Recently, I spent two days in London solo. I was surprised how much anxiety this leg of my trip caused me. The thought of spending two entire days alone terrified me. How would I dine by myself? Who would I talk to? What if I got lost? I have no problem being the travel leader for my family or my daughter. However, the idea of being alone terrified me.
I learn that Lauren, a lovely young woman in my ballet class, had actually, voluntarily traveled and stayed in Milan all by herself for two whole week. I decided to interview her to learn about her favs, her fears and her lesson from Milan.
Living Vicariously Through Travel Stories
To begin our interview, Lauren, Samantha and I pull up a couple of bar stools in the Myriad, an industrial market hall with indoor food stalls in San Francisco. Samantha is a fellow ballerina and eager to hear Lauren’s travel tales.
I ask Lauren what inspired her to visit Milan. Lauren explains that she avidly follows several fashion bloggers and stylists on Instagram. As if Milan was calling to her, Lauren kept seeing Milan appear again and again in different posts. Lauren herself has Italian roots. Her paternal great grandparents were from various regions in southern Italy.
The pieces all fell together for her trip. Lauren had spent the last five years working extremely hard. Just before her trip, she had reduced her hours to part-time. The timing seemed right. One night, Lauren found a great deal online on airline tickets. With her finger hovering above the “book now” button, Lauren asked her dad what he thought. “You should go,” he replied simply. Her finger dropped, and with that, the trip was on.
I ask Lauren if the thought of traveling alone scared her. “Of course,” Lauren smiles as she stirs her margarita. She remembers being most afraid of the logistics. Will she miss her plane? What if she loses her luggage? However, like most anxiety, the fear does not match the reality. Lauren is surprised by how easy it is to navigate Milan.
Lauren rents a room in a shared flat in Porta Venezia, a quaint little neighborhood in North Eastern Milan, somewhat off the beaten path. This rental is Lauren’s first experience with Airbnb. She finds her host, Giulio, a local, to be a gracious and helpful host. She tells me that the Italians really do eat pizza, just with knife and fork.
On the last day, Lauren decides to get the ultimate Italian souvenir, a chic hair cut. She chooses a small hair salon near her flat. When she enters the salon, a small Italian woman greets her in Italian. Lauren begins to explain to the woman in Italian what she wants but halfway through her sentence, Lauren forgets how to speak Italian. Although Lauren is flustered, the woman is kind and patient. Even though the woman speaks no English, she and Lauren are able to reach an understanding. As Lauren sits in the chair, her long locks giving way to a new, stylist coiffure, Lauren is surprised to find herself tearing up at the woman’s kindness. Lauren is struck by the thought that the human desire to communicate, connect and understand transcends language. Human kindness requires no words to be understood.
“What about the Italian guys,” I ask. Samantha wants to know about Lauren’s escapades after seeing all of Lauren’s Facebook posts with lots of cute boys. “Well,” Lauren looks at us mischievously, “Italian men are not like the stereotype. No catcalls. In fact, they are a little stand-offish.” “How did you go on so many dates then?” I ask. I am now trying to image shy Lauren transformed into a Fellini seductress at an Italian cocktail party. However, to me Lauren is more cool, classic Audrey Hepburn than bold, flashy Sofia Loren. “This is a little embarrassing,” she leans closer to Samantha and I, “I used a dating app.” Samantha and I burst out into gleeful laughter. We are deep into on our second round of cocktails and our group is growing rowdy. Turns out, Lauren was very successful in meeting several very nice Italian men who took her on several very enjoyable outings. Lauren tells us that her number one tip for a single woman traveling alone in Milan, “try a dating app.” Lauren adds sensibly “and always meet someone in a public place, especially if you are a woman traveling alone.”
The Aperitivo is Milan’s equivalent to happy hour only better. It is a drink that the Milanese enjoy with colleagues at a nearby by bar at the end of the work day. The Aperitivo is the Spritz, a drink made of soda, Prosecco and Aperol. It tastes a lot like an orange soda with a kick. For just 5 euros, this drink comes with a spread of appetizers. The Milanese relax at the end of the workday, enjoying food, drink and quality bonding before heading home for a late dinner with the family. Lauren cites this ritual as an example of Milan’s super chill approach to life.
“What could San Francisco learn from Milan?” I ask Lauren. Lauren is thoughtful for a moment. “Slow down,” she finally responds, “socialize more, live life.” For example, one of her favorite places in Milan where Lauren enjoyed watching people just enjoying life was Indro Montanelli, a park near her flat.
“What did you learn from Milan?” Lauren smiles, “I learned a lot by just watching. Watch first, then proceed.” For example, in the grocery store in Milan, first you grab a pair of plastic gloves. You cannot just shove your bare hand into a pile of fresh produce. Once you select your fruit or vegetable, you must make a note of the number for the item. You punch in the number on the scale, weigh your item, take the printed receipt and put it on your produce bag. Lauren learned this complicated process by watching first and then proceeding, saving herself some embarrassing missteps.
“What would you recommend doing in Milan?” I ask. “Go to all of the museums. They are amazing. Go and have a Spritz during Aperitivo. Take a bus twenty minutes out of the city and visit a nearby village.” Lauren’s eyes light up as she thinks of her recommendations. “Oh and go see the ballet at La Scala.” Lauren saw La Valise, Symphony in C and Scheherazade all in one night. The best part, every seat at La Scala is a box seat. A ticket cost 80 euros, a value in comparison to San Francisco’s equivalent.
Finally I ask, “What advice do you have for women traveling alone?” “Do it,” Lauren says emphatically. Lauren’s eyes gloss over and she sighs nostalgically. “That was fun. I didn’t realize how much telling you the stories would bring me back to my trip.” I am also struck by how like the Milanese we are acting as we sit, socializing, enjoying a cocktail and sharing some good laughs before we head home to our families.
Life is an adventure, not a destination. Live it like a Milanese, unhurried, super chill while enjoying a Spritz with your friends.