“Get in the car.”

And with those four words, the conversation had changed.

His eyes narrowed. His hand, which had once held mine in a friendly shake, now closed around my wrist. I tried to pull back but his grip tightened. I searched his face for a hint of humour but there was none.

“I’m from Milan,” he sneered, pulling me closer to the window of the car. “Do you know what we would do to a girl like you, walking alone, in Milan?”

I watched helplessly as cars sped past. This was a busy road. We were surrounded by watchful eyes and yet there was little chance of anyone stopping to help. They were all lost in their own worlds, mesmerized by the ancient city around them, transfixed by the melodies which trickled through their respective radio stations.

A dizzying panic began to rise in my chest. I tried to rewind the situation in my mind, to calculate how and when it had changed so drastically.

Just minutes before, I had been minding my own business as I strolled along the Tiber, the distant dome of St Peter’s basilica guiding me like a beacon back towards Rome’s city centre. I had spent the morning perusing the food stalls of Testaccio’s food market in the south of the city, and was taking things at a leisurely pace as I made my way back along the river’s edge.

I had stopped for a moment to check my map when a car beeped its horn and pulled up onto the pavement beside me. I watched, confused, as the driver wound down the window.

The car was occupied by an elderly man, Italian but with good English and kind eyes. He explained that he had taken a wrong turn, and asked if he could borrow my map for a moment. He noticed that I was Scottish, and told me that his late wife was from Edinburgh. We struck up conversation, as you do, and everything had seemed above board until he produced a leather handbag from the back seat of his car and offered it to me.

“Have you heard of Valentino?” He asked.

“The designer?”

“Yes. I am the managing director of Valentino. I want you to have this bag as a way of saying thank you for your help.”

He tried to press it into my hands, as I tried to bite my tongue and refrain from asking why it was that the managing director of one of the world’s leading designers was driving a clapped out Fiat on a Thursday afternoon.

Sensing a dodgy sales pitch coming on, I politely declined and tutted at myself for not smelling a rat sooner. It was when I tried to walk away, however, that my entrepreneurial acquaintance had gone from gentle geriatric to Tomasso the Twerp.

I searched his eyes for the kindness which was once there, but it was gone. His grip tightened and he repeated the words,

“Get in the car.”

The panic had now shifted to frustration. Frustration at the old man, sure, but also at myself.

This is just the kind of thing that would happen to you. Came the inner monologue. This is why you shouldn’t travel alone.

It’s true. I do have a knack for finding myself in troublesome situations. Over the years I’ve clocked up a fair few horror stories, and while many can be accredited to sheer dumb luck (no one asks for their hotel room to be broken into, after all…), it’s fair to say that I’ve brought a few on myself too (falling down a drain in Singapore, getting lost in the Thai jungle and forgetting to take out medical insurance before falling ill in Spain are just a few of my finer moments…)

With such chequered history, it’s no wonder that my family were a little mystified when I announced suddenly over Sunday dinner that I was off to Rome alone.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea?” they asked, tactfully skirting around the topic of my previous ill-fated expeditions.

I told them I was sure, and I acted it too. I had booked the trip in haste, fed up of the dreary Scottish winter and plied with a sufficient quantity of gin and tonic. I didn’t ask around to see if anyone was free to come with me, nor did I particularly want to. I had always traveled with friends. This time I was determined to do it alone.

In the weeks leading up to my trip, I feigned confidence. If anyone asked whether I was excited about my trip, I’d tell them of course. After all, this was Rome we were talking about, a city I’d longed to visit since my primary school days, when whole dinner times were spent recreating battle scenes in the playground, and when garden steps became makeshift ampitheatres on sunny afternoons. With so much that I wanted to see and do it seemed irrational to let a little solitude hold me back.

And so I psyched myself up, crafted an itinerary and boarded the plane. It wasn’t until I reached the city centre that first night that the anxiety took hold.

Hampered by a one way street, my taxi driver had to drop me a few blocks from my hotel. It was close to midnight and thick wet rain dropped from the sky, pooling like oil in black puddles across the moonlit street. I had no idea which way to turn and more importantly, no one to ask.

Reality hit hard. The questions came thick and fast;

Why did you think you could handle this alone?

Why didn’t you take a bloody map?

Who do you think you are, Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love?

God I hate that film.

Of course I eventually gathered my wits, got my bearings and found the hotel, but even a change of clothes and cup of tea in my room could do little to counteract the nervousness which swirled around in the pit of my stomach.

The truth was unsettling. I had not let myself think about how scary it can be to travel alone. I hadn’t thought about what I might do if something bad were to happen, or if I were to get lost. I hadn’t thought about whether or not I might get lonely.

That last thought troubled me the most. Now I’m very comfortable with my own company. I like exploring new places and love nothing better than whittling away an afternoon in a coffee shop with a good book or my journal to hand. But it’s an entirely different thing to go on holiday by yourself, with no one to share the experiences with and no one to talk to over dinner. Would it be weird to ask for a table for one? Would people take pity on me? Would rumours begin to circulate about the strange, lonely Scottish girl who had, presumably not long ago, been jilted at the alter?

With so many questions swirling around in my mind, my first night in Rome turned out to be a bit of a sleepless one. This was not helped by the fact that my room had rather thin walls and the gentleman (I use the term loosely) next door seemed to have a penchant for watching questionable pay-per-view content at an unashamedly loud volume. Hiding beneath my sheets, with the sounds of an argument between hotel staff and Pedro the Perv kicking off in the background, I found myself wondering whether the Ryanair staff at Ciampino might take pity on me if I were to turn up first thing with a decent sob story and my tail between my legs.

But alas, it’s amazing what a few hours kip and a suddenly sunny morning will do to rouse the spirits.

As I took in the view from the hotel’s rooftop terrace over breakfast the worries began to dissolve. From the balcony I could see out over the Piazza Venezia and the rooftops of the city’s grand old townhouses. The ancient city lay just beyond. There was a whole world waiting to be explored, and by God, did it look beautiful.

Over the next four days I fell in love with Rome. I climbed the hills and explored the ruins of ancient empires. I stood beneath the dome of the Pantheon and pondered over the works of Bernini, Da Vinci and Caravaggio. I sipped espressos in beautiful piazzas and ate more pizza than I care to admit, and I didn’t regret a thing.

Most importantly, I learned how liberating it can be to travel alone, to set your own itinerary and take things at your own pace. You see the sights that you want to see. You do the things that you want to do. You take courage from yourself.

Of course, there were moments when I missed having a companion by my side. The odd wrong turn here or there could probably have been avoided had somebody else been in charge of the map. It would have been nice to have someone to talk to at the end of each day. But it wasn’t nearly as lonely as I expected. If anything I probably met more people traveling solo than I would have with company. Travellers have a funny way of gravitating towards one another.

There were also moments when I had to have my wits about me. Rome, like any big city, has its fair share of troublemakers and I lost count of the amount of ticket touts and scammers I had to fend off. My initial politeness faded. By the end of the week I had my ‘naff off’ look down to a T.

I remembered this as the old man pulled me closer to the window of his car. I wasn’t going to let him make me feel vulnerable for travelling alone, and I wasn’t going to let him taint the memory of my time in Rome. Instead I left him with a few choice words, which I shan’t repeat here, but which I’m certain were still ringing in his ears as he eventually released his grip and tore away back into the line of traffic.

I don’t know whether the gladiator mindset had set in or whether it was that final prosecco over lunch, but as I watched the sunlight dance across the Tiber, I realized that never before had it felt so good to be alone.

About The Author

A twenty-something-year-old with a penchant for travel and a never-ending supply of terrible puns.

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