finding Rome (2018)

Funny thing about Rome is that many of the iconic sites that most visitors flock to see are, effectively, a pile of stones …

The Forum, formed when a marshy valley was reclaimed at the end of the seventh century BC, was, in its hey day, at the centre of public life in Rome for over a millennium, with religious, political, commercial and social activities all taking place within its spectacular buildings and elaborate temples. And what remains today of the Colosseum tantalizingly hints at the magnificence of an oval amphitheatre which, holding over 50,000, was the largest ever built at the time.

The trick, they found, was to stop and for a moment, just stand still and imagine how these extraordinary ancient sites looked when they formed the epicentre of daily life.  She’d stood at the far end of the Forum, gazing down across its sprawling ruins, and imagined the chatter of the inhabitants of ancient Rome, wandering between the majestic pillars in elegant white togas.  And at the Colosseum, she’d planted her feet firmly on one of the few remaining pieces of original marble flooring, closed her eyes and imagined the roar of the baying crowd while the gladiator awaited his fate.

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Rome is a city where you really have to use your imagination … and when you do, there’s nowhere quite like it.  It’s also one of those cities that you can visit time and time again, and never tire of it, the kind of city where you stumble upon take-your-breath-away sites around every corner …. so much to take in that  a “top ten” list would barely cover it!

It was her second visit, his first, and she delighted in showing him all the must see’s … knowing that he’d be left speechless looking up for the first time at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel masterpiece, knowing how much he’d love sipping a chianti classico whilst people watching in Piazza Novana just yards from Bernini’s exquisite marble fountain, knowing he’d marvel at the wonderous dome of the Pantheon, knowing he’d revel in exploring Rome’s maze of cobbled streets in the Ponte district just over the bridge from Vatican City … and of course, knowing he wouldn’t be able to resist a gelato. Even then, in early December, with a distinct chill in the air as the city readied itself for Christmas, there was nothing quite like an Italian gelato …

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New memories for her too … the highlight when they’d noticed by chance a glass lift running up the side of the Altare della Patria. Known affectionately locally as “the wedding cake” this magnificent homage to Victor Emmanuel II dominates the skyline by day, and at dusk, offers far-reaching views from its roof, of this wonderous city.  A special moment as hundreds of birds swooped into the trees surrounding bustling Piazza Venezia below them, as the sun disappeared behind the huge dome of St Peter’s Basilica in the distance … magical times in a magical city.

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finding Berlin (2018)

It was clear, from their very first conversation, that one of the things that drew them together was a shared desire to travel, so it was natural that within weeks of meeting, they started thinking about where they’d like to take their first trip together …

It’s a big step, travelling with someone for the first time, but, as the saying goes, when it’s right, it’s right.  And it felt right from the very start.  It was nevertheless important to find somewhere neither of them had been to before so everything, from the food to the language, the sights to the people – were new. In that way, the experience would be exclusively theirs, together.

Berlin ticked all those boxes.

It’s one of those cities that is always going to be a fascinating place to visit.  It has no choice but to look its recent history in the eye … and try to move on, all the while reinventing itself in the eyes of the rest of the world, and its own. No mean feat, when at every turn in this extraordinary city, there are stark reminders of the atrocities of a world at war. From Checkpoint Charlie to vast stretches of the Berlin Wall still looming grey against the skyline, both with moving exhibitions about the desperate impact on the lives of Berlin’s communities, as the city was divided into East and West. The powerful grandeur of the Brandenburg Gate, standing proud and defiant, the site of one of the most iconic scenes in recent German history when thousands celebrated as the Wall fell in 1989, and representing now not so much the a divided Germany, but more a symbol of unity and freedom.

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A city very much coming to terms with its past, respecfully and quietly. This struck them no more so that at the Holocaust Memorial. Over 2,500 giant block of grey concrete, set out to deliberately confuse on an undulating piece of land near the city centre.  Even on a sunny day, the atmosphere was eerie and desolate with a clever play of light as the shadows played on the stones – a deeply thought provoking homage to the murdered Jews of Europe.

