|Illustration: Pat Leidl
Of all the many well-known quotations about travel, there are dozens to do with the process of journeying solo. "He travels fastest who travels alone," wrote Rudyard Kipling while Freya Stark famously noted, "To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world."
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What's so good about going solo? Not the tourism industry's ubiquitous "single supplement", that's for sure. One pays dearly for privacy, usually marooned in an expensive double room, as so few hotels include single configurations. If they do, it resembles a walk-in wardrobe. Breakfast in bed takes on a whole new meaning when it's delivered straight to your pillow by a waiter unable to fit through the door without vaulting over the bed (beware of possible concussion from the brass doorknob). Staying alone at a family-run Irish castle one night, in a strange little box room decorated with pony club ribbons, I had a surprise around midnight when the room's usual occupant came bounding in and threw her suitcase onto the bed in the region of my kneecaps. It was mine host's teenage daughter, home a day early from boarding school.
I was duly moved to the ante-room of one of the main chambers and deposited on a sofa bed. Next morning, I discovered it was a sort of butler's pantry adjoining a suite wherein two fellow tourists were installed in queenly splendour, sitting up in velvet-draped four-posters. They had paid for a twin-share while I'd insisted on the single supplement - and I'd paid more.
At least there's no possibility of a twin-share with a stranger given to nocturnal rumblings
But there are advantages to travelling alone, naturally. There's no possibility of a twin share with a stranger given to nocturnal rumblings (snoring, say the wholesalers, is the single biggest source of complaint among paired-up travellers on package hols).
The bathroom can be gaily bedecked with one's smalls (or bigs, depending) with nary a thought about any else needing to negotiate a flapping forest of bras or boxer shorts. The hot water will not run out - unless you spend all day lolling in the bath. But, if you do, there's no need for explanation, except perhaps a small white lie to the housekeeping department.
There will be no arguments about whether to shop for shoes and go to the cinema in Florence or line up for the Uffizi. I like to think of it as the Adoration of the (Bruno) Magli versus the Magi, and Bertolucci worship as opposed to Botticelli. As for Primavera and the Birth of Venus, if you think the former is simply a pasta sauce and the latter an anti-ageing cream, no one is going to laugh at you.
It was someone like Dorothy Parker (or perhaps it was my mother, or both) who said, "Culture is so ageing, darling." So true. If touring alone, there's no pressure to do the opera and ballet (particularly if you're the sort of traveller who feels no guilt about a night spent snugly in one's hotel room with a club sandwich and Larry King). No one to lie to about tummy troubles or tension headaches at the very mention of folk dancing. No need to feel like a cretin if you front up at New Year's Metropolitan Museum of Art and only go to its gift shop (great greeting cards, stationery, posters and reproduction jewellery). No one to act all superior if you let slip that you think MOMA is a black all-girl band.
It's possible to have no pressing agenda, to start the day without a clue as to where to go or what to do
One sets one's own pace, be it languid or lickety-split. Being fairly short in the leg, I am not a fast walker. Many is the time I've been left trailing behind by striding companions who embark upon a stroll as if about to trek the Himalaya. There's little chance of window shopping or dawdling when trying to keep up with a distant bobbing head. I much prefer the Italian notion of passeggiata wherein one slinks about in a sort of predatory promenade, showing off a treat.
When alone, one doesn't have to explain one's mild obsessions, like collecting cocktail swizzle sticks or chasing such obscurities as grape-flavoured gummy sweets (from Japan - for a favourite niece) or out-of-print books (London's Charing Cross Road).
And how I love that word "unaccompanied". Mostly you hear it associated with baggage and with it comes the suggestion that the suitcase could end up anywhere, least of all where it's meant to be. It can be like that, too, when you travel without company. It's possible to have no pressing agenda, to start the day without a clue as to where to go or what to do. You can do that with a partner but as most of us know, often from painful wear and tear, it's not easy to find someone who's so totally attuned that they'll merrily follow the path you set.
"An unaccompanied bag" is not such a bad aim for me to be as I grow older and become more daring and eccentric. Why worry about age and labels, unless you're a bottle of wine.
Susan Kurosawa is the Travel Editor of The Australian newspaper.
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