During the summer after I graduated from high school, I made a new friend in the neighborhood. We did heaps of outdoorsy things together and soon began planning a bike-riding trip through the Mediterranean. He preferred the idea of a boys’ beer adventure trip with his brother, so I decided that biking around Europe alone would suit me fine. I had been an exchange student in Venezuela and had done a fair amount of traveling with my family. I was craving independence and anonymity.
I decided to visit Corsica, Sardinia, Italy, and the Greek Islands. I agreed to call home once a week. (Internet and cellphones were things of the future.) I was only 17 and didn’t have a credit card, so I planned diligent use of my traveler’s checks. I would pack lightly and stay in youth hostels along my route. I would rely on my high school French and some perfunctory Greek that lay dormant from having lived there as a small child. I had no experience speaking Italian, but seeing the beautiful Italian countryside was a top priority. I would muddle through any language deficiencies.
I landed in Pisa and after a bit of greasy bike finagling I was soon happily pedaling. All went well during those early days in the countryside. I enjoyed meandering and carefully composing photos I wouldn’t see until later when I had the film developed. Youth hostel life was mostly straightforward. I slept in my own ‘sheet sleeping bag’ that I had sewn, which helped give me a familiar feeling every night, and I ate well from the fruit stalls, delis, and bakeries in every town. Lots of pointing on my part and eyebrow raising by those behind the counters was the norm as I attempted Italian phrasing about all things delicious.
I was strategic in planning my daily rides, because a miscalculation could find me cycling in the dark. With the same logic that had me omit a bike repair kit, I had reasoned that I didn’t need lights, since I didn’t plan to use them. Now, looking back at that trip from the perspective of a middle-aged mother of three who doesn’t leave the house without an armament of provisions and clothing, I find the mindset of my teenaged-self baffling.
I blissfully soaked up every detail of the bucolic scenery on the quiet back roads, enjoying the rhythmic pace of contemplative pedaling. The friendly people I passed were curious and spoke to me. I saw them watering their yards, playing with their children and grandchildren, walking their dogs, and pegging laundry. Seeing me alone, bolstered their courage to engage me and their eyes widened with incredulity when I answered their questions:
“Si, sono sola”
“Corsica, Sardinia e Grecia il prossimi.”
Their surprised reactions turned into amusement when I offered a confident smile. Many gave me a variation of the ‘Go for it!’ sign.
I explored Italy and Corsica before I took a ship to Sardinia. I was keen to see the island’s lush pastoral areas, quaint country towns, and ‘Emerald Coast’ beaches. As I straddled my bright yellow bike and surveyed the landscape from a vantage spot on the ship’s upper deck, I realized that I had neglected one crucial element of geographical research: topography. Sardinia is a small island, but flat, it is not. As I quickly recalculated the distances on my map, I feared I wouldn’t make it to the hostel before it got dark. Increasing my pace was my only option, so I pedaled with fervor up hills and down valleys, through craggy green terrain crisscrossed with rock walls that only vaguely restrained intrepid sheep. When I finally arrived at the hostel location, I found only an empty lot.
Exhausted and confused, I coasted down the main street of the quiet coastal town just as the sun was setting. I asked a shop-owner who was closing up, for directions. I pointed at the little red house icon on the map that denoted the hostel. He removed his glasses to take a closer look and came up bleak-faced. He said something to his young son who was standing at his side, and then his son said in English “Hotel, no. Next year to build.” I thanked them and had little choice but to check into a tiny pensione at the end of the street where I enjoyed a night of luxury. I had a bath in a private ensuite and then climbed under the freshly laundered sheets of a comfortable bed.
The sleep was transformative and I spent the next day exploring the town, swimming at the beach, and admiring all the yachts in the marina. I got into a pleasant conversation (in English, hurrah!) with a couple of sailors who invited me to join them on their sailing adventures to Greece. Both men were probably only in their 30s, but looked older, their heavily tanned faces already deeply lined. Fear of being alone with men I didn’t know caused me to decline, but looking back, I think I missed that they were likely a romantically involved couple just wanting to offer safe passage to a pint-sized female teen traveling alone.
