Two factors compounded on my decision to go for a beach holiday on my own a few weeks ago. Firstly, there was the unacceptable idea that I would never again feel the sun’s cheerful rays on my skin unless I left this place at once. The second thing to affect my decision was an article entitled The Lack of Female Road Narrative, published by the brilliant review The American Reader. The essay was written by one Vanessa Veselka, who had been a hitch-hiker at the age of fifteen and who had escaped many a dodgy scenario, and who in the article considered the fact that women do not get to travel on their own because of the dangers that might befall them. This, Veselka argued, had impacted on women’s engagement with the narrative of travel in any form – women were disappeared from travel narratives through the violence they endured often removing them literally from the road (i.e. killing them), or through the lack of opportunity for them to engage with it because of the fact of being women.
Having to be more ‘careful’ than men is one of those facts of life that women just shrug off as inevitable. And yet it has such pervasive effects on the way a person can experience and interact with her surroundings. The idea of pinning oneself against the multiplied horizons of the world as a way of contemplation or self-discovery simply is a non-option for women in some ways. But back to my beach holiday. The idea of travelling on my own, even for a weekend, became clearly a symbolic first-step towards at least engaging with this idea of women and travel. So I went on Ryanair looked for a name that was exotic (Zadar) looked at the average temperature for July (30) and booked. No research, no “Oh, but The Guardian recommends it”, nothing.
Skip forward to a few weeks later. I’m on the top of a ferry drinking beers with a group of truck drivers and a couple on their honey-moon, returning from a Croatian island. It’s midnight, it’s muggy and I have just had one of the best weekends of my life. It was with no little foreboding that I went on my trip and it was one of the best things I’ve done for myself in a long time. The stars having aligned in my favour and placed me on a stunning island (see above) visited mainly by young Italian families and German nudists, a lot of my worries vanished instantly. The pleasure of being somewhere beautiful in the heat, without having to worry about taking too long to get ready, with the freedom to have your aperitivo or your dinner for as long as you wanted, became an apparent boon. The awkward moments of having to be at a restaurant or at a bar didn’t phase me in the least in the way I had previously imagined – you would get an occasional inquisitive glance but they were rare and a small price to pay in exchange for total peace of mind. I got up at 7, rented a mountain bike, found a very remote beach that only a few of the above-mentioned nudey Germans had also found. I stayed there for almost nine hours chain-smoking, reading Jonathan Franzen (I know, painful) and regularly dipping into the startlingly turquoise water. It was my treat and mine alone.
Travelling on your own forces you to take stock of everything and pushes you to accept yourself as a mere matter of survival, something that arguably is a particularly feminine struggle. It induces you to be kinder to yourself, and there is a very special solace in being happy on your own, one that in some ways I feel women need and lack more than men. A room of one’s own and money of one’s own having once been the golden standard, I personally would add ‘travel on one’s own’ to complete the triumvirate of female independence. Travel disorders both time and space, and if you are alone it disjoints you from your context and norm. Most strong story lines in film and literature focus on a character separated, removed and to all effects alone. It makes for good narrative. No transformation or journey of the self can occur unless there is that aloneness. So it is depressing to think that women would be excluded from the possibility of that narrative and experience by the mere coincidence of gender. Granted, a lot of women I know travel on their own, often extensively and to ‘difficult’ places. But they’re still a minority who have that rockstar quality, as if they know a secret you’ll never be let in on. But back to my beach holiday…
I didn’t contribute much towards the ‘lack of female road or travel narrative’ by going on a Croatian beach holiday for a weekend, this I realize. It is several miles away from Veselka’s hardcore article and experiences. But I have undoubtedly initiated myself into the world of the female wanderer and am committed to continuing and deepening my devotion to travelling alone. It reminds me of the title of Carson McCullers’ once-fashionable book, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter and of Joan as Policewoman as I have seen her perform – things that make of loneliness something beautiful. And in that too there is solace.
Roisin Agnew @Roxeenna