Monday, April 18, 2011

TRAVEL AS THERAPY: A WIDOW'S STORY

Becoming a statistic came as a jolt to me!  Today in the United States millions of women are living alone--some by chance, others by choice; some in utter despair, others enjoying a freedom never experienced by their married sisters.
A teen-age bride, married over half my life, I was suddenly hurled into widowhood by a split-second accident in which my husband was instantly killed.  What does a woman do when the bottom drops out of her life?
In my case I turned to travel.  "See the World" became my motto.  I decided to start with a whirlwind trip abroad with new places, new people and, I hoped, a new outlook on life.
Though it was not without difficult moments, my plan worked.  I came back a stronger individual, with the emphasis on individual.  There may be less expensive therapies than a grand tour of Europe, but it was cheaper than psychiatry, safer than tranquilizers, and extremely effective.
I had spent three difficult years after my husband's death adjusting to my single status: sorting out the grief, the anger, and the basic rules of survival.  As the kids would put it, "getting my head together".  But deep down, I knew the time had finally arrived.  Only one thing remained before I could get on with the business of living.  I had to say the words.
"Marvin Steinberg is dead!"  Then I had to say the words again.  This time I had to say them out loud.  "Marvin Steinberg is dead!"  Only then could I accept the fact that my way of life had died with him.  Only then was I able to begin to plan for my future---the future of a woman alone.
I wasn't quite sure how to go about this.  Should I split from suburbia…join a group…go it alone?  Those sometimes-exciting, sometimes-scary, thoughts kept popping into my head.   Everyone around me seemed to be leaning toward the scary side:  "Couples will never include a single woman."  "Men will be lecherous."  "You'll probably get sick on the Rhine River cruise."  "Every year, buses crash in the Alps."  I forced myself to ignore those countless admonitions from fearful, frustrated, friends and relatives.
Choosing a destination should have been easy.  I had been to Europe several times in the past with my husband and two daughters.  Not until I started planning did I realize that ignorance really is bliss.  Instead of helping me, my previous experiences became a hindrance.  They accentuated the negatives.
Things that I did not want to do were the first to come to mind.  I did not want to go to places geared to families.  This would only intensify the loneliness I feared.  I certainly did not want to go to a resort that catered to couples.  After all, I had no one with whom to play golf and no one to dine or dance with in the evening.  (Be careful Janet.  Don't start feeling sorry for yourself.) 
As memorable moments from my past whirled about in my mind, I realized that I definitely didn't want an extended tour in one spot.  A couple of weeks alone in Paris or Rome would be devastating.  The days might pass quickly, but what about those romantic nights?         
After all the negatives seemed to run their course, a positive approach seemed to appear.  I decided I would do something challenging, interesting, or different, every day.  See things I'd never seen, explore the unknown, shop the markets, taste the foods, gaze at the ever-changing countryside. Keep moving.  Recalling the old adage about a moving object being hard to hit, I was determined to keep moving and keep that old devil loneliness at arm's length.

With this in mind, and tour books in hand, I debated among several European tours.  I decided to be constantly on the move--never spending more than two nights in the same hotel.  I was determined to leave no time for thinking about being alone...no time for self-pity.  I wanted to keep so busy that I would fall into bed exhausted each night.
I had to decide what mode of transportation would be best for the wandering widow.  Again, the negatives appeared.  I suppose, at this stage of my life, I was more certain of what I didn't want than of what I did.
I knew I didn't want to fly from country to country.  Too much time would be wasted traveling to and from airports.  Too much scenery would be wasted flying over it.  That was the rational consideration.  There also was an emotional one: the stark realization that there would be no husband to help me with my luggage.
I finally chose a two-week package tour by motor coach, and started to put the wheels in motion.  My big mistake was sharing my new enthusiasm with others.  To complacent friends, whose life had not undergone a major upheaval, the tour sounded like a killer-trip.  "Madness," one exclaimed, "you've not only lost your husband, you've lost your mind."
Only my children, and one friend, urged me to continue with my plans.  When one of my teenage daughters said "I'll be disappointed in you, Mom, if you don't go," I knew I was not only planning a trip for myself, but I was setting an example in living for my girls.
As my plans progressed, so did my spirits.  I felt alive again, with so much to think about and do.  For the first time since my husband's death, I wanted to shop; I wanted a new hairdo.  I even began to enjoy those deadly dull cocktail parties.  Now I had something to talk about.  Something me...  something totally unrelated to the life that once I led.
For weeks I remained on a euphoric high that unexpectedly came to a crashing halt the night of my departure from Kennedy airport.  Last-minute long-distance calls to my family proved to be a dreadful mistake.  Their expressions of love and concern, in an attempt to reassure me, backfired…sending me instead into a pit of depression.
Tears sent streams of mascara cascading down my cheeks, and the chic "Merry Widow" totally dissolved.  A nice woman from Chicago put a consoling arm around me and wondered why I was submitting myself to such torture. 
"I have to prove to myself that I can do it," I said.  By now I hated those trite words, but the mere fact that I had said them helped me regain my composure.
           
Orly Airport--Paris, France:  Who is that idiot furiously waving the red flag above his head?  And why am I flocking around him with all these old people?  Besides, what on earth am I doing alone in Paris, France? 
Feeling very hostile toward the flag-waving shepherd and his sheep, I lagged behind them on the way to the tour bus.  Terrified at the thought of joining this strange group for dinner, I pulled my best ploy out of the hat:  "You folks will have to excuse me tonight, I'll be dining with some old friends."  No one paid much attention.  No one really cared.  But I was proud of my fabricated French friendship.
           