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Berlin’s history is fascinating and tragic, and it is all too easy to spend time there feeling pulled down by the weight of it.  There is no escaping the past but there is no doubt that this is a city that passionately strives to look forward.  None more so that in Kreusberg, the cool suburb where they stayed, giving them snap shot into the lives of modern day Berliners – families to-ing and fro-ing on their bikes, music flowing out of the bars along the riverbank, every kind of cuisine, street art … the hip place to be.

They found a tiny ruin bar just off the river front, a building that they wouldn’t have given a second glance to without the recommendation of their host, graffiti covered, down an uninspiring side street. But what a find.  Inside, the young owners had imaginatively turned this desolate building into a warm and welcoming bar, candlelit nooks and warm smiles, the younger generation celebrating their city and reinventing something old into something new and exciting.  It was Berlin in a nutshell!

 

 

 

finding Dubrovnik (2018)

The view of the medieval city walls was quite different to how it had looked the day before, when they’d walked its perimeter over several hours, taking in, from above, the maze of narrow cobbled alleyways within.  The old town had suffered its fair share of conflict over the centuries, not least of which the bombardment in the early 90s, when over two-thirds of the historic town’s buildings were hit by artillery during the break up of Yugoslavia. It took a UNESCO led initiative to reconstruct the town back to its former splendour, its turbulent history sand-blasted out of the stone, topped with new terracotta tiles adorning the roofs.

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However for the first time in history, the city walls had themselves received over one hundred direct hits, and from their new vantage point, the scars were there to see.

The opportunity to see the city from the sea was too good to miss, despite the reservations of her girlfriend who had envisaged a rather more relaxing break in the sun.  So, it was not without some trepidation (neither of them having even set foot in a canoe before), they took to the water, under the watchful eye of their tour guide and the rest of the group, far younger and rather intrigued by the sight of two women who should have known better giggling their way out into the bay, struggling to control the direction of their unruly kayak.

Once they’d fathomed how to synchronise their strokes, they’d settled into an easy rhythm, unwilling to admit to their aching backs and knees, sore arms and sunburnt faces tingling with the salty spray.  It wasn’t for the faint hearted, and 3 hours in, paddling against the current, getting back to the safety of the harbour was no mean feat for even experienced kayakers.  And wet didn’t even begin to describe the state of their underwear – perhaps wet suits would have been a better idea! But they did it, and did not embarrass themselves by floating unchecked towards the horizon (it happened) or falling overboard (that happened too)!

And they managed to keep up with the kids! So, in the end, it’s all about perspective!  Like the town wall, they might have been showing signs of having been around for a while, but they’d lived to fight another day!

 

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finding the Northern Lights (2018)

“Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly.  Choose happiness”

(Brionnie Ware, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying)

A new chapter had begun. A page turned.

She’d left a job of the last thirteen years to take another that, she hoped, would give her a better quality of life.  It was a time for change. It felt like the stars were aligned … and she was feeling brave.

Feeling brave is feeling empowered, and so, in that precious week of freedom between leaving one job and starting the next, she pushed her boundaries just that little bit more and booked a flight to the northern most parts of Norway to follow a life long dream to see the northern lights.

Research shows that to stand the best chance of seeing them, there needs to be darkness, and lots of it.  And the best way to find that is to head just about as far north as civilisation allows, to a tiny city called Tromso.  Linked to the main land by a elegant arched bridge, the island of Tromsoya is located over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle,  where, during the polar night lasting from November to January, the sun does not rise at all.

The darkness apart, never having been a skier, she had also never before experienced a landscape eternally shrouded in its winter coat.  It was difficult for her to imagine, therefore, a land where it is like this for months on end, which is why she wanted to see it for herself.

The flight out of Oslo gave her the first glimpse of what she had been looking for.  In the eerie twilight blue, the jagged crevices and undulating contours of the bleak barrenness were outlined in every detail by the snow, norwegian firs piercing through, standing proud and defiant in this unforgiving landscape, so much more beautiful here than the one she’d left behind still holding up the gaudy remnants of the festive season at home. On they flew, two hours north of Oslo, on and on, north and north, leaving behind day light hours, and speeding towards a land of perpetual dark.