I continued south where the turquoise beaches were long and shimmered like countless dancing fairies. I spent a couple nights glamping and passed unhurried days lounging on the beach trying to read the local paper. When it was time to retrace my path, I decided instead to avoid the Sardinian Rockies and take the train. In order to make the train to catch the boat I had to leave at 3:00 AM. The moon lit my path like a giant bulb in an otherwise inky sky. The gravel road before me was busy with critters, furry and otherwise, crossing to and fro. I heard crickets and the sounds of birds stirring in the cool morning air as I searched for courage in the pre-dawn light. I settled into a rhythm but faltered when a pair of headlights appeared over a rise. Panicking that I could be abducted by some ne’er-do-well Sardinian, (who else but a deranged person would be driving a lonely road at this ungodly hour?), I quickly ran my bike off the road and hid in the ditch, holding my breath until I saw it was just a pickup truck filled with crates of produce. It rumbled past sedately.
As the sun crept up the horizon, I found breakfast at an already bustling bakery and ate on a bench outside the train station. When I loaded my bike into the passenger compartment of the train, I was surprised to see the car was made almost entirely of wood and was open to the sky and had heavy fabric above like a ragtop convertible. A handsome gentleman entered the car at the first stop and eyed me curiously. He was middle aged and elegantly dressed in a linen suit. He checked his pocket watch when the train abruptly stopped and sat idle on the track for a few minutes. I leaned out the side of the rickety trolley, but all I could see were rows of densely leafed trees. The gentleman offered a quick burst of Italian by way of explanation, but I was no closer to understanding the level of our predicament. How bad could it be? Likely it was sheep on the track or maybe it was a stalled delivery van full of pastries, or gelato at risk of melting?! My musings over delays of possible yumminess were interrupted when the train conductor suddenly appeared in our compartment, looking pink-faced and warm in his thick sweater and cap, carrying a basket full of cherries.
“A stop to pick cherries?” I thought. “Italy!! You do not disappoint!”
He gestured for us to share the bounty and moments later we were on our way. The be-suited gentleman and I each took a large handful and passed the basket back. The cherries were small but incredibly sweet and we munched in tasty silence, throwing pits out the side of the train car until the gentleman worked up the courage to ask me the usual questions.
“Canada?! Eppa!” he said with an expansive arm gesture and gold-toothed smile. The fact I was alone AND traveling by bike seemed beyond his comprehension. He pulled out his wallet and I had a moment of confusion until he carefully eased out a couple of photos and began pointing animatedly. I managed to understand that he was on his way to his son’s 20th birthday party. His wife and whole family were already there, cooking. There would be music and dancing and the most delicious ‘torta al limone’ at the party and would I please attend? The photo of his son revealed him to be very handsome and his father gave me a knowing nod. He complimented my physique (miming, ‘strong’ and ‘pretty’) and said something about ‘bambini Canadesi’ and pointed to my blue eyes and winked mischievously.
Even though we had shared food and pleasant, albeit mostly-mimed conversation I didn’t feel inclined to abandon my plans as his stop approached. I lamented my poor language skills hadn’t allowed me to fully explain that I had to have already planned where I would stay the night upcoming. But I suspected it was better that way because I felt sure he would have offered me a bed for the night, and I was almost as sure his son might have been in it! So I missed singing “Buon Compleanno” and carried on to meet my boat bound for Greece.
In Greece I transited quickly out to the islands and settled on Santorini. There, I stayed in their derelict but oh-so-much fun hostel for a week. I met a crazy Canadian girl who got me into no end of adventures including topless sun tanning, late night dancing, and ouzo. (My bike didn’t move.)
At the end of my trip, as I waited for the plane to take off from Athens, I breathed a satisfied sigh. It had been a risky undertaking, to say the least, navigating alone with neither credit card nor phone but I managed it. I had enjoyed myself and learned enormously. I’ve read that growth occurs in the space outside one’s comfort zone. I’m not sure why I had to go to the other side of the world to leave my small comfort zone, but that’s when I learned to listen to my own voice. (Maybe that’s partly because it was one of the few I heard in English?)
Today, most of my adventures are less about far-flung locales and more about far-flung soccer socks. As a full-time parent I have graduated from the tasks of potty training and supervising play dates, to the realm of helping to guide appropriate screen use and class selections. I encourage our children to listen to their own voices and I wonder which paths they will choose to take. Our eldest is nearing the age I was when I first ventured out. I know the worry I will feel when she tells me she wants to do something alone, but I also know that my ‘sola’ pedaling gave me much of the confidence and resourcefulness that is the foundation of my life today.
Carter Helliwell is a wife, mother, and artist who lives on an idyllic island on Western Canada’s most southern tip. When she isn’t making lunches or doing laundry she spends time in her studio, painting, writing, and creating things full of weirdness and wonder.