Being alone in a strange town used to mean a cold, sick, empty feeling in my marrow. It was my nightmare for a long time. Then I found out that I could do something about it. I learned that there are lots of lonely people out there.
Beautiful, quiet space is great for study or work, but fun needs sharing, laughing, talking, tasting, even arguing.
The chance encounters that have led to companionship and sharing have created some of my brightest travel memories. Most have been completely accidental, but they have accumulated, through the years, until they form a pattern for guidelines:
--Go someplace you really enjoy, where people are interacting.
--Head for the university district.
--Allow people to help you.
--Take your dog along, or at least a stuffed teddy bear.
These are simple, trustworthy guidelines, and here is how they worked for me.
Find the Flea Market
Get out and go someplace you really enjoy, not someplace you feel you should go. If you're the type, go to a casual, outdoor place where people are mingling, talking and moving about. There's an open-air flea market in almost every city in the world, ranging from Portobello Road to the Pasadena Rose Bowl Swap Meet.
My own favorite is in Colmar, France. It is cheery with the bright yellows and reds and brilliant blues in the flower stalls, the rich aromas of good French food and sweets flooding out of the open-air stalls. It is a manageable size.
Sturdy townswomen meet there to exchange home cures and gossip. They finger the jumbled heaps of clothes, china, gadgets and the rare, unrecognized treasure.
It's a photographer's paradise, and would be enjoyed even without a bonus. But my bonus did come. We were two people swooping down on the same set of half-hidden antique buttons. We each looked up into kindred eyes, bright with discovery, and exploded into laughter.
Kindred spirits, we shared the afternoon of companionable picking and searching, checking and comparing, and, finally, dinner. Marion and I have remained friends for years, and still share an occasional jaunt.
Head for the university area, a sidewalk cafe, and ask questions. Most foreign students love to practice their English, and they all know the swinging places, the best restaurants for the cheapest prices, and every worthwhile entertainment in town.
Invite a congenial couple to dinner and watch the good times roll. It will be the best investment ever to kick the lonely blues.
Let people help you. It makes them feel 10 feet tall. One shining day in Genoa I left my cruise ship for a solo, nostalgic excursion to Santa Margherita. I remembered the magnificent vistas my husband, Bill, and I had glimpsed from the cliff-side road on that other enchanting trip, and hurried to the train.
A disaster! There were no vistas from the train; just dirt and soot, and long, dark tunnels. But Santa Margherita was delightful as ever, and the Imperial Palace Hotel as elegant.
'Trust Me, Signora'
The dapper, swallow-tailed concierge preened at being remembered, sent high tea out to the terrace and fluttered about, insisting that I return to Genoa by bus. "Trust me, Signora. It is better." He even drew a sketch map to the bus stop.
Several lazy hours later, at the bus stop, a horrible thought struck. Which side of the street? Bus stops faced each other for opposite directions. A lone, elderly gentleman stood waiting there. Slender, with white wispy hair, he was frail with years, but his grooming was immaculate. I'm not sure that he wore spats, but if he had, they would have looked just right.
His pale blue eyes were kind as I struggled with my few poor words of Italian. Yes, this was the right bus stop for Genoa. He patted my hand comfortingly, and we began, haltingly, to communicate.
Native Knows Best
He was a retiree who had come for a day's outing from Genoa. We smiled and nodded our friendliness. He touched my elbow gallantly as I boarded the bus. I slipped into a window seat closest to the coastline. He paused, then, troubled, tapped my shoulder and indicated that I should move to the other side. My eyes pleaded as I yearned toward the water.
He nodded reassuringly and guided me across the aisle, just as the bus began its U-turn maneuver that switched sides. I smiled my delight, and his vest became visibly tighter with satisfaction. That was the beginning of a beautiful afternoon.
I exclaimed my appreciation of the breathtaking vistas, every enchanting village, each magnificent palace or cathedral, and his pride expanded with each exclamation.
I began to be afraid that he might really pop his buttons as I exclaimed, "Que bella Italia . " That dear man guided me through two transfers in Genoa and tenderly up the gangplank of my ship. I am sure we will never forget each other.