Sisterhood of solitaire traveling by Jane Ganahl

Living la vida sola is an ongoing life lesson. There are hurdles between any single person and the ultimate goal: complete and total satisfaction with life as it is.
I mean real satisfaction, as opposed to a stiff-upper-lip tolerance of dull existence until you meet Mr. or Ms. Right and are off on a (hopefully) one-way ticket to Marriage Land.
Those of us who have been unmarried for some time (especially those of us who are divorced) know the joys of single life — the blissful private time, the lack of arguments, the calling your own shots. But there are also these hurdles. For men (forgive the sexist stereotypes but they are so often true), they can include learning to cook and clean for themselves. For women, hurdles can be as small as learning how to replace a vacuum cleaner belt that’s broken and as huge as getting on a plane alone and flying off to a country where you don’t speak the language.
Maybe I should speak for myself here. I long ago figured out how to replace a vacuum cleaner belt, but the solo travel — that’s been daunting. Really, the last big barrier between me and Total Life Satisfaction. It was not always so. Losing myself in a foreign land is something I once did with relish — when I was filled with the moxie of youth. I recall a moment when Connie and I were on a ferry crossing the English Channel, our backpacks on our laps. We were 21.
“No one in the whole world knows where we are!” I told her gleefully. “How cool is that?”
But then life messes with our love of freedom. We get obligations like kids and aging parents and geriatric cats. And we read about all the awful things that happen overseas, and we get scared. So when I got an invitation to visit a friend in Provence for Bastille Day, I balked. I don’t speak French, my daughter would be busy with her summer internship, I was fresh out of boyfriends, I would be traveling alone and therefore more at risk of … something unsavory happening. (What? I wasn’t sure.)
Well, that’s it, then! I would simply have to say no.
Are you insane? Several of my friends wanted to know. You have this fabulous opportunity and you’re not taking it? Especially adamant was my older sister Anne, who, as a stage actress for these last 25 years, has utterly mastered the art of solo travel. She has boated down the Yangtze River in China, visited vineyards in New Zealand. Being a single woman, she scolded me, should not impede your plans in the slightest.
It turns out I’m not the only ambivalent one. A poll taken by Solo’s Holidays, a British tour organizer for single folks (and there are zillions of these out there), found that even as 82 of their respondents said that being single was “an opportunity to try new life experiences,” 71 percent of them also said that fear of doing something on their own was a barrier to trying new things.
And a recent newspaper story by Knight-Ridder’s Mary Ann Anderson on tour groups for women noted that unattached dames have the following choices: Join a group, or “go by yourself, which is certainly no fun and can even be slightly intimidating.” I
can go with, but certainly no fun? I found that statement hard to believe — and I hate when women shoot themselves in the foot. Then again, that’s more or less what I was doing. So I inhaled and decided to go, also making a plan to visit another friend on the Costa Brava.
First I got my ticket; next I bought my Berlitz French CD for listening and repeating while I commuted. (Ces poissons, ils sont mort d’irradiation? Did these fish die of radiation sickness?) I bought some shorts, got some SPF 60, rented a European cell phone and I was ready for anything. Almost.
Of course, I got to Barcelona, bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived, only to wait for my luggage. And wait and wait and … then came the standing in line while they searched for my luggage. And Cathy! My flight had gotten in 40 minutes earlier and my friend was certainly on the other side of that opaque wall, wondering where the hell I was. And my Euro phone? I could not for the life of me figure out how to dial Cathy’s number. Oh God, this is intimidating and certainly no fun!
Finally, I was told that my luggage was back in London. So I made my way out of the airport to the street where Cathy, thankfully, had waited for me. She called Iberia, gave them directions to her house 90 minutes north of town and got a promise that I’d have my clothes by the following morning. Then she took me to a family-run restaurant in a medieval village near her home for paella and sangria — a bucket of it — and I suddenly downshifted. Ahhhh. Vacation.
Still, I kept feeling as though I ought to be maintaining my connection to home. I called Erin from my Euro phone to remind her of the number. I called her again to see how my geriatric cat was doing. “He’s fine, Mom,” she said, indulging me but barely. “I promise I’ll call you if something goes wrong. You need to give it a rest. You’re in Spain!”
I will say, there was absolutely nothing intimidating about being in Spain with Cathy: She is like being home, since we’ve been friends since we were 5. And I speak Spanish near-fluently. But my stress level rose again after a few days when it came time for her to take me to the train to Avignon. Not just because we misjudged the timing and she wound up driving 180 km (about 112 miles) per hour down country roads to get me to the station. But we made it without crashing or getting arrested, and I was off on my French adventure.
And, of course, the person who was supposed to meet me at the train station was nowhere to be found. And asking strangers about mercury-tainted fish would not help. But eventually I made my connection, got to my inn, met some fabulous new friends, ate like a swine and drank like Henry VIII for four days solid. Eventually I stopped calling home. And on the last day, I broke from the group and made my way around St. Remy de Provence alone, buying linens, poking my head into a Catholic wedding and basking at a sidewalk cafe.
I smiled, realizing a hurdle had been leapt. “No one in the whole world knows where I am!” I thought. “And that’s just fine.”
E-mail Jane Ganahl at

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