The One-Way Ticket to Barcelona
By Corina ZappiaOctober 27, 2023
I DIDN’T STUDY abroad in college because I didn’t want to miss out on a minute of what my mother said would be the best years of my life. I feared that if I stepped off campus, I would miss something spectacular.
My friends didn’t get the message. One studied abroad in Prague, where she ended up working in the office of some guy named Václav Havel. Another went to Korea, where she met her first husband. Back on campus, I switched from the Taco Bell Grande to the Double Decker Taco.
My little sister, who never fell in love with her college, extended her study abroad to cover most of the four years. When she flew home from Europe, she seemed wiser and worldlier, knowledgeable about expensive lingerie and semi-fluent in Italian, which she still uses to speak to her friends abroad, their names floating off her tongue like languid rhymes.
I kept wondering if I had missed out, so when my journalism career stalled in New York in my early thirties, I drained my savings and bought a one-way flight to Barcelona. The one-way ticket was intentional—I wasn’t sure where the trip would take me and wanted to be open to the possibility that anything could happen. I packed a single duffel bag, knowing my shirts would be in tatters by the end but hoping that traveling light would pay off with all the places I might see. I was aware that it was a great privilege to take off and escape for a while. It was also something I wished I didn’t have to do alone, but my old college friends couldn’t step away from their mid-career jobs or new-parent duties. As the plane lifted from the tarmac, I felt both excited and anxious.
That was almost 15 years ago, and since then, there has been a massive growth in solo female travel, driven by women’s increased purchasing power, which has changed attitudes about women traveling alone—long affected by how travel is portrayed on the big and small screens. The genre of straight, single women having life-altering realizations abroad lives on. Out this year alone are the movies Faraway (unhappy woman escapes to Croatian island), A Tourist’s Guide to Love (unhappy woman escapes to Vietnam), and Book Club: The Next Chapter (four older women, not unhappy but concerningly giddy, escape to Italy). Think Jennifer Coolidge’s character, Tanya McQuoid, in the first season of The White Lotus—and, as her husband pretty much abandons her immediately, let’s throw in the second season too.
For every single, or virtually single, heterosexual woman over 30 whose friends have started to find partners and have children; for those who have emerged from divorces, unhappy relationships or the death of a partner and thus been rendered newly single; and for those battling personal inner demons that can only be vanquished with long hikes up mountains or visiting yogi in far-flung countries, the transformative power of travel has become the ostensible solution. Once a more niche operation, the number of female-focused travel options has moved fully into the mainstream, with tours that seem shockingly good at pushing the potential of self-improvement (“journeys of a lifetime that empower women,” claims Solo Female Travelers). Not all are female-only, but they’re always “female-friendly,” promising to be sensitive to the needs of the solo female traveler (“Feel safe anywhere in the world we visit,” boasts G Adventures). Most of them, like Explore! And JoinMyTrip, promise that you will be with other “like-minded” travelers. You may be traveling solo, but you will never be alone.
A friend of mine called my trip to Barcelona my Eat Pray Love holiday. This was aggravating because, unlike the main character in that book/movie, I wasn’t trying to rediscover who I was post-relationship via a yoga retreat and a guru that was supposed to look wise but who really just looked like my Filipinx grandfather after he ate too many bananas. I was 32, had been single for a long time, and was aware of who I was at that point. While I sneered at the idea of self-transformation through travel, I was ashamed to be motivated by something far less noble and feminist.
When I was about 10, I read Baby-sitters on Board! (Super Special #1) and marveled at how Babysitter Dawn still managed to meet a cute boy on a Bahamas cruise in between fulfilling her childcare duties. She put those kids down for a nap, maybe rounded the cruise deck a couple times, and boom, there he was: young Parker Harris with his deep brown eyes and tendrils of hair that curled around the back of his neck. Parker was stuck on the boat with his dad and new stepfamily, bored out of his mind and looking for some sweet PG from-the-neck-up action to get through the long days. This was far from the only babysitter romance that bloomed on-board, as this was the same cruise on which Claudia Kishi, lone token Asian Babysitter, discovered she had a “secret admirer.” For teenage girls who were supposed to keep children alive and fed all the time, these bitches saw a lot of action.
