Vanathy is quarantining in Alexandria, Virginia, with two kitties. After having had lots of alone time, perusing through old travel photos, writing through 4 journals since the start of the pandemic, she recounts how solo travel prepared her for solo quarantine.
I always wanted to eat, pray, love my way to happiness like an Indian Liz Gilbert, an idea that developed by misunderstanding her journey. Most of my earlier trips were my attempts to outrun my emotional baggage, but Gilbert faced them head-on, and so could I.
In 2015, after graduating and landing a full-time job as a librarian in the US, an uncomfortable quietness took root in my life. Too much time and a lack of distractions brought up long-forgotten feelings. To avoid all of that, I booked a solo trip to Italy, started packing, and bought a selfie stick (don’t judge me).
The romanticized life of a traveler seemed more appealing than going on a personal journey of self-improvement. It’s only now that quarantine has given me (forced) time to reflect on my solo travels and how it’s prepared me for the world we face today.
Here are some of the critical ways that solo travel prepared me for solo quarantine.
1. Having power over my time again
While prancing about in Florence, I indulged in vino rosso like a native Italian in whatever restaurant that caught my attention. I marveled at sights like Piazza Della Signoria, where a 15th-century mob had broken Michelangelo’s David. I took a history tour and found the church, Santa Margherita de’ Cerchi, where Dante had once stalked his crush.
Doing only what I wanted to do, especially on vacation, was a freedom I did not value until I experienced it. After America finally started taking COVID19 somewhat seriously in March, my boss told me that we might be teleworking for like two weeks (spoiler alert: it’s not just for two weeks). It felt like he told me to go on summer vacation.
I had music blasting in my condo while I created reports for work. I stayed in my pajamas all day, even when I attended virtual meetings (thank God it was audio only). Being in the comfort of my own home helped me be even more productive than if I was physically at work. No more extended coffee breaks because my coffee maker was only 5 feet from my work table. No back problems because I could simply take my laptop to my couch.
It felt like I had so much power over what my workday looked like. I even rejoiced at not having any social life as the urge to do something disappeared continually. You can’t have FOMO if everyone is in lockdown. My favorite comedian once remarked that canceling plans is like heroin, but I say having no plans is even better. Yes, I am one of those introverts who mocked extroverts at the start of the pandemic.
2. You can ask for help, and it’s ok
Recognizing the things that I have control over helped me stay sane in quarantine. I read somewhere that when people are worrying, they are uncertain about their ability to control important outcomes. When I started to worry about things I couldn’t control, like how the US is handling the pandemic, anxiety took over.
After three weeks of quarantine, something changed. I started getting restless. I hit a threshold of not socializing; even the most reserved introverts need people, and being around loved ones helps ease my anxiety. Unfortunately, my adamant and unhealthy pattern of not reaching out to people when I needed them began to surface.
I started journaling more frequently and reflected about the time I spent at the picturesque villages of Cinque Terre along the Italian Riviera. I met and befriended a fellow solo traveler named Buddy. We had similar post-graduation blues, and I particularly resonated with him on feeling adrift with no direction in life.
Making friends as an adult has been an extremely vexing process, and I cherish the people I can have a relaxed conversation with. When we returned to Florence, I wondered if he would want to get dinner. A barrage of self-defeating and anxious thoughts shot through my mind: you are asking him to spend the whole day with you; don’t be desperate; he might hang out with you out of pity; he might have plans.
My awkward self shouted goodbye and walked away from the bus station, unnecessarily fast. Yes, I have a unique talent in pushing people away — my motto used to be “Reject them before they reject you.”
While in quarantine, I spent a good couple of weeks isolating myself from friends and family.
The same types of thoughts appeared, and I was scared to reach out because I didn’t want to be a burden. It’s sometimes so hard to need people. Thankfully, I reached out to a friend, told them I missed them and, to my surprise, set up a Zoom date. I asked another friend for emotional support and prefaced my text with “Are you in a good place emotionally to handle my sad story?”
I am learning to take space and be honest about my needs with myself and others. It wasn’t as serious with Buddy; I hadn’t been isolated from human presence, but dinner would have been an excellent way to say goodbye to a new friend.
There’s no shame in asking for helping or opening up to trust someone.
