The side streets in Nice, France are stacked with little outdoor tables and chairs placed in front of each restaurant. At many of these tables, you can find couples discussing something in a variety of languages, friends laughing, families eating and plenty of people dining alone with the newspaper or a book in hand. This was the case not only in Nice, but all over this southern part of Europe where I had landed in the night before. I knew that they were here, these little tables, I’d seen them in Italy and I’d seen them in the photos of Nice on Pinterest that I researched when I first learned that this would be the most convenient place for me to launch my solo travels.
For months, I relied on these photos to guide me through a place I hadn’t been and to fuel my excitement for visiting. So many travel bloggers tell you how amazing a place is- what types of food to try, which beaches are the best and even which tourist traps to avoid, but none of them tell you how earth-shatteringly terrifying it is to get on the plane and go somewhere completely alone.
The night before flying off to Nice, France where I would stay for a week before I would start teaching ESL to Italian children, I moved into my first apartment. I hung postcards and world maps up on the walls, keeping a tally of the places I had been, and was extremely nervous for the postcards and places I’d collect ahead of me. My roommates each came in as they decorated their own rooms, equally nervous to say goodbye. I wasn’t going off to war, I had no plans on dying, but I was terrified to get on that plane in only 24 hours and go far away to this place that I only had photos and ideas of. One blogger hated Nice, maybe I would too. The hostel that I had chosen to stay at had terrifyingly bad reviews, maybe I’d get kidnapped and thrown into an underground French black market scheme. The bad thoughts of what could happen filled my anxious mind as I tried to sleep that night.
The next day blurred together in my mind. My mom picked me up from this brand new apartment that I had yet to know and from the roommates who tried to support me as I tearfully said goodbye. They didn’t want me to leave, maybe I didn’t want to go either. For lunch that day, I ordered a salad with little black olives that had the pits sliced out. I hated olives and pushed them to the side. My mom picked them off of my plate.
“Are you excited?” she asked.
“Yes,” I lied. Or at least it felt like a lie at the time.
The drive to the airport was hard. Newark, New Jersey was two hours from home and after the first hour, panic set in. I turned up the music to drown out my thoughts and fears, but I was overcome with sickening thoughts and emotions that up until then I had tried to avoid. My mother noticed my worry.
“You only have a one way flight booked, if this all isn’t for you just buy your return flight in a week or two, there’s no harm in trying,” said my mom.
Coming home in a few weeks would be failing at something that I had seemingly wanted for years. Not going at all may be a little better, but that was also impossible for me. I faced three impossible decisions: leaving early, never getting on the plane to France or sticking out to my full four months plan. The last option had to be it.
Getting on the plane isn’t hard, but getting out of the car at the airport gate is. Tears welled up as I gave my mom a hug, but the second I was through the glass airport doors that I had become familiar with over the years I felt worlds better. I was on my own and from that point on had to trust myself to know that everything would be okay.
I texted my mom when I was in my seat on the plane, and she admitted that she wasn’t sure if I would get on and waited in the parking lot for hours. I was on the plane, and I knew that she was driving off back to our home in Pennsylvania without me while I was on a plane to France. The thought hurt, but the sense of excitement that I had while planning this trip returned as I flew over the dark Atlantic.
The following day, I found myself at one of those little outdoor tables in front of one of those side street restaurants in Nice, France that I had only known from pictures. Growing up I had always been surrounded by people, and not having this cushion around me was certainly an adjustment. I wondered what people thought when they walked past me and saw a foreign 20 years old girl eating alone in Nice, France, but I truly didn’t care too much. When I walked past people like me in Italy, I thought that they were brave. Maybe others had the same conviction about me. A brave traveler trying to experience this world whether she had company at that very moment or not.
My server brought me a glass of Rosé, something that I couldn’t order in America and shamelessly was excited to order in Europe. Along with the drink, she brought me a complimentary bowl of green olives drizzled in olive oil with the pit still intact. I hated olives, but had hope that anything served on the French Riviera tasted a bit better than it did at home in Pennsylvania. The olives tasted like freedom, and were one of the best things I’ve ever had.
Four and a half months later, on my final day in Europe, I ordered myself a plate with olives in Dublin, Ireland. They weren’t those French Riviera olives, but they still tasted like the freedom that I would never let myself forget.