In the spring of 2016, I became an au pair for a lovely family in the south of Spain. For those of you who don’t know what an au pair is, it’s basically a nanny. Families provide you with a place to live and food to eat. In exchange you teach them English, help with the kids and perform any light housework that needs to be done. I was super fortunate to live with a really kind and experienced family. It was a fantastic experience, and I would highly recommend au pairing to anyone with a sense of adventure. The story I want to tell, however, is about the weekend I spent in Rome by myself.
As an au pair, I lived at home with the family. During the week, I would stay at home and assist with English and any light housework that needed to be done. During the weekend I was free to explore as I pleased. This particular weekend was a holiday, and my family was splitting up. Some members were going skiing, others were headed to Madrid. I had the option to go with the family, or venture out on my own. I chose the latter. I had some money saved up from before I became an au pair (something I would encourage everyone to do before embarking), I searched cheap flights and found one to Rome. I lucked out on a great hotel deal, and next thing you know I was flying into the eternal city!
Now I mentioned that I went to Rome alone, but I was even more so alone because I had absolutely no cell service while I was in Europe. Terrifying, right?! This element TOTALLY pushed me miles out of my comfort zone. Now, before you get worried, I was safe. This isn’t a Taken situation where I shared a cab ride to my hotel. Nope. I arranged ahead of time for the hotel to send a car to the airport to pick me up. I made sure to leave my hotel information with my Spanish family, and every day before I left the hotel I let the concierge know where I was headed. But let’s be honest, you should probably be doing these things even if you have phone service.
Okay so I’m 22. And before you go off on your anti-millennial rant, I know my generation has it’s flaws. I would say a big flaw is that we don’t know how to disconnect. We, or at least I know I spend all day plugged into social media sending out photos, opinions and talking with friends. We get so used to this incessant connection that there is a certain sense of panic that comes with a dead phone battery or no signal. Being alone is seen as a problem. Being alone is equated with being lonely and the two are not the same. The time I spent in Rome was the longest I have been unplugged since I was a kid. This time I spent alone, in a new country and with a new language taught me how to be comfortable being alone with myself.
My time in Rome was one of my favorite experiences to date. I never realized how dependent I was on technology until I had to figure out how to navigate an entire city by foot using an actual physical map. I definitely have respect for my parents who had to read a map while driving after my experience. Thankfully, Rome is a pretty friendly city so anytime I got too lost I could find a kind local and stumble along in Italian for directions.
If course, there were some awkward moments where I felt out of place. The first day I spent in Rome, I ate my meals alone. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? I didn’t think it was a huge deal until I would ask the hostess for a table, and she gave me a pitying look.
“Is there anyone else joining you, maybe a little bit later?”
“Nope… Just me”
But let’s be honest, being alone wasn’t going to stop me from devouring a meal after a full day’s exploration.
Standing in line at the entrance to the colosseum was another awkward moment. While everyone was on their phones, I was standing blankly trying not to stare at anyone for too long. But then, if I had my phone in my hands I probably wouldn’t have tried to talk to anyone and make friends. And I did make friends. The first day in Rome I befriended some American guys and toured the city and it’s restaurants with them. The second day I met a fellow solo-traveler at the Vatican Museum. We had some fantastic conversations. On my last day in Rome, a group of nuns from Guadalajara, Mexico took me under their wing. These are all great moments and connections I am sure I would have missed had I kept my eyes plastered to my phone screen. But don’t get me wrong, just because I didn’t have cell service doesn’t mean I did not utilize all my newfound friendships for photos of myself and all the landmarks.
Being alone in the eternal city was an incredibly restful and impactful experience. I wholeheartedly believe the experiences I had were so vivid being I was fully invested in the moment. I wasn’t trying to “Check-in” at the Trevi Fountain or take video of the Sistine Chapel for Snapchat. I was there, and I was living in that moment. I encourage everyone to travel by themselves at least once in their lives. For those adventurous enough to fully commit to the moment, I challenge you to unplug for the duration of your trip. Connections do not always need to be digital, and the most meaningful experiences are face-to-face.
image by: Bert Kaufmann