On her first morning, a violent noise, like someone throwing grit at her bedroom window, woke her with a start.  What she’d noticed when she arrived the night before was how quiet everywhere was.  Not only does a colder climate discourage anyone from venturing out, but the snow muffles any sounds, from passing traffic to voices, thus amplifying the strange and foreign sound, which turned out to be the snow plough doing its morning rounds, clearing the road outside her room after several feet of snowfall while she’d slumbered in the early hours.

In the south of England, on a “bad” year, we might do the depths of winter, or at least our perception of it, for a week or so. We momentarily marvel at the white, sparkling beauty of  a couple of inches of freshly fallen snow, then we grind to a halt. We moan that the trains don’t run on time (if at all).  We begrudgingly clear our drives and slip-slide our unresponsive cars onto roads often ill prepared for a cold snap, with gritting lorries cajoling the main arteries into life, but anywhere else left to the eagerness of its residents to get to work with a shovel.  We dig out our warmest clothes, raid the food stores as if the cold snap is unlikely to ever end, become neighbour friendly in ways we never do in “normal” times, start making homemade soup …. and wait for the thaw.

So different there … they are prepared and several feet (not inches) of snow is the norm. As is the multiple layers of clothing required to even step outside the door.  It certainly takes longer to get ready to go out for the day!

Apparently the way to walk best on frozen ground is to walk like a penguin … not something she ever really mastered and even had to be rescued from the middle of a cross roads when she froze on the spot (literally) trying to decide in which direction she would least likely end up on her derriere!  A kindly octogenarian, came dashing across the road with astonishing nimbleness, and came to her rescue.  It seems the key is not to walk like a penguin, but clip on spikes! She needn’t have worried though – by necessity everything moves slowly – the people (it’s all those clothes) and even the traffic!

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Tromso, dotted with centuries-old painted houses, was a centre for seal hunting, trapping and fishing, and later a launch pad for several notable Arctic expeditions. A truly fascinating place to explore in the mornings, the blue twilight creating an enchanting and surreal landscape before darkness set in, and the town retreated to snug indoors by candlelight, in front of cosy fires and generous bowls of steaming reindeer stew.

Afternoons were for sleeping …  for the real reason for her visit happened of course, at night.

She had three chances to see the northern lights.  Three nights to find what she had dreamed of seeing for as long as she could remember …

The first two nights were too cloudy, so she awoke on her final day knowing that it was now, or probably never.  To cushion the potential disappointment of not seeing them at all, she had booked a husky sleigh ride for that morning.  Two to a sleigh, with a team of excitable barking huskies straining at the reins, they left the city lights behind and headed into the snowy barrenness. It was one of the most exhilarating moments of her life – Wednesday mornings would never quite be the same again.

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And so it came to the last night.

Two minibuses set out in search of the elusive lights, higher and higher, deeper and deeper into the icy wonderland, then stopped to set up campfires and wait.  And wait.  And wait.  It was approaching midnight, by which time she had retreated into the warmth of the minibus and closed her eyes, resigned to the fact that it wasn’t to be.  Then there was a loud banging on the door. “Come quick! The lights!”.  And there they were, drifting across the night sky before her eyes in their magical dance, a green luminescent cloud, shifting and undulating like a flock of murmuring swallows.

There were no words …

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finding Lisbon (2017)

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Latterly known as the new Barcelona, she stepped from arrivals into Lisbon’s midday heat with eager anticipation, and as her taxi wound its way down into its sprawling suburbs, she wondered if it could possibly live up to that kind of reputation.

Choosing Airbnb was a deliberate attempt to be less of a tourist and more of a local, so home was a tiny apartment in a residential area just east of the Lisbon’s oldest district of Alfama, right on top of a hill.

The hills!  She had been warned about the hills, but these were some serious upward climbs!

Though hills, of course, mean stunning vistas. See from above, Lisbon’s faded beauty is picture postcard, terracotta roofs on careworn tile-clad buildings tumbling towards the sparkling Tagus, famous for sending intrepid explorers out into the big blue. The waterfront, to the east, already redeveloped and achingly cool. Centre stage, the long dining tables in Mercado da Ribeira, the converted food market now revitalised by Time Out, the place to lunch. A noisy, buzzing, anything-you-fancy eating experience, sitting in the middle of the historic food stalls, where market traders have sold local produce since the late 1800s.