What grown-ass 32-year-old-woman says to herself, “Well, if it happened to the Baby-Sitters Club, why shouldn’t it happen to me?” But, if it happened to the Baby-Sitters Club, maybe it could happen to me? It wasn’t just about Baby-sitters on Board! (Super Special #1). It was about every book, every movie, every TV show selling women like me on romance abroad for decades. It was about Room with a View and Lost in Translation and How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Roman Holiday and To Catch a Thief and Before Sunrise and Sunset. And even if I told myself that I wasn’t living out a Wild story, even though I wasn’t lost and needing to be found again, these stories came with the unsubtle undercurrent of transformative romance abroad. They preyed on my fear of being lonely as a single woman while indulging the idea that meeting someone abroad is the simplest, sexiest solution.
I’ve often wondered how much transformative travel on the screen resembles the real experiences of single women, and because I’m incredibly self-centered, I mean me. In the most generic of ways, it does. Most of my old blog posts could be broken up into descriptions of cultural or culinary or romantic encounters, all of which would form a fairly unexceptional movie montage. There is a sameness about travel, isn’t there? Or, at least, how we describe it. And when you’re alone, it somehow becomes more important to narrativize your travels to someone, now or later.
One of the weirdest parts about these transformative travel stories is how the women in them, mostly heterosexual white women, can afford to stay in uniformly gorgeous, private accommodations. Who’s swinging a Tuscan villa renovation like Frances in Under the Tuscan Sun, plucking fresh olives every morning from the grove?
When I took that trip back in 2008, Airbnb didn’t exist and Couchsurfing.com was just getting off the ground. A house swap was off the table, as I shared a three-bedroom, single-toilet duplex in Brooklyn with two other people. There was only one choice: crashing at a hostel with college kids until I could find an apartment share off Craigslist with some rando who didn’t look like they would axe me to death in my sleep.
And as with my blog—and as in the travel movies—my time abroad was split into discrete categories: the ease or difficulty of finding good accommodations; sightseeing and cultural experiences; eating (i.e., transcendent food experiences to brag about on social media); and, last but not least, romance. Our experiences abroad become units we consume and, when called upon, regurgitate.
In their 2014 essay “Women, Travelling and Later Life,” Sarah Falcus and Katsuro Sako consider how this idea of the transformative holiday is expressed in films like Under the Tuscan Sun, Eat Pray Love, Sex and the City 2, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Shirley Valentine—all films in which the protagonists, ranging from their thirties to early fifties, travel to foreign locations to seek rebirth. One could celebrate this new cultural visibility of “older” women in film, as tracking the lives of single women over 30 has not historically been the bread and butter of the film industry. But Falcus and Sako argue that these films all embody the idea of “new ageing” within postfeminist discourse, the concept that, while youth remains fetishized, aging “without becoming old” is promised through rejuvenation and makeover of the self. “The new ageing and postfeminist cultures make it difficult to imagine aging ‘successfully’ without recourse to youthing and capitalist consumption,” they explain. Cue the fancy Italian villas and the pricey trips to ashrams in India. Travel is just another means of consumption to escape growing old.
But in fighting against ageism, these women risk falling into age-inappropriate anachronism. Falcus and Sako point to a scene in Under the Tuscan Sun when the older female character (Lindsay Duncan), a Fellini-obsessed former actress named Katherine, drunkenly acts out the scene in the Trevi fountain from La Dolce Vita after being abandoned by her young lover. Instead of seeming adventurous and independent, as depicted earlier in the film, she is treated by the villagers as foolish and ridiculous. Back at Katherine’s flat, Frances notices that Katherine’s younger lover from a few days ago is nowhere to be found. “There’s nothing like a fountain and a magnum of French champagne to put you right again,” Katherine replies sadly. These transformed women “walk a fine line between unacceptable excess and successful rejuvenation,” Falcus and Sako conclude.
