In December 2012, after sixty plus days of uninterrupted sobriety, I found myself in a circle of colleagues, pre-partying at my friend Geoff's house before a company Christmas party, whiskey shot in hand. It wasn't much of a secret that I'd quit drinking at that point; I'd told everyone I knew, though I hadn’t exactly explained why I’d quit drinking. That no one really batted an eye at my return to drinking isn’t the point of the story; that I drank and blew my sobriety isn’t really relevant, either. What does matter is the part where my friend Geoff – who I was supposed to go to Sicily with the following summer – said something like "thank God you started drinking again, I wasn't sure I wanted you to come to Italy if you were sober.”
I mean, he said something like that, but basically that, exactly. There's not a lot I remember from this night or this period of time in general, but Geoff’s words I remember, and I remember them because it was the first time I understood the social currency that is your ability to match drinks.
When I finally stopped drinking for good, it was April 2013, and just a few months before that trip to Italy. Geoff and I sat next to each other on a plane back from Austin on my first day of sobriety, and while I knew I was done with alcohol forever, I had absolutely zero intention of telling Geoff until we were safely over the Atlantic en route to Catania, in July. Or that was the plan at least but I’m a compulsive over-sharer, so a few weeks into my sobriety I cornered him in a meeting room at work, held his hands and looked him in the eye, and told him that, unfortunately for him, I’d quit drinking. “If you take Sicily away from me, I will cut you."
I was maybe 70 days sober the week before the trip. The plan was I'd travel to Sicily with Geoff and spend a week with him and his family, and then spend two weeks by myself exploring the rest of Italy. I called my mom and told her I was afraid to go; I was afraid my sobriety wouldn’t survive it.
There was a terrible irony in all of this: I was obsessed with wine. I was one of those people who had always loved it; and not just because wine got you drunk, but because of the entire idea of wine – the history and the ritual and the volumes of knowledge you could acquire about it, what it said about you that you knew the history and the ritual and the volumes of knowledge you could acquire about it.
I bought books on Italian wines when I was in my early twenties - the same way I bought books in general on Italy; I pored over and underlined a dog-eared copy of The Agony and The Ecstasy and a well-worn copy of Italian Wine for Dummies, I considered an enology major at one point, and through my twenties and well into my early thirties, part of my identity was wine-flavored. Wine and wine culture were the epitome of sophistication to me, and I spent thousands and thousands of dollars consuming it and the experience it afforded me. To boot: most of those thousands and thousands of dollars were spent at Italian restaurants. So what I’m telling you is I'd been training for over a decade to drink Italian wine in Italy, and then 70 short days before I could finally realize my life dream of drinking a Montepulciano IN MONTEPULCIANO, I stopped imbibing wine. Forever.
I knew I never wanted to drink again, I was convicted. But Italy felt impossible. I’d never in my adult life vacationed without drinking and it was unfathomable to me. I was terrified that something would snap in me while I was there, that I would get so happy and free I’d say fuck it. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to enjoy myself, or that I’d feel like I was missing out on something my traveling companions got to experience. I was afraid I wouldn’t enjoy the food or enjoy the view or get to know the city the way I could through the fuzzy lens of the bar scene and a few cocktails. I couldn’t fathom how I’d meet men, meet friends, or curate those experiences one only has on drunken nights in distant lands with drunken strangers. Mostly though: I was afraid that when it came to traveling alone I wouldn’t be able to trust myself with myself, with no one looking.
What happened was: I didn’t drink.
Furthermore, I’ve now traveled to Italy (well, to Rome, which ended up being my real Italian love story, better than the Nebbiolo) seven times since. Eight times in Italy in five years – a combined total of a years’ time – and I can proudly say that I’ve never had a drink in the motherland. (Or Spain. Or France. Or England. Or anywhere I’ve been since.) My history in Europe is an entirely sober history, and that’s not something I lament, that’s something I celebrate. Who gives a fuck if I’ve had Limoncello after dinner or a Chianti in Chianti? I’ve lived and remembered every last drop of my Italian-based life without once numbing to it or needing drugs to experience it; I’ll take that any day over a fucking drink.
That first time back in 2013, with Geoff, I showed up in Sicily a woman who had lost a part of herself and her life, and I left there a woman marked by Italy; a boot-shaped mark seared into my heart. Somehow in those three weeks – in that raw precious place of early sobriety, in that time where everything was falling away and my tears were the projectile-kind, in that space where anything could happen because everything seemingly already had, in this place I didn’t know and that didn’t know me – I became.
When it comes to traveling, there is so much to talk about, so many angles. I’ve never written about it because some how it feels impossible; like maybe I’d have to write a novel if I really wanted to tell you about sobriety and travel, or at least what it’s been for me and done to me. So: this piece is not about Italy, or some prescriptive step-by-step post on how to travel, or about my love affair with Rome. It’s not about surviving sober business trips or anything like that. Maybe those will come later. This is simply my first nod to this as a thing, this traveling sober thing, and some attempt to answer some questions from you.
