This is the first in (hopefully!) a series of long-form conversations/interviews with people I know on their experiences traveling solo. It took a long time to put this together (and a lot of figuring out how to record interweb calls) but it was really good fun and I’m looking forward to picking other people’s brains on the subject.
My guinea pig for this endeavour was my college friend Val (aka Victoria). Val is one of the sharpest, funniest people I know. She has done all sorts of amazing things from learning how to make cheese on a goat farm in France (more on which below) to being a proper badass jouster in Renaissance Faires. She also has one of the best email addresses I’ve ever seen AND the most adorable, hilarious dog, who I hope I get to meet in person one day.
Val on the very windy pier in St Andrews when she was visiting on her first WWOOFing trip
Kate: Who are you? What are you up to these days?
Val: Right now, I’m a student at Yale Divinity School and I’m earning a Master of Sacred Theology degree, which is like MDiv +1!
I would like to be a pastor and my timing was a little weird, so I could have either waited for a job or got an extra year’s study in. So I’m getting to study stuff I didn’t know a lot about but I’m very interested in, so it’s really good. I was incredibly doubtful about whether it was a good decision because school’s expensive! But it’s been really good and I’ve learned a lot and I feel like I have a lot more clarity on what I want to do as a pastor because of this year, so who’d’ve thunk it!
What’s your favourite cheese?
I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about this! Broadly speaking, blue cheese is my favourite kind of cheese. I love blue cheese with red wine it’s SO good. But I have fond memories of very specific cheeses.
I was traveling in northern Italy, and we stopped at the cheesemonger in San Remo which was a magical place. I found this gorgonzola dolce which was made like a cake – not like a cheesecake, but a cake made of cheese. So there were these two hunks of gorgonzola and in the middle was this layer of mascarpone, and it was coated in walnuts. I got a chunk of it and I ate the WHOLE THING on the train ride back. That is my favourite cheese. And It’s one I don’t think I’ll ever get to find again. Which almost makes it even more special.
Can you give a bit of a summary of the traveling you’ve done, particularly on your own?
So I started traveling when I was in college. I studied abroad in Ireland for a semester and then the next semester I spent in Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa. So that was really good and got me stuck with the travel bug.
Family of meerkats, South Africa 2006
When I was in South Africa I also spent some time in Lesotho, which was amazingly gorgeous. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.
Then I came back and got my undergraduate degree in drama and humanities and spent the next few years doing professional acting. I would do summer stock jobs and not find much to do in the winter. The first winter I did a bilingual production of a Moliere play with a national children’s touring theatre company, so I’ve seen a lot of the States but only very briefly.
After that I went WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), so the next free block of time I had I went to Provence in France and worked on a goat farm for 6 weeks. This is the site of the cheese adventures! It was an excellent, excellent time. Then I went to Spain to work on a farm that bred Andalusian horses – which, as a girl who loved My Little Ponies, it was like my lifetime dream – and was supposed to be there for 2 months but the hosts and I did not mesh well.
The Cordoba Mosque, Spain 2008
One of the things I learned is that the relationships you form when traveling are really important, especially when you’re traveling alone because you have no other relationships to bank on. So I left that farm and ended up just hopping around different farms in Spain and visiting friends, including you!
Then I went back to France for two weeks and went to Normandy to work on a farm with a lot of different things going on. Then I went to Ireland and ended up on 3 different farms there. I worked at a place with bees because I was really curious to learn about bees. And the week that I spent on that farm cured me of that.
That 5 month span was really good: so good that I decided to do it again the next year. I went to Italy. It was not the same though, so instead of spending another 5 months, I came back after 5 weeks.
Then I went to Seminary and got poor, which put the kibosh on the traveling for a little while. But I was saving my money throughout Seminary because I really wanted to take this travel seminar to Israel, Palestine and Jordan, which I did this time last year. And that’s the last piece of travel I’ve done.
Camel in Petra, Jordan, 2014 (I love this picture SO MUCH -K)
You’ve been everywhere!
No, I’m missing entire continents!
When I was in South Africa, it’s the only place I’ve ever really felt kind of unsafe. Not in a way that would turn me off going there, I just felt I had to have my guard up much more than any place I’ve ever been. Did you feel that?
A little, maybe not as much as I should have. I think the transition between Ireland and South Africa was pretty drastic. Ireland was very safe, for example, it’s the only place I’ve ever tried hitchhiking. It’s just a place you feel safe. And South Africa is not that way. I’d never hitchhike in South Africa.
I remember there was this one day I was walking down the street in Grahamstown. I think I had a backpack on, and I heard this voice behind me going, ‘Excuse me. EXCUSE ME!’ And I turned around and this woman was like, ‘That guy just tried to steal your bag, you need to pay more attention!’ It was a good Samaritan thing, but I felt like it was kind of a bitch-slap of a good Samaritan thing, like, pay attention!
When did you first think traveling on your own sounded like a pretty good plan? Did anything in particular lead to that decision?