The White Lotus’s Tanya McQuoid takes Katherine and ratchets her up several notches, in line with actress Jennifer Coolidge’s brilliant brand of unsettling comic relief. Like Katherine, Tanya tries to relive scenes from classic Italian movies—in her case, to revive the romance in her still-new marriage. And, also like Katherine, she is regarded as delusional and desperate; it will only be a matter of time before she is punished for her excessive youthful indulgences with cocaine and men half her age. However, as White Lotus is a self-aware TV satire, largely at the expense of privileged folk trying to live out their romantic-travel fantasies, Tanya’s comes with cracks in it from the start. She cannot indulge in the palatial parties, the piles of drugs and hot young man wanting to bed her, without the niggling sense that her generous new gay best friend might be up to something in gifting her all of this.
What happens when things fall into place like they do in the movies—can you really trust it? Is Tanya’s young paramour a little too good-looking, a little too complimentary, a little too convenient? Tanya’s suspicions are confirmed too late by her assistant, who tells her to abandon ship (or yacht, as it were). In an attempt to escape, Tanya kills everyone on the boat, hits her head, and drowns. How fitting that the writers chose “O mio babbino caro,” the same Puccini aria that plays at the end of the novel-turned-movie A Room with a View, to close out the scene. Only this time, we’re not watching as young Lucy Honeychurch passionately embraces her lover George in Florence, but rather witnessing Tanya’s middle-aged dead body as it floats off into the Mediterranean Sea.
The single-woman travel fantasy comes monstrously undone—and after a certain age, the woman must pay.
I’m no expert on aging in the context of postfeminist discourse, but I have wondered whether, if I could time-travel, I would in fact circle back and check off missed opportunities; whether this was maybe the impetus for that trip to Barcelona in the first place. Sometimes, as a single, childless woman now approaching 50, I begin to feel like I am floating through time and space, untethered to traditional adult milestones like marriage or childbirth. There are no guidelines for where I need to be or what I need to be doing, nothing expected from me any longer because I have been deemed irrelevant. I am an invisible, aging woman, and that is some of my power. I can throw out the old frameworks, regard marriage and motherhood not as necessary expectations but as reins. In breaking free of these expectations, I can redefine what it means to be an adult woman.
I want to believe all of this, but the older I become, the more I fear being the Katherine or, worse, the Tanya. (In a way, the fear is to become a woman so haunted, so unhinged by her own loneliness that no one can now bear to be around her, only compounding her isolation. Miss Havisham on a cruise ship is still Miss Havisham.)
In Barcelona, I cherished the freedom of doing anything I wanted, whenever I wanted. But I hadn’t realized just how much time I would be by myself. I invited my friends to read my private travel blog, telling myself it was easier than sending postcards—but really it was because their comments on my posts made me feel less lonely. It wasn’t enough to have these experiences abroad on my own; they didn’t seem to be as valid without an audience. If a tree falls in a forest and only you hear it, are you enough? (It’s the same impetus behind posting one’s travel photos on social media today. You can’t just see a tree. You must photograph and film the tree, throw it through several filters, set it to contemporary music, and tag it with a location and at least two other people for it to be real.)
When I started out on this trip, I somehow thought I would, fairly immediately, meet some cool new people at the hostel or through my immersive Spanish classes. I paid for the trip with money I had saved up from my last job, and yet I felt unworthy of it, as if it was wasted on me in a way that it wouldn’t be on other people who would be squeezing every minute of fun out of it.
Why doesn’t anyone talk about the loneliness of traveling alone? Most transformative travel films portray it as a comfortable solitude, or a fleeting loneliness that is quickly jettisoned for inspirational montages of the main character sampling local delicacies in open markets. The montages are just brief interludes leading up to the climax of the main character running into an intriguing new friend or romantic stranger who alters the course of their life.