Nevertheless, thank goodness for the trams. The famous number 28, clattering through the maze of the narrow cobbled streets of Alfama, inching past parked cars and oblivious tourists, was not for the faint-hearted, but far kinder on the feet and the lungs!  On the other side of town, the “hill” problem is overcome via the Gloria funicular or the slightly bizarre neo-gothic styled Elevador de Santa Justa, rising from the Baixa district to the top of Barrio Alto in seconds, so the views are the only thing to take the breath away!

Lisbon’s hills leave a lasting impression, that’s for sure.

As does the food. In any country, there are certain things that never taste as good as when they are eaten there … in Portugal, it’s sardines. Silver slithers of deliciousness sizzling on market stalls, best enjoyed simply with a fist of crusty bread to soak up all the oil. And of course the famous “nata”, a delicious custard tart, buttery flaky pastry, custard just slightly wobbly, and a dusting of cinnamon.  She could have developed a seriously unhealthy addiction – may be climbing the hills was a good idea after all!

She found herself addicted too to the heart-breakingly beautiful fado music that flowed through the open windows of tiny airless bars in Alfama, as the sun sunk low on those early Summer days.  Fado, from the Latin fatum, and the source of the English word for fate …. so profoundly melancholic, it haunted her still.

They say you have to love yourself before you can be loved. It felt as if Lisbon was just waking up to its potential, quietly hiding away its faded beauty like a secret treasure, still wondering if it could hold its place in the hearts of the tourist droves starting to wander there. She left Lisbon, unsure where this fascinating city sat in her heart, but may be that was because she too was still learning to love herself. She wondered if she had given it enough of a chance to show her all it had to offer …. or perhaps it just wasn’t ready to yet.

 

 

finding Positive Solitude

 

 

“Claim your space. Draw a circle of light around it. Push back against the dark. Don’t just survive. Celebrate.”

(Charles Frazier)

 

She had never heard the expression “positive solitude” until a few days before, but it described perfectly the place she was on her journey.  

When she left her marriage, she knew loneliness would be her achilles heel, so had, of necessity, taught herself to embrace solitude.  The thought of a day on her own still had the capacity to leave a dull thud in her stomach and an uneasiness which she couldn’t quite put her finger on.  But, for the most part, she could get through a day alone, in fact, more than get through….

She found that keeping busy, or at the very least, having a plan, was the key.  Yes, of course, those plans very often displayed all the symptoms of running away, to escape the day-to-day, to break the routine where the silence of no early morning message from him would break her heart again and again. And sometimes, those plans were the end result of anger and defiance standing firm together in a “sod it, I don’t need anyone” kind of way.  Of course, in an ideal world, she would have given anything to be with someone who loved her, simple as that. But there is a difference between wanting and needing.  It took all her strength, but it was that anger, disappointment and hurt that gave her the momentum finally to step out into the world and say “bring it on”.

Holidaying alone, of course, was something else altogether, though she found that fear, when you are brave enough to look it in the eye, has nowhere to go.  

Florence was her first solo trip.  Alone, she spoke less, noticed more … and those moments when it would have been so wonderful, later, to say “Do you remember when …?”, sat in her memory bank alone.  More than anything, she came home with a sense of achievement that made her spirits sour, and still the memory of speeding through the Tuscan hills on a Vespa, that life-affirming rush, that freedom of spirit, left her grinning from ear to ear.

And so to Lisbon. A last minute, need to get on with my life, kind of booking … without any preconceived notions of what to expect.  A deliberate attempt not to be too touristy, to step out of her comfort zone a little further than before. 

And so, she sat typing this story, in a sun dappled courtyard just east of Alfama, the hilly artisan quarter of the town.  A local resident, Jose, popped his head out of his window and offered to put on his favourite fado music to keep her company.  Hauntingly beautiful voices, mending all those lost dreams in a soothing wave of melodies floating through the lemon trees, the delicate blues of heady agapanthus and lavender, across the white washed terrace outside her tiny apartment. For all Lisbon had to offer, she would remember most the magic of that moment. It was perfect.