I think it just sounded like a good idea at the time? I remember looking for colleges that had good study abroad programmes, because I knew it was something I wanted to do. I’m not quite sure where the longing came from.
I worked really hard to make sure I could do it my Junior year. I wanted to go to Ireland the whole year, but I could only do a semester so I decided to go to a completely different place, so I was deciding between Hong Kong, Australia and South Africa. I think I had this sense of wanting to know what other cultures were like and wanting to take myself out of my comfort zone. And the study abroad thing was my way into that.
Were you worried about anything in relation to being on your own? Particularly being on your own as a woman?
Not as much as I should have been probably? I had that whole invincible thing going on, which I think was good and actually worked for me. I’d like to say I was sensible at all times and always took good precautions but that would not be a true statement. I think it was a combination of luck and SOME common sense, and also just, unfortunately, privilege – I don’t look… vulnerable.
I guess I had the same thing where when I was younger and backpacking the first time. I’d have moments where I was like, ‘oh maybe I shouldn’t have just done that’, or ‘maybe I should have paid more attention’. Whereas now I think about it a lot more and if I’m alone I’m like, ‘what do I need to be aware of here?’ I didn’t really do that in college, and maybe I should have, but maybe it was also a confidence benefit, when people are looking at you and thinking, well, she’s not one to mess with because she clearly knows what she’s doing.
Yeah, that wouldn’t work for everyone and I wouldn’t recommend it, but that’s kind of how it happens.
I also have a memory of walking in Ireland. I lived in a safe part of the city of Cork and walked down to this pub. If you’re ever in Cork you should visit! It’s called An Spailpin Fanach and they do Irish trad music every night. So I was there and I decided to walk back home by myself, it was like 11 at night. It’s Cork, it’s Ireland, it’s safe, and it’s well-lit. So I didn’t feel any qualms about walking back by myself. Which I should have! And there was a guy who started a very polite conversation with me walking on the opposite side of the street and eventually crossed over because he was like, ‘I have sisters, I can’t let you walk home alone!’ which was like, but you’re the kind of person I should look out for if I was being overly cautious! So he walked me to my door and then left. But that kind of thing just happens in Ireland. And it was the kind of thing where this guy just saw what I was not in a frame of mind to see at that point in my life.
A (very safe) Irish donkey on Inis Meain, from Ireland 2005
I remember you said you wore a wedding band to ward off unwelcome male attention. Did it work? Would you recommend it?
I have this ring that looks like an engagement ring, so I wore that on my left ring finger to help undercut unwanted attention. I’m not sure it worked. It’s hard to say. I do remember that one of the run-ins I had that made me most deeply uncomfortable was with a married man, so clearly the ring was just like… not working in that situation.
I definitely disagree with the statement that you shouldn’t travel alone as a single woman, that’s just not true. But it does come with it’s own unique set of baggage, and one of the very large pieces of carry-on with that luggage set is the unwanted male attention. And I would love to say that it works to just say ‘no’, but it doesn’t. So you need to be able to be able to say ‘no’ a number of different ways and be able to gauge the situation and know which ‘no’ to use, and when you need to solicit outside help.
I err on the side of soft ‘no’s to start with, ‘no’s that don’t necessarily work right away. ‘I can’t.’ ‘I’m busy.’ ‘I’m meeting somebody else.’ ‘I need to go.’ Stuff like that. And if the guy doesn’t take the hint, what I find often works is turning on the bitch face. And being like ‘NO. No.’ And when you raise your voice and make those sentences very flat and pointed, I think it often scares them. So that has worked. Not all the time – and it’s at that point that you just need to find a way to extricate.
Oh, it’s so annoying! It’s not fair you have to think about it more. Especially when so many dudes are just decent friendly people. Like the guys I met in the pub in Manchester. I was on my own and we had a great chat and a few beers and they were really lovely about making sure I safely got a taxi at the end of the night.
And it’s too bad that women have to have their guard way up, because not everyone is a threat, but it’s so hard to tell sometimes. Because you can get the occasional creeper who acts lovely and then turns it around and takes advantage of the situation. But it would be too bad to never open yourself up to people at all because then you’d never have really nice things happen.
Ugh. It’s really difficult.
It’s such a bitch.
Looking back on it, I can now identify this as the most dangerous situation I was in. I didn’t see it at the time. I had a guy who I thought was that kind of guy, who was being really nice, striking up a friendship kind of relationship. And I didn’t realise until he was actually IN my hostel room that that was NOT what he was there for. And I was really lucky in that he listened to me when I said ‘leave’, and he did, and it was fine. But I could have been really unfortunate in that situation. And oh God, it’s just like, you really have to be able to make good judgement calls, and you have to be lucky when you don’t.
Was there anything that happened to you while traveling that really made you wish you had someone with you? (Good or bad!)