3. Don’t go posting only happiness
Later that same evening in Florence, I desperately searched for a trattoria with wifi. I wanted to upload my photos on Instagram with riveting captions such as Treat yo self (Tom Haverford would have been proud). Posting pictures on social media helped me feel seen when I felt lonely.
It never even occurred to me that I should contemplate the origins of my feelings.
One of the biggest lessons I have learned in life is that your pain is never really about others but an emotional autobiography.
For example, when I revisited the night I left Buddy at the bus station, I remembered feeling slightly resentful of him. Let’s dissect that further; what does that affect? My self-esteem. What are my mistakes? I didn’t ask him to hang out either, nor did I express my feelings or ideas. What does that mean? Rejection frightened me. Why? Because of my deep-rooted fear of not being good enough. What could I have done differently? I wish I realized that my worth is not tied to his rejection or acceptance of my invite. I also wish I realized that I can’t use a person to avoid feeling lonely.
It feels shitty to be brutally honest, but hiding behind Instagram or other addictions no longer served me. In quarantine, I charge through the discomfort. When I seek validation outside of myself, it is then that I need self-love the most.
4. Put your credit card away
They say confession is good for the soul, and I could’ve easily walked into a church. You are never far from a church in Florence. But what would I have said? Dear father, I don’t know how to feel good about myself. I wouldn’t let myself go full Bojack Horseman, so I unconsciously looked for a distraction, something else to worry about.
Instead, I turned to a classic addiction that many of us use for self-comfort: shopping.
In Florence, leather is one of the most popular souvenirs. I knew nothing about leather, but after 10 minutes of window shopping, I bought into the idea that a brown leather jacket — an authentic and not at all fraudulent product — made me look good. I wandered through the crowds that day, contemplating the 100 Euro blow to my wallet. The label by the collar read Vere Pelle. Well, if the label says real leather, then it must be true, I remember thinking furiously.
I bought a small cup of gelato to abate my feelings of shame. Everything near the Piazza del Duomo was overpriced. It is after all the heart of the city. I paid for the experience of sitting in front of a beautiful church and for a taste of La Dolce Vita. Amidst all that drama I created, I got a reprieve from my inner turmoil.
When quarantine started, I knew I had to have strict boundaries about spending money. Initially, not being able to eat out or physically go to stores worked wonders until I started shopping online. It’s insane how efficiently shopping blinds me from emotions like boredom.
So to save, I write down items I want to impulsively buy and wait a few days to see if I still need it. Ninety-five percent of the time, the desperation disappears. Just another example of how solo travel prepared me for solo quarantine.
5. Let it all out
On the last day of the trip, I trekked out to Piazzale Michelangelo to see the Florentine skyline with a bottle of wine.
I walked away from cheerful tourists, as people were increasingly irritating to be around, and found refuge at San Salvatore al Monte, a nearby church. I drank Chianti from the bottle as the sun went down in brilliant fiery colors. The Duomo rose magnificently from among the sea of terracotta roofs. Voices of people singing hymns in the church carried over to where I sat perched on a wall. Tears rolled down my cheeks, and I just let them all fall.
The uncomfortable emotions, present before my travels, finally caught up. I had difficulty identifying my feelings as I had spent so many years in denial of them.
When Mass ended, a woman broke away from her group and walked up to where I sat feeling sorry for myself. All the Italian I took in college, plus the intermittent self-tutoring, did not prepare me for this woman’s vernacular. Embarrassed at being caught crying with a bottle of wine, I didn’t know what to say. She gave up trying to help me understand and walked back to her group.
The woman’s intrusion helped me break out of my self-hating stupor, and I was grateful.
Looking back, that little moment at the church was the beginning of my journey toward healing. I started asking the right questions: what am I feeling and why? It would take several years for me to unpack my emotional baggage and to learn tools on how to challenge my self-defeating thoughts effectively. I had to be honest about my shortcomings and confront my demons.
In so many profound ways, solo travel prepared me for solo quarantine today. After establishing a solid foundation, I am happy to report that I am thriving, even in solo-quarantine. It’s an ongoing process, working on myself is like peeling an onion — there is always something else hidden underneath of what I uncover.
What experiences helped you prepare for the world we face today? Did your travels offer any lessons to cope with a locked-down world? Share!