I’m five months into my middle-aged gap year, hot-flashing my way around Europe with my surly sidekick, menopause. At 52, I’m taking the trip I never took in my 20s. While my friends were backpacking and Eurail-ing their way around ’90s-era hot spots like Prague and Berlin, I was working. Working and pondering my post-art school existence, stashing my friends’ weekly postcards in my Filofax, and secretly wishing I could join them.
Although I have nothing to compare it with, I know in my middle-aged heart that it’s different traveling solo in my 50s than in my 20s, because I’m different. No hostels. No backpacking. No drunken one-night stands with tousled buskers or bearded bartenders. Not yet anyway. It’s just me.
Sure, there’s the menopause, rearing its flaming head around many a cobblestoned alley. But much to my surprise, I’ve found some perks to traveling while menopausal. Red wine not being one of them. As much as I’d love to boast that it’s confidence (a trait I’ve always been lacking in), I think it’s simply that I don’t care, which is both terrifying and empowering. I don’t care if my hair is frizzy, if my legs are hairy, or if I’m wearing socks with sandals. Yep, I’m going there. The floodgates have opened.
I’m bolder, braver, less self-conscious. I ask questions. I ask for directions. I get exasperated in public. Mostly in France. I sit solo at tables set for two, flushing my way through dinner for the curious gawkers. Come see the barbaric American adding ice to her water. I unabashedly make sandwiches for lunch at the breakfast buffet. Big napkins are key, but the bottom line is: Nobody really cares. I wear my scarlet letter more proudly with every soft border crossing. “S” for solo traveler, or occasionally (and much to my dismay) “S” for single supplement. Seriously, I have to pay more because I’m single? If I don’t like a place, I leave. No apologies. No more sticking it out. And most important, no more waiting.
My mom was only six years older than I am now when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Six years. Six years. The mantra lodged itself in my foggy brain on repeat as I tossed and toggled between night sweats and a cold panic in the wee hours of my menopausal angst. We were forever planning a trip together, building mock itineraries around eating and swimming, two of our favorite things. We’d see it all, “from the Alps to the Mediterranean,” with good food and clear water to guide us on our journey.
The brain tumor beat us. My mother died in 2002, and just like that, our journey ended before it began. As I stared up at the ceiling with my hands resting on my bloated belly, I asked myself, What, exactly, are you waiting for? I flung off the soaked comforter, wiped the sweat from my unplucked brows. I felt a gentle maternal nudge as I heard my mom’s encouraging words. “Just do it, honey — just buy the ticket. … Oh, and maybe find some tweezers before you go.”
This journey, although challenging at times, has proved to be full of moments of immense clarity, not to mention heaps of writing material. There isn’t anything like solo travel. I poke around the medieval nooks and crannies, discover a new corner of the world and, in the process, the innermost regions of myself. There is liberation in not caring — or, at least, in caring about the right things at long last. My mother would approve, just as long as I brush my hair.
Shanti L. Nelson is a writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay area. Follow her on Instagram @shantilnelson.