(Originally published in Solo Traveler Blog, August 2018)
The simple approach, like so many others to come, is my first solo lesson of this tall ships voyage: even cruising solo, it’s all about the people you’re with.
I am overwhelmed by the sheer ‘coupleness’ around me: the elegant pair already perched on bar stools, enjoying a pre-embarkation cocktail; the German-speaking foursome with frosty amber beers; and the cheerful couple of girls with umbrella-topped something-or-other in tall colourful glasses. Previous acquaintances greet each other with happy hugs, and the bar steward is acknowledging returning guests by name. And, even more than that, everyone seems to know what they’re supposed to do, expected behaviours, anticipated actions.
In my solo aloness, it’s almost enough to persuade me over the side, into the rather murky Venetian water. Dissuaded from that action by the approaching twilight – and yes, the odours coming off that water – I decide to do something, anything, rather than standing disconsolately on the edges – and, taking a deep breath, approach those two girls, as they look the most friendly and least ‘couple’ like.
“Hi – how’s it going?”
That first simple approach, like so many others to come, is my first solo lesson of this tall ships voyage: even cruising solo, it’s all about the people you’re with.
I am on the ‘Star Clipper’ tall ship, embarking from Venice, Italy. Ahead of me is a 10-day Eastern Mediterranean cruise, calling in small ports such as Mali Losinj, Kotor, and Yithion, along with Dubrovnik and Santorini, eventually sailing in to the port of Piraeus, Athens.
In the wonderful island city of Venice, I have already made a new friend, the knowledgeable and vivacious Italian tour guide, Rossana Colombo. It was she who explained why Venetians never walk between the two pillars in St Marks Square (it’s really bad luck!), and drew images with her words when describing how the old women used to be called to the wells with the city’s bells, becoming the first water cooler gossips. Not only did she show me an insider’s Venice, she also happily responded to my email questions outside her ‘office’ hours.
Now, on board the practically luxurious Star Clipper ship (and she is a sailing ship, not a cruise ship!), and thousands of miles from my Welsh homeland, I meet a woman who grew up less than 20 miles way from where I now live. Her husband (they are that elegant pair) is also Welsh, and we immediately create the ship’s Welsh alliance. Over the next 10 days, I make so many more new friends – our table on the last night is crowded with 11 of us.
There’s the flamboyant American couple from Miami Beach, Florida – wonderfully garrulous, and spectacularly friendly, they are full-blown ‘characters’. The knowledgeable septuagenarian hiker, who lost his wife a few years ago and now travels voraciously.
Of course, it is those stories behind the cheerful faces that I am now made privy to: the dire medical prognosis of 12 months of remaining life; the very alone young widow, persuaded on this voyage by her mother and partner; the emotional memories of a fierce partisan war, hidden behind a young, laughing face. Unseen wounds and scars – integral humanity.
The great privilege of travelling solo is to be allowed into people’s lives, sharing their emotions, their stories, their joys. In Dubrovnik (which I fell in love with instantly!), I meet a friendly local businessman, who runs an unique jewellery shop with his wife. We chat, and he invites me to share wine with them at his family’s restaurant. We chat about politics, the SerboCroatian war (he was thirteen when the bombs fell on Dubrovnik), and life.
And it’s not just humans that I meet: I talk to the many cats of Kotor, and make friends with a Croatian dog and his friendly restaurant-owning guardians.
Somehow, all this new contact is easier when I’m travelling solo – the reaching out, the making new friends. I am more vulnerable solo, so maybe more approachable, less encased in a shell of coupleness. I am visibly more open to new experiences, more aware of the value of contact. That’s what solo travel is about for me – the joy of contact.
We’ve even created a Facebook Group, simply for sharing this voyage. And those two girls I first said hello to? Well, they’re both from Plymouth, and one has her own business as a personal cruise expert, including solo adventures, so we’ll definitely be staying in touch.
Long may all our friendships last.