The rare exception is the 1989 movie Shirley Valentine, in which an unhappily married, near-middle-aged English woman named Shirley travels to a Greek island with her friend but ends up spending most of the vacation by herself. As Shirley sits sipping wine and watching the sun set over the sea, she breaks the fourth wall and reflects on her vacation thus far:
Funny, isn’t it? You know when you’ve pictured something, and you’ve imagined how something’s going to be—well, it never turns out like that, does it? I mean, for weeks, I’ve pictured myself sitting here … sitting here, drinking wine by the sea, and I knew exactly how I was going to feel. Now I’m here, it doesn’t feel a bit like that. I don’t feel at all lovely and serene. I feel … pretty daft, actually. And awfully, awfully old.
Still, genre habits die hard, and in the style of the transformative travel movie, Shirley goes on to have a sexy romp with a Greek taverna owner, rediscovers her long-lost younger rebellious self, dumps her ungrateful husband, and decides to live on the island for good. I like to remember this one moment at the beginning of the trip when Shirley realizes that travel can’t solve all her problems.
There is another scene, early in Shirley Valentine, when Shirley enters the taverna, and all the diners go silent and stare at her, shocked that she is eating alone. I hadn’t even seen Shirley Valentine before my trip, but sometimes when I went to dinner by myself in Barcelona, I couldn’t help playing a narrative in my head of what others around me must be thinking. “There she is again, the lonely girl, eating a bocadillo by herself.” “There she is, the lonely girl, buying the sad cortado.” “Why is that girl always ordering paella for two though she is but one?” (That they don’t make paella for one is among the greatest injustices of being single.) I was surprised at how self-conscious I was about the physical act of being alone, but I also hadn’t eaten dinner by myself in this many restaurants in my life. This was 2008, only a year after the first iPhone came out, so I had nothing to scroll through like we do today. I would bring a book to dinner and pretend that it was so fascinating I couldn’t bear to look up from it to notice others around me.
In college, there was this one girl in my dorm who would occasionally eat and read by herself; she had friends, but on some days, you could tell that she chose to eat lunch alone and didn’t want to be disturbed. I admired that about her. As the days passed in Barcelona, I tried to channel her, and slowly—not all the time, but occasionally—I began to find moments when I was able to enjoy experiences by myself. There were times when the serene, clean white walls of the museums in Barcelona soothed me, much like the Met in New York did when I used to visit alone on lunch breaks—the works of Picasso and Miró reminding me that I was not alone, that I was in their company and we were having a conversation, and the presence of others would only disturb us. Eventually, I felt less self-conscious eating alone too. I started to force myself to talk to strangers sitting next to me at bars and stopped caring so much what they might possibly think of me. I’m a traveler passing through—what do I owe them anyway?
The scenario with Shirley is exaggerated, of course—a woman dining alone will not scandalize a whole restaurant full of tourists. But there is a possibility that, like Shirley, she could get approached and asked to dine with others who assume she doesn’t want to be alone. A single woman makes people uncomfortable—or else why would she get so many questions about whether she was dating someone yet and how it would be nice if she could meet someone already? There is always a need to resolve her story with a partner.
Single, childless women are a source of pity and envy. Our solitude is discomfiting, but our singleness and childlessness are also seen as a kind of freedom. I do not make it any easier when I myself wonder if my story could be, if not resolved, at least eased by a partner. Whether single or coupled, it’s still too easy to fall into this Noah’s Ark mindset of coupling off as a means to happiness, which is what we have been taught for so many years. To live outside of this structure threatens its foundation.
So, why do I enjoy romantic travel movies so much? I’m usually not a fan of maxims, but “prick a pessimist and a romantic bleeds” captures my love for romantic travel movies. I make fun of these kinds of movies, but what I deride the most—the unrealistic ease at which the protagonist finds love—is what keeps me coming back. The formulaic pattern of initial hardship always giving way to romance or passion doesn’t dissuade me. If anything, I am secretly comforted by the predictability, like knowing that after dinner there will always be a hot fudge sundae. You won’t be screwed over with a plate of after-dinner mints, as in real life.
