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first person

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Estée Preda

There’s always been something – usually kids – preventing me from joining my husband on his work trips. But this summer seemed like the right time for me to come along. We began saving our money, making our plans and taking out stacks of travel books on Switzerland from the library.

And then, the place where he works clarified that unless I was part of the official entourage, I didn’t meet the security clearance to even stay on-site. Disappointed, I turned to the travel books to figure out what I could do on my own for the days he would be working.

Invariably, the books said the same thing: “Geneva! It’s a great place to live and work, but not a great place to be a tourist, so get out of town as fast as you can because there are much better places to see!”

I tried to protest – surely anywhere can be interesting – half-persuading myself that visiting NGO offices and maybe doing a foodie tour would be fun, if expensive. I couldn’t convince myself I wanted to see Reformation churches.

Late one night, an idea crept into my mind. Maybe Florence, Italy – the setting for the novel I’m writing – was not as far from Geneva as I had assumed. I looked it up: It was more or less the same as the distance to Ottawa from my home in Southwestern Ontario. I ventured further and checked out flights: It would take an hour and cost … $30 (CAD) one way.

I broached the topic with my husband, explaining it as a crazy idea – un’idea folle – something I couldn’t do, something I could only do if I had a friend travelling with me or someone I knew in the city. Except he took me seriously.

If I needed a way of making my insides churn, I had found it. Every time I thought of the idea – travelling solo to a country where I spoke only un po (a bit) of the language – I got butterflies, or, as the Italians say, farfalle. (It turned out this wasn’t only a pasta shape.)

I made lists of pros and cons. I thought about what I was afraid of, for those were, indeed, fearful farfalle. I imagined accidentally getting off a bus in a labyrinthine Florentine suburb, far from Renaissance beauty, being stuck there for the rest of my life and having to work at a 7-11 to earn a living.

Let me interrupt myself. I know you’re rolling your eyes, thinking I’m a complete wimp. Or conversely, you know you would never move beyond the craziness of such an idea. I had both of those voices warring within myself.

Getting lost without my usual resources of language or companion was my biggest fear. When I explained this to a friend, she told me I was “winsome,” that people would want to help me if I got lost. “Or kill me,” I said wryly.

She paused, then replied, “But it would be such a literary way to die.”

And that, strangely enough, was what shifted things. It made me think of a moment in Winnie the Pooh where Piglet is worried about a tree falling on the characters – and how, “after careful thought,” Pooh suggests, “Supposing it didn’t.”

Like Piglet, I felt comforted. When things go wrong – because that’s an inevitable and sometimes serendipitous part of travel – I could give the situation context and even humour by reminding myself that, even in the absolute worst case scenario, it would still be “such a literary way to die.”

I thought again of the 7-11 job. I had restarted an online Italian language learning course, and I thought about how Italians would say seven-eleven: sette-undici. Say it aloud with me: SETtay OON-deechee. It’s a different thing altogether from a 7-11 – a Sette-Undici would no doubt sell elegant slurpees made with limoncello. It might not be a fate worse than death.

I began thinking differently about the trip. I pictured myself being able to move easily around the city, darting past tourists as I do at the farmers’ market here, with only a lightweight bag on my back. My bag would contain only a change of underwear, a toothbrush, my passport, camera, and notebook.

I decided to release the farfalle into the wild – and bought the tickets.

Now, four days out from my trip, my goal is to see and smell and pace out the city, making sure I visit places in my novel, to give it colour. I realized that travelling with someone else might make me feel safe, but it would also weigh me down to have to juggle others’ expectations. Alone, I can just be me, a free agent moving around the city, not a tourist but a researcher, a writer, an explorer.

My kids have left home – are leaving home. As each of them has prepared to leave, I have thought of The Lord of the Rings, the breaking up of the fellowship. I have thought of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea and how she calls this stage of life, “in bleak honesty, the abandoned shell.”

But the prospect of this trip makes me realize that there is something extraordinarily freeing about this stage, and that I can embody it – quite literally – in my lack of supplies and companions.

I do have some limits and needs. I decided to give myself a day in Geneva to recover from jetlag before heading off on my aventura, that I will stay in Florence for just one night and two days, that I will take the train back through the Alps so I can see the Swiss beauties the guidebooks promised. I’ve made sure my phone has a travel plan. I’ve figured out a few good places for my one Italian supper. I’m going to pack a bit of courage and some charm in my bag.

It amazes me to think that I might have trudged around Geneva, playing it safe, assuming Italy was far away, waiting for my husband to do his thing, when instead I can spend 25 hours under the Italian sun.

And I won’t entirely be alone: My character will be with me. She’s a woman who travelled solo to Italy – for seven weeks, no less – and I will be seeing the city through her eyes.

Or perhaps, we’ll work together as slurpee-baristas at the Sette-Undici, watching the farfalle fly. It would be such a literary way to live.

Susan Fish lives in Waterloo, Ontario