Feeling Safe – a short series

When women talk about traveling alone, safety almost always comes up, but are we really talking about physical danger? For me, it is less about the real probability of harm and more about  feeling safe.  It’s always smart to consider the practical things we can all do to be and feel secure when we travel.

Preparing to post this blog, I asked friends about their strategies for travelling alone – for work, vacation, close to home and far afield.  Over the next weeks, I’ll share short blogs with practical advice and stories from my brilliant friends.  Let’s start with why feeling safe can change your travels.

When I feel safe, I try new things – I walk alone at night or take the subway to an out of the way stop or come back late from a day trip. When I feel safe, I push the boundaries and experience more.

Once on a trip to France, I was given the email and phone number of a recent graduate doing an internship in Paris. One of the unexpected benefits of dinner with this savvy short-term native was the conversation we had about women and safety in Paris.  She was a great adviser for where to feel safe and where to be careful. I was surprised – in my city, the farther from the city center, the safer I felt. In Paris, she told me it was the opposite. She would feel no concern walking through the area I was staying after dark and into the wee hours.  Her own train stop, far out in the suburbs, however she felt could be a little dicey…after midnight at least!

That conversation allowed me to enjoy what became a favorite pastime on the trip – each night, before turning in, I wandered through the dark streets behind Notre Dame, emerging on the square in front of the cathedral. That spring, it was full of dancers, artists, fire twirlers (really) and tourists like me. I would have felt, without a travel companion, that I couldn’t do that so late if I hadn’t had good advice from someone I trusted.

So, I have found that I need some basic reassurance to make me brave.  Here are my six favorite tips.

  1. I try to dress like the natives, standing out as little as possible from the women I see on the sidewalk. No white sneakers, usually no white for that matter, usually darker colors – it’s fun and I don’t feel as obvious. I have, of course, never managed to look French.
  2. Travel with cash and card in a safe pocket. If I’m not entirely sure of myself, I’ll leave the bag, the camera and all my “stuff” in my room, tuck money and a credit card in my pocket and take off.
  3. Using public transportation, keep a back up ticket.  If  you are not using a pass that gives you several days of bus or subway travel, you may be buying tickets at the station. In Paris, I noticed that in small stations, the ticket machines were very occasionally (not often) out of order. Most locals seemed to have a monthly pass so they weren’t worried but I was. I started keeping one spare ticket in my pocket just in case.
  4. Walk with others. Sometimes you may end up on a street you aren’t sure of or you’reS just out a little later than you planned.  Look for a group of women or couples and tag along. I’ve gone a block or two out of my way just to stay near a group when I felt uncertain.
  5. Go with the flow.  If you are lost – and I am lost at least once a day – stop and look around before you start making guesses.  In many cities, before you get too off track, you can stand on a corner or in the middle of a square and watch the foot traffic for a minute. What’s happening – where is everyone going? Usually, the majority of folks are travelling toward major streets, subway stations, train stations or entertainment areas.  If you stop, look and then follow the crowd, you may not get home but you will get somewhere recognizable and busy.
  6. Wait, where am I staying? Pronunciation isn’t always my strong suit and every cab driver isn’t a good interpreter. For the first couple of days in a new place, I stick a hotel matchbook in my pocket.  When I’m in a jam, I can show it to a cab driver, policeman, or subway attendant and point.

There’s a memorable story that made me pretty committed about this matchbook plan.  It was about a traveler in a group in Italy who showed up quite late to dinner, furious that she’d had trouble getting back to the hotel. The name of the hotel was long…the word she chose to remember was the one that, in Italian, was a word for “hotel.” Albergo.  She did not recall the important and defining part of the name that would tell her cabbie which one.

What I Learned

Trust your gut.  Travelling through a city or town, pay attention, real attention, to who is around you and how the scenery is changing. You will yourself be the best judge of what’s right.  You have much more intuition that you many realize.

Don’t take advice like mine, Aunt Sarah’s or what’s in the guide book from 1994 too much to heart.  Neighborhoods change, the economy improves or declines, feelings toward Americans wax and wane. Find a woman your age at the hotel or in a shop – one who doesn’t have anything to prove with hotel PR – and ask her advice. If it doesn’t feel right, ask another woman and compare responses.

Most importantly, don’t let fear keep you from something that is a main scene in your own big travel dream – like seeing the moon rise over the canals or the great view of the buildings of Parliament at night.  If nothing else, grab a cab at your hotel and arrange for a night drive or book a dinner cruise just to create a comfortable way to be where you want to be. Don’t miss anything.

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Travel Mercies

We have the possibility of being free agents of fate,

the random representatives of hope in the world.

Travelling alone, I often rely on the kindness of strangers. They are the problem-solvers, the direction-givers, the staff who go out of their way.  I was reminded recently that when you are alone traveling through the world, you yourself have rare opportunities to turn the tables and pay real attention to those strangers around you.

Not long ago, on a plane to Kansas City, the young man sharing the row with me, slipped me a note and asked me to read it when I got off the plane.  (OK, this could be good or really bad. I haven’t been handed a note since 6th grade and that one was not at all encouraging.)

The note was very simple, written on a page of paper he’d borrowed from me in the air.  He said, “Thank you for the conversation. I needed that more than you can know.  I wish you and your family a happy holiday.”

I was no angel of the airways here. Actually, the reason I chose the seat doesn’t speak well of me.  It was going to be a fairly full flight on Southwest and I had some important reading to do en route.  As I went down the aisle, I spotted this really big, imposing young guy in the window seat of an otherwise empty row.  I’m thinking – this guy is NFL-size, really big, scary big.  So, with me on the aisle –  traveling with the laptop, the notes and the folders, I look like a fidgety, uptight nightmare of a seat mate – no one, unless forced, would choose the middle seat between us. (I was right.)

After takeoff, we talked a little and he told me that he was moving from his home in Kansas to another city, one he’d just visited. It was a required move for his employment.He was worried and had never lived away from his home and his family. I work with a church in that city and had heard some surprisingly encouraging things about it, even given its economic woes.  We talked  the climate of the area, the bright spots, the turn-arounds going on.  The conversation was light – no advice or deep thoughts but it was a good connection and it passed the time.

The spiritual practice I was reminded of is attentiveness. When we travel with our family and friends, we turn to each other. Sharing the experience is a big benefit of traveling together.  When we are alone, we are present in a different way. We have the possibility of being free agents of fate, the random representatives of hope in the world.

It brings to mind the quote from Macrina Wiederkehr, “Remind yourself often, ‘I am pure capacity for God; I can be more.’ ”