In the real world, the ephemerality of travel makes the possibility of romance abroad quite slim. Travelers rarely have the luxury of time, and what’s the point of expending all that effort when one is off on another train tomorrow? And yet, the impossibility of such an encounter, coupled with its urgency and ill-fated conclusion, makes it even more appealing. Because of its brief nature, the romance abroad exists in a world devoid of relationship tedium or drawn-out breakups; one is almost remembering it fondly while it’s still happening.
In romantic travel movies like Before Sunrise (1995), the seducer always lands on the right words to say—out-of-left-field enough to be intriguing, an invitation to seize the day, not just a ploy to get a new lover into bed. The keys never dangle from their hands a second too early. When Jesse (Ethan Hawke) proposes to Celine (Julie Delpy) that she impulsively leave her train in Vienna to see the city with him, he puts forth the idea that she’s missing out on an opportunity that she’ll regret later:
Think of it like this. Jump ahead 10, 20 years, okay, and you’re married. Only your marriage doesn’t have that same energy that it used to have, you know? You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you’ve met in your life and what might have happened if you picked up with one of them, right? Well, I’m one of those guys. That’s me.
He doesn’t claim it will be good or bad—who is to say? It could shape her life for better or for worse, but that’s not the point. When it comes to travel, the fear of missing out is enough.
My trip to Spain was curiously bereft of train propositions; I met few men. At one bar in Barrio Gótico, I did strike up a conversation with the man sitting next to me, who spoke French and Spanish but very little English. He told me his name was Francisco, and after a brief chat about paella, he invited me to join him at a restaurant nearby, Los Caracoles, where he said the paella was excellent. I learned that Francisco was Spanish but lived in Paris, in the 9th arrondissement, and worked at the IKEA near Versailles. He kept asking me questions about Sex and the City, I suppose because I lived in New York, and I answered him back in English, as much as I could understand what he was asking through his broken English and my nonexistent Spanish. I excused myself for a minute to go to the bathroom, and when I returned, discovered that he had paid the check. He was coy about it, like “Check? What check?”
This has only happened to me about three times in my life, and all three times I was on a date. I offered Francisco money, but he refused.
After leaving the restaurant, we ambled awkwardly down the street together, pretending to look at tchotchkes in gift shops but not really. In The Movie of the Free Paella of Corina Zappia, this would be where we returned to my flat for mad paella love. But at the time, I happened to be diseased, with two cold sores and a searing case of pink eye I had to soothe with eye drops every two hours. (Who even gets pinkeye after fifth grade?)
I cannot for the life of me now remember what Francisco looked like, although if I spent a few hours with him, I imagine I must have been attracted to him enough. Compared with the fantasy, though, “attracted to him enough” sounds like such a limp reality.
When does desire turn into expectation? At some point in Barcelona, I had let my travel hopes evolve into a criterion I needed to fulfill, because when a single woman travels abroad on-screen or in books, she comes out rejuvenated and ready to change her life, loneliness a brief way station she passes through en route. I always knew that these movies and shows were fantasy, but the fantasy had to come from somewhere, right? Yet many of my experiences abroad as a single person were like what I’d encountered at home—staying in affordable accommodations that were far from a dream, spending a lot of time by myself, meeting men whom I was interested in but who weren’t interested in me, or vice versa. I needed to stop blaming myself for falling short or thinking that I should force a situation because it would make for a better script or postcard back home.
Travel may hold the excitement of escape and surrendering to serendipity, but it’s still real life. It doesn’t promise any greater triumphs or any fewer disappointments—no matter how many tour groups and movies want to convince single women like me otherwise. And maybe this search for the extraordinary and once-in-a-lifetime can obscure what was gained in the meanwhile.
I thanked Francisco for the dinner and went home to put in more eye drops.
Corina Zappia is a former staff writer for The Village Voice and an MFA graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her writing has appeared in TriQuarterly, Salon, Catapult, The Rumpus, The Stranger, and Dazed and Confused, among others.
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