a sense of how real I am for being a part of it. This incredible part of history is not on a slide or in a textbook, but directly in front of me.
I sink down on a pile of old stones in a park across the street from the massive monument and just look at it for awhile while I let the tears run down my face.
Slowly coming back to reality, I take a few pictures (and a few deep breaths). The true blue sky is the perfect backdrop and the morning sun is carving deep shadows into the ancient stone and revealing secrets that can only be seen at that certain time of day. It is early on a Sunday morning, and there is hardly a soul in sight.
I cross the street, walk right up to it and touch it.
I touched it!
The rock is rough. Worn from battles, wars, erosion, the subway cars that pass below it, the smart-cars that pass beside it, and the millions of us that reach out and touch it in our need to confirm that it is really there.
In a trance, hardly breathing, I walk around the outside of this incredible piece of history, letting my fingers create an invisible trail on its ancient surface.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
The sun is shining on the facade of the Trevi Fountain, but where I sit is in shade. The once pure white marble seems to glow in all the right places, while the deep cuts in the statues are in perfect shadow. The water is loud, blocking out the noise of the modern world as it falls majestically over the strategically carved and well worn caverns.
It is perfect.
I could not have asked for a better day. I have spent the last few hours wandering from the Colosseum to the Roman Forum, through twisting winding streets to the Pantheon and finally to this famous fountain.
Though it is one of the most popular tourist sites in Rome, there are only a handful of people milling around on this January day. Some are posing for photos while others are throwing coins over their shoulders into the clear water to ensure their return. Like me, some are just sitting and observing while pigeons mill around our feet and men try to sell us useless trinkets.
An image projected on a screen in art class is nothing compared to the experience of the real thing... nothing.
For the first time since boarding the plane back home, I feel quiet, calm... relaxed.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
As my new bible, Lonely Planet Italy, predicted, I am drawn to the windows along the streets as much as I am to the historic monuments. Seriously, a girl with a shoe fetish should NOT be allowed to walk alone in Rome! I have managed to stay out of the stores today, but it is only my first day out — with so much delightful temptation (and no one to stop me) my plan to save money isn't going to last long.
Other then realizing that travelling alone is not as scary as I thought, I have also discovered that in order to eat I will have to learn a few more phrases in Italian.
I figured out the hard way that I need to know more than "Ciao" in order to get a sandwich...