The reason I ended up cutting the Italy trip short is because I felt so intensely lonely. The year before, I could speak French well enough that I could make friends and build relationships. And in Spain I was with a lot of English expats – there’s a surprising number of them at Spanish farms – so the language barrier was nonexistent.
View from my room at the farm where I worked near Terra del Sole, Italy, 2009
I thought that the French would be enough to get me by in Italy. It was not. So it was a very isolating experience because I couldn’t speak and make myself understood, and I couldn’t understand people. It was then that I wished really intensely that I had a traveling companion. There was a lot of REALLY cool stuff happening, and I didn’t necessarily appreciate or enjoy it as much as I could have because I was combating that loneliness.
I feel like my best memories from that set of travels was the 6 weeks in France on the goat farm, and that was because I had friends I made while I was there, and I had people to share the experiences with, and it was just so good. It made it so much better.
Cheese stand at a French festival in Valbonne, 2008
So I don’t think you need to travel with somebody but you definitely need to be open to the relationships you encounter.
It’s a two-edged sword: you can either bring a travel companion and have that companionship all the time and not worry about it, or you can not, and increase your chances of having a really amazing experience because of the people you meet that you’ll just be more open to.
Was there anything that happened or that you did when you were actually actively happy you were on your own?
Yes! Any time I needed to leave a farm early, I was really grateful I had the flexibility and the freedom to do that and I didn’t have to worry about someone else and their feelings. There’s this really wonderful freedom in being able to chart your own course and decide what you want to see and what you’re interested in. And to really be able to pursue that in a way you… well, you CAN do with a companion, but you have to focus on the compromise and the group dynamic.
Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth, 2014
I noticed that a little when I was doing the Israel, Palestine, Jordan trip. I was grateful to be in a group, I saw a lot more that I would have been able to see on my own, but for me as a traveler one of the things I really enjoy doing is slowing down and getting to know one place well and getting to meet people there. And I wasn’t able to do that because I was part of a group.
So you stopped traveling the second time because you were lonely. Was there anything else keeping you from staying away longer? Or was that the main reason?
That was the main thing. I had a relationship at home I was really into at the time, and that put harder edges on the isolation, because it was like, I can sit here in Italy struggling with being lonely for a long time, or I can go back to this great relationship! And my nephew had just been born, and he was really cute, and my family was all in one place for once, so I felt like I was missing a lot at home. So that’s something else to contend with.
Is there anywhere you’d worry about going on your own, or wouldn’t even consider?
I would be hesitant to go anywhere I couldn’t speak the language, because as I mentioned, the relationship part is important to me. So I’d want to either be there with someone who can speak the language or figure out some other way past that. I need to figure that out actually because I’d like to go to Asia and South America and I speak no Asian languages or any Spanish. SO I need to figure out a way to bridge that.
I think there are places where I’d make different decisions in terms of my travel arrangements. Like in Europe I’d be fine staying in a hostel because I’ve done it and it’s so common, but I don’t know if I’d be willing to do that in South America because I don’t know the social expectations. I also just look different from most people in Asia and South America, so, that will draw attention.
What’s your next trip? (alone or accompanied!)
I have a couple things in the works. Nothing solid yet. My best friend Janine and I are turning 30 this year. We’ve been friends for over 20 years and looove traveling together. And one of my favourite trips I’ve taken is a bike trip with her and (our college friend) Mike during the summer of my sophomore year. Colum McCann had just come to campus to talk about biking across the country for a year without health insurance, and that sounded really appealing at the time, especially since we were all still on our parents insurance.
So we started at my house in Southern Chester County PA, and biked up to Delaware Water Gap, and it took about 6 or 7 days. And it was the BEST time. We would knock on people’s doors and ask if we could pitch our tents in their backyards, and I can’t believe that worked! It was sort of a trip that restored my faith in humanity because people let us sleep in their back gardens just because we asked! People are so great! I love Mike and I’m really glad he was on that trip and I think he enjoyed it, but Janine and I asked him because both of our mothers said we couldn’t do this trip unless we had a man with us.
Ha! Did that annoy you?!
No, I understood where they were coming from, and this sounds mean to Mike, but both Janine and I look scarier than him, so. I think it was the compromise. But it was just a good time and Mike has a great sense of humour so, of course he made the trip better.
SO, Janine and I did that together and it was great. And she did a bike trip in Maine on her own a few years later and had a great time.
So we’re going to do another trip this year because we’re turning 30, and I think it might take that shape again because we’re both sort of poor right now. She’s also the person who told me about the Camino de Santiago which is now one of my dreams – I REALLY want to go hike the Camino de Santiago one day.
Also because I’m Lutheran and studying to be a pastor and I’m kind of a church nerd, the anniversary of the Reformation is 2017, I think. That will be the 500 year anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg. So Germany is going to be one big happy German Lutheran fest, and I’d really like to go see that. So that’s maybe on the radar.
Val blogs about all sorts of things, but these days Lutheran stuff especially, at Lutheran Moxie.