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What I learned from traveling alone

woman standing on the edge

In May 2011, I went to Italy for the first time. Little did I know that it would be my first experience traveling alone in a foreign country …

My friends were supposed to meet me in Florence, but they didn’t show up. Later on, I’d find out it was due to miscommunication.

When I was in that small airport, I waited and called them over and over. But the phone number didn’t go through. I remained calm, patient, and made small talk with foreigners. They taught me some Italian words which I scrawled in my journal.

Hours later, I decided I had to find somewhere to stay for the night. Luckily, there was a friendly American, Jude, who was heading to a hostel so I just tagged along.

When I got there I ended up hanging out with random people for 2 days. I met Gert, Taina, and Nathalie there who are all not so random anymore.

My friends and I did end up meeting up after 2 days.

Everything would be relatively normal. That is, other than the short guy that was following Anna* and I on our way back from Pompeii. He looked like he was either trying to steal from us or abduct us. Don’t worry, we lost him.

The real kicker was when we went to Venice.

One of my friends, Anna* goes to Venice often and usually books a specific hotel there. Even though the place is for a triple, and not a quad (there was 4 of us), she thought it wouldn’t be a problem because the person at the front desk goes to sleep at night…which means one of us can sneak in.

However, on this particular night, things did not work out as planned. While Anna was watching the front desk – the others and I walked around Venice the whole night. We encountered a chef, police officer, and a wailing heroin addict who all kept us good company.

Whatever, we lived through it right?

The next day, I hopped on a water boat bus and land taxi to the Venice Airport. It was back to America time…so I thought.

traveling alone - Venice

By the time I got to the Venice airport, I realized I left my passport with the other girl’s boyfriend. This definitely posed a challenge since I only had around $40 left in cash (with no credit card).

Everyone else’s flight wasn’t until the next day so I wouldn’t see them until then.

The big problem here was finding a way to get back into Venice which has canals. It costs about $100 one way on a water taxi just to get to the airport. So it would be about the same amount back there and this was money I did not have. I had cut costs getting to the airport by taking a water boat bus and a land taxi which amounted to $70.

I knew that I had to spend the remaining $40 in a logical manner. Of which, $10 went towards an international calling card.

I called my friends to see if they could bring me my passport, but they were low on funds on their credit card, and would be leaving the next day anyways. After that, I called my boyfriend at the time to see if he could wire me money, which he gladly obliged even though it was like 2 am at night over there. Upon which I discovered that there were no Western Unions at the airport.

YIKES.

I knew I did not want to let my parents know what I was up to. They would freak out for sure.

Okay… so I would not be able to get back to Venice in time to catch my flight; this I accepted. I decided I would sleep at the airport for the night and just catch the next day’s plane. Also, I finally felt the effects of exhaustion from walking around Venice the whole night with no sleep. I grabbed my suitcase and walked over to the airport cafe and plopped down next to a lady eating her food.

I asked her, “I really need to take a nap, can you wake me up when you leave?” She kindly obliged.

It was an act of trusting a complete stranger. One that I hoped would lead to good results.

But I couldn’t sleep as much I tried. Therefore, I picked up my trusty black journal and dumped my thoughts on there.

Shortly after, 4 other ladies joined the woman next to me. It turns out that they all work in an office next door.

One of them actively engaged in conversation with me – her name was Emma. She asked me about the American culture and was enthralled with the amount of freedom we have.

It wasn’t long before the Italian ladies started offering me food. Emma gave her two packs of crackers. Graziella gave me her bowl of kiwi / pineapple, and the rest of her water bottle. This other lady offered me a meal pass that would be good for both lunch and dinner at the cafe.

A colleague of theirs sat next to us. His name is Luigi. Emma explained that Luigi could let me stay at his mom’s place which was not too far from the airport. She said that they had worked with him for many years and that he was a trustworthy guy.

Curiously, I stared at him and summoned my intuition to feel if everything would be all right. The first test, I thought, “Is this guy going to rape or kill me?”

The answer I felt within, was that no, he would not. I just knew then that everything would be fine.

In that moment, with the acts of kindness from the strangers…I cried with tears of gratitude. I was shocked that there are strangers that would help you…for just because.

Luigi picked me up at the airport after he got off work. He took me to meet his mother – an elderly, plump, and very darling woman who spoke not one word of English. Yet, she welcomed me with her loving gaze and fantastic cooking skills.

He also took me to go to an Italian park which was great because up until then I had only gotten to see the tourist spots. I still remember the lush grasses…

We went back to his mother’s place; she had prepared a 3 course meal for me. Wowzers!

Then we proceeded to watch an Italian game show before I went to sleep.

In the morning, Luigi’s mom fed me breakfast, gave me snacks, and a souvenir before he shuttled me off to the airport.

He said to me,”Mimi, remember what I have done for you.

And I always have – because I think he would want me to help a stranger in need if it came to it

At the airport, I meet up with my friends who think I’m f**king crazy for running off with a complete stranger. But hey, it wasn’t the end of the world…because I lived through it!

The four of us were in line for hours and hours which is not normal for a flight. So it turns out that “a bird flew into the propeller of our plane.” At least that’s the story the airline company gave us. But I suspect it was a strike.

The airline company sticks us in a hotel right outside of Venice with 3 complimentary meals a day. We are stuck there for 2 days trying to find a flight out. It wasn’t that bad of a situation really…other than we were trying to get back to our jobs.

There, I met a group of 4 older Irish women (60s-70s). They were all about set to go on a cruise together.

I chatted with them about my adventures in Italy and even read their palms for fun.

One of the ladies gave me the equivalent of $30 (in euros) because she knew I was broke. Now I can rock that street cred and say I made money .traveling alone - Mimi Zheng in Venice

3 things I learned from traveling alone.

traveling alone - woman on bike

You are more independent than you think.

I had never been put in such strange situations by myself in a foreign country where I do not speak the language. But it happened, and showed that I can handle myself by quickly adapting to things.

Trust in the Universe.

Even though there were a couple times where everything seemed to be going wrong: not being able to reach my friends, not sure where I would stay in Florence, nowhere to sleep in Venice, and almost running out of money…I made sure to stay calm.

This decision made me not freak out in all the different things I encountered during my trip.

I love to travel.

I never saw the value in traveling before this trip and always thought it was a waste of money to spend. But after this incident, I realized I feel most at peace when I am traveling to an unknown city. Especially, when I am traveling by myself.

My advice: “Be open to adventures and the unknown”.


In addition to my love of travel, I enjoy helping 20 somethings figure out their careers.

Grab my 10 question PDF on figuring your passion through understanding your strengths.

My hope is that you’ll go through this exercise and have a better understanding of areas where you are strong in and like doing!

Written by Mimi Zheng

Mimi Zheng is the Millennial Career Strategist behind mimizheng.com, where she helps 20 somethings with career clarity and an action plan to move forward.

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