She realised how far she had come.  So terrified before of even being alone, here she was, in a foreign land without a single soul to turn to. For her, this was being brave beyond her wildest imagination, and she knew she would be fine.  That’s quite a journey!

 

finding Mykonos (2017)

It was certainly a bit of a Thelma and Louise moment.  It was probably the pink helmets that did it.

Three days in to their spring break in Mykonos, it became clear that the only way to reach the tiny unspoilt bay on the other side of the island, was to hire some wheels. Whilst a car was the sensible option for two ladies of a certain age, quad bikes looked infinitely more exciting.  And so it was that they edged their way out into the morning traffic, with nothing but a rudimentary map and a vague sense of direction to guide their way.

They had happened upon Mykonos purely because the right travel deal came up at the right time.  Its reputation as a party island preceded it. Party girls they were not … but pictures of the unassuming family-run hotel just outside Mykonos town, low-rise, white-washed and draped in vibrant bougainvillea, lured them to this tiny dot of a Greek island.

Mykonos turned out to be a surprise in every way.

The town itself was a short boat taxi ride across the bay … what a way to arrive! Chugging into the mooring, they got their first glimpse of the iconic paving that winds its way through the narrow streets of the Old Town, inviting them in to explore it’s maze of quirky local bars and high end fashion retailers … this tiny island certainly attracts the money.  Shopping is more about Armani than  trashy souvenirs. Standing proud on the ridge, the time-worn windmills watch the to-ings and fro-ings of this busy harbour, like they have done for centuries past.

The famous party beaches weren’t for them, but the rest of the island remained surprisingly untouched by mass tourism, and the notion of the romantic Greek island idle that Shirley Valentine gave us in the 80s, can still be found in its barren hills, dotted with white-washed rural hamlets and tiny chapels peeping out at every turn.

Giggling with delight at the absurdity of  how they must have looked to the locals, two English woman on a quad bike, pink helmets, old enough to know better,  they jolted their way along the dusty tracks across the island to Fokos, recommended by a friend for its not-to-be-missed taverna.  Just as they arrived,  the locals started to spill in, bearing gifts for the staff on this the first day of opening for the summer season.  They felt they were intruding on a secret party, but were welcomed like long lost friends and beckoned onto the veranda to enjoy their meal lazily sitting in the dappled shade overlooking what can only be described as an island paradise. For the people, for the food, for the place …. it was one of those “do you remember” meals. Total bliss.

Mykonos … one of those places that where time passes so slowly, but a holiday is over so soon.  A definite must-go-back-one-day ….

 

finding Florence II (2016)

Of course, it wasn’t challenge enough to solo travel for the first time. In a moment of madness, she decided to put something a little crazy in the mix, just to make sure this, for her, was the mother of all challenges!

So she booked a sight seeing tour around the Tuscan hills … on a Vespa!

Sound enough idea for an experienced motorcycle driver who had driven on the wrong side of the road before. She’d done neither the motorcycle or the side … ever!! Crazy or what?

That’s the funny thing about fear. Once she’d looked it in the eye, it had nowhere else to go. She’d realised that only way to find out how to travel alone, was to do it! It was a huge, life-changing life-enhancing decision … the icing on top of the cake that was her new independent grab-every-moment life. Hiring a Vespa? Just the cherry on the icing!

It wasn’t without trepidation however that she presented herself at the allocated time at the hire centre. Ten minutes later, after a quick run through of the essentials (basically how to start and how to stop), she emerged into the madness that is Florence’s mid morning traffic.

In the group of a dozen or so riders, some pillion, she was the only solo woman of a certain age. A object of some curiosity to the youngsters and the couples! She rather liked that … though they did collectively take it upon themselves to keep her in the middle of the pack out of harm’s way. Bless.

They wound their way up and up until Florence disappeared into a valley behind them. Clear of city drivers, with the dusty tracks to themselves, she began to relax, loosen her white knuckle grip on the handlebars and enjoy the Tuscan hills that stretched before them, just like they are in the movies. Cypress trees standing tall and straight on undulating hills, row upon row of vineyards ready to harvest, sprinkled with sun-mellowed terracotta villas.