First stop: Fauchon, the world's most elegant grocery store.  Whatever delicacy appealed to me, I bought.   Pate de foie gras, glazed rabbit with prunes, French bread, a bottle of wine and some pastries that bordered on obscenity.  Sneaking back into the hotel, the sophisticated widow high-tailed it to her room.
           
My Parisian first-nighter included the best cry I had experienced in years. It also was the best catharsis.  (I've since learned that one good cry is an essential element to the emotional success of each trip).  When it was all over, I plunged into my Fauchon feast with abandon.  Tomorrow would be a new day.
           
And it was.  The sun was shining.  The shepherd, sans his red flag, was really quite attractive and the sheep weren't nearly as old as they had looked the night before. Who knows, with a little help from myself, I might even enjoy the next two weeks.
           
I found out early in the trip that when I forced myself to smile, things began to happen.  Stand-offish people (who, in reality, were a little shy and a little scared themselves) began to move in closer.  By sharing travel tips from my past experiences with them, I developed an instant charisma.  After I told the women how to get bargains at the Baccarat crystal factory, (select the items with the little red stickers) my standing among them was surpassed only by the Pope's.
           
As time went on, I found my whirlwind trip was working as I had hoped it would.  Anytime we were moving, I was looking, listening, and learning.  There was no time for loneliness.  Italian vineyards…Swiss Alps…castles on the Rhine…windmills in Holland…Olympic ski jumps in Austria…Germany's largest glockenspiel in Munich. 
           
Each new day unfolded sights no book could describe, scenes no artist could paint, and memories no one could ever take away.  Each day was more exciting than the one that had preceded it.  Ah, the days!
           
But, oh, the nights.  Would that the nights had passed as quickly.  Would that my husband had kept from popping into my head in so many ways: that last, beautiful trip to London with our lively teenage daughters; that first inauspicious trip to Atlantic city when they were little; that beautiful June day when we were married; that gloomy June day, 23 years later, when he didn't make it home.  Damn!  Damn it!  Damn him!  Damn it all!
I was glad when morning appeared.  Things are always better in the morning.  What would I do today?  Whom would I meet?
I was smart enough to know that meeting men must never be the intent of my vacation.  Astute observation during my married years taught me that women on the prowl exude a sense of desperation that comes through loud and clear.  It works like shark repellent on sharks. 
           
However, I saw no harm in speaking to men I might meet in a museum or in a shop.  Nor in asking the time or getting lost and seeking directions.  The damsel-in-distress still inflates the male ego.  I found that chance encounters occurred when I least expected them.
           
My first dinner alone in Geneva, Switzerland, was greatly aided by a small carafe of vin blanc.  As I sat and sipped, the tension slipped away.  I began to sort the facts in my head.  I realized that no one was sitting and watching me, smirking at me.  In fact, nobody really cared.  For the first time, I began to relax and enjoy my precious solitary moments.  With a sense of great accomplishment, I sat back and watched the local people.
           
I tried, unsuccessfully, to eavesdrop.  I couldn't do it in French.  I tried, unsuccessfully, to order dinner.  I couldn't do that in French either.  A Swiss Sir Galahad came to my rescue.  He gave the waitress my order and asked if he might sit down.  That evening I learned not to panic if a gentleman asked to join me at dinner.  If he seems the type of person I might enjoy talking to, I'll allow him to be seated.
           
But early in the conversation, I laid down my ground rules.  I wanted to give him the opportunity to exit gracefully if he didn't want to play the game by my rules.  Imagine my surprise, and delight, when he remained throughout dinner.
           
After Geneva, things went well---that is, for a while.  The majority of the group had not only accepted me, but also looked to me for guidance.  I became the expert on everything from Dijon mustard to Venetian lace, from German Hummel porcelains to Dutch Edam cheeses.      
           
Would that we had scratched Rome from the itinerary.  I was doing just fine until we went down into the Catacombs.  In that awesome setting my life began flashing before me again.  I felt the presence of my husband and had the intense urge to light a candle in his memory.
           
Soaring emotions overwhelmed me and again the tears came—along with that creepy thought, "What on earth am I doing alone on the other side of the ocean?"  I recovered more rapidly from this cry.  Several of my new friends offered handkerchiefs of kindness.
           
Back home, I took stock:  That first solo sojourn of mine, wrought with emotional highs and lows, was a turning point in my life.  It totally changed my course of living.  I acquired new friends, a new profession and a new outlook on life.  I even began to feel sorry for some of my complacent married friends who still thought that their lives would go on, unchanged, forever. 
           
Above all, I came to the realization that the wrenching end to my marriage wasn't all bad.  There is nothing better than a good marriage, which I shared for 23 years, but I now know it's not the only game in town.  I've become an expert on merging the best of two worlds.  Mrs. Widow has become Ms. Individual.
           
In some ways, single life can be more interesting than married life.  My scope of interests has broadened, and travel has been a big factor in my growth.  I spend as much time as possible with the young people I meet on my trips.  They remind me that life is meant to be enjoyed.  Instead of looking at my life as one of doom and solitude, I have learned to see it as one of new-found freedom and mobility.
           
After several years of widowhood, I again enjoy being a woman.  I enjoy traveling alone and I enjoy myself.  At the end of each long day, there still will be many hours I'll spend in my own company.  But I've learned to like it.  After all, I may be the best company I'll ever have.


Riesenrod-Giant 1897 Ferris Wheel - Vienna, Austria




Ponte Vecchio - Florence, Italy




Trevi Fountain - Rome, Italy


St. Marks Square - Venice, Italy


Gondola Ride - Venice, Italy







1 comment:

  1. Hello, I have recently become a Widow at the grand old age of 41 ! , I enjoyed reading your story, i found some strength here. Thanks, Sally.

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