The locals, intent on their daily tasks, watched bemused as a crazy English woman whizzed through their tiny hamlets, squealing with the freedom of it all.

She couldn’t believe she was actually doing it. She felt like she could fly. And life felt so, so extraordinarily good.

finding Florence I (2016)

She caught first sight of the Duomo while she was trundling her luggage along what had now become a rather haphazard route between the station and her hotel. A shock of green and white marble tantalizing her from the end of the street. It, quite literally, stopped her in her tracks.  She was to learn, during the next few days, that Florence has a habit of doing that …

The unpretentious family run hotel situated right at the end of Ponte Vecchio was perfect for a female first time solo traveller. Everything she wanted to see within touching distance, and a friendly face to come back to after a day’s “determined not to miss a thing” sightseeing.

A three night city break, particularly going solo, is more than enough time to get to grips with most cities.  With no-one else to please, she could focus on the things she wanted to see and do …. with the freedom to take, literally, a different path whenever she felt like it. The Florence must do’s – the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace,  the Duomo of course – called to her like presents that are so beautifully wrapped, it goes without saying that what’s inside will be something special.  Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Caravaggio … the names just roll of the tongue, all there, conjuring up a veritable cultural feast for the soul. The highlight for her, seeing the towering presence of the David standing tall at the end of the main gallery at the Accademia, took her breath away.  He’s quite something.

What she hadn’t anticipated was that the whole city feels like an architectural extravaganza, the most stunningly buildings at every turn.

But it doesn’t seem to show off about it. Florence waits to be found,  like a serene and beautiful woman, who is quietly confident in her own skin.

finding how to Travel Solo

She had her hand on her bag ready to go through passport control on her own.  With no idea what had delayed her friend, it was a choice of waiting and missing the flight, or going it alone and working things out.  Her friend made it, just …. but that decision to go anyway answered a question that had been playing on her mind for a while.  Would she be brave enough to travel alone?

The answer, to her genuine surprise, was unquestionably yes!

To a 50-something solo female first-timer, Florence seemed challenge enough for now.  A couple of hours flight (so not so far away that she couldn’t be “found” if she got into trouble, she reasoned), good weather (nothing worse than sitting alone in a hotel room if it was pouring), lovely people (she’d never met an un-friendly Italian), familiar cuisine (like a comfort blanket while she addressed the “eating on my own while trying not to look like I’ve been stood up” scenario)… and long on her bucket list.

Flying alone for the first time, the first thing she noticed, was that …. she was on her own! Tourists tend to travel in groups.  Excited huddles of giggly female travellers sharing “must-do’s” and “have I packed’s”, couples in their own couple-y world,  families trying to keep errant toddlers under control …. and her. It might just have been that flight, that day, but it felt as though everyone was staring at her”alone-ness”, as if she had a big arrow pointing down at her in the bustling departure lounge saying “she has no friends”.  She topped up her lipstick and tapped out a message on her phone …. signs to all concerned that she was being met at the other end by her Italian lover.  That would explain it, naturally.

Of course, in reality, no one was concerned at all about the pale slightly fidgety middle-aged woman sitting near the departure gate, passport clutched tightly in hand, ready for the off. Or that she’d checked three times during the wait that her currency and travel documents were still where they were … last time she’d checked.  Or that her hand never left the handle of her cabin luggage (can’t be too careful). Or that the message she was tapping out to her Italian lover … was actually a post on social media because she had to share her excitement with someone! Or that the seat next to her was … empty.  No one cared.  Absolutely no one cared.

And it was while she sat there getting used to the idea that, to anyone else, she was just another passenger waiting for her flight … that she finally got it!  Solo travel means that the only person you have to worry about is … yourself! You can do what you like, when you like, if you like, how you like – and no one gives a damn. How liberating is that!

So, just for the hell of it, she checked her travel documents, again …. and queued for the departure gate.  The butterflies in her stomach did an extra somersault.  Not nerves any more, but excitement. She boarded the plane, head held high, with a confidence that said to all those giggly girls, couple-y couples and frantic families, “look at me, not care in the world, I’m going it alone and I’m fine, I’m really fine!”

They actually didn’t care of course … but neither did she.

She was on her way …