I asked in an Instagram story what you wanted to know about sobriety and traveling, and I got over 100 questions about it. Here's 23 of them, asked and answered.
23 Questions About How To Travel Sober, Answered.
1. Aren't you tempted to enjoy wine in Italy?
The simple answer to this is: not even a little bit. It’s important to understand a few things. First, I used Allen Carr’s method (The Easy Way to Control Alcohol – Annie Grace’s This Naked Mind is also good), and I wasn’t coming into this with a depravation mindset. That means I didn’t think I was trading out a bigger life for a smaller one, and I felt very certain that ditching alcohol was an upgrade to a bigger life. Carr’s book promises an idea that you can return to mindset that you had before you started drinking; and for me, that did happen. The way I feel about alcohol is what I would assume someone who never had a drink would feel – I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. It doesn’t mean that there weren’t cravings, or that there wasn’t some great void when I first quit. But the jig was up when it came to alcohol; I saw it for the toxic bullshit lie it was, I was clear that it offered me no real benefit.
That first trip in 2013, of course it felt like I was missing out when other people drank around me, but I had an even stronger conviction that I was the free one in this scenario, that they were all still hooked into a lie they couldn’t see. I felt the same way an ex-smoker might feel around other smokers.
Over time, because my attention isn’t focused on alcohol, it dropped out of mind and out of site. That first trip I had multiple offers of free drinks; I had waiters slip me wine and grappa and I probably had to refuse over a dozen drinks. As time wore on and as alcohol fell completely out of both my conscious and subconscious mind, it faded into the background. Funnily enough, the less attention I paid to it, the less it paid to me. It’s been years since an Italian waiter tried to slip me wine or since I’ve had to decline a beverage there.
It’s kind of like this: when you break up with someone, you might go through a period where you think you see them everywhere, where everyone can look like them or remind you of them. Over time, you forget them; maybe they show up in a dream on occasion, but they are more or less a dot on the plot graph that is your life. We lose things we love all of the time and throughout our lives – that is the NATURE of life. To shed and grow and discard and move on. Our bodies and psychologies and spirits are literally wired to help us forget; you will forget. You will have a new normal, and in that new normal, wine can be a very foreign thing that other people do.
2. How do you bypass the feeling you get when you see the experience others are having and want it?
Think of it this way: when you are scrolling through Instagram or Facebook, you are seeing the highlight reel of someone’s life. The polished parts, the outsides that they selectively share with the world. When you are walking by a group of people enjoying booze or a bar people are hanging out of, you’re seeing a highlight reel of sorts, too.
What you aren’t seeing is: what happens to them later in the night when they are slurring their speech and doing things they might not normally do, how shitty their skin looks the next day, their hangover, how much their trip and experience is being sucked up by a night out, how much internal stress they may or may not have about their own relationship with booze. The thing I remember most about drinking while on vacation was not how fantastic the nights I forgot were; what I remember is how much the mornings sucked, how little energy I had to do anything besides sleep in and sleep it off, how tired I felt returning to work after a few weeks of drinking too much, how I wished just once I could go on vacation and detox instead of tox-tox.
So how do you bypass it? You remember what you are choosing, which is freedom and a life that is expanding into untold possibility. You remember that you don’t live there anymore, and that sometimes there are pangs of nostalgia, but nostalgia has selective memory. You remember that you are on a path to a bigger life and that alcohol is a total fucker of a lie.
3. Places to meet people? Since bars aren't top of the list?
The first few times I went to Italy I stayed in AirBnBs with other people and was specifically looking for hosts that wanted to spend time with their guests. I took waiters up on their offers to fuck me after their shift. I talked to random people sitting next to me in restaurants, I said yes whenever anyone offered to go with me anywhere, I coordinated with friends who were traveling nearby to meet up. I got on Tinder and went on dates with randos. I let men pick me up. I made connections with single lady travelers like myself. One time, I met a man I fell in love with while eating gelato on a street. In some ways, all these attempts to meet people and all the openness I had to connection afforded me something I was looking for, but mostly it just made me want to be alone. I travel by myself to be by myself, and in some strange way my trips to Italy have always been a struggle between that desire for solitude and frantic attempts to escape it.
The few times I’ve been involved with men while there, I found myself only wanting to be away from them. I’ve heard myself say more times than I can count “I came here to be alone,” and every time I’ve said it, I’ve felt like maybe it’s a lie, but maybe it’s the truest thing about me. I travel to find myself and to lose myself and people tend to get in the way of that aim.
You’re asking how I meet people outside of the bar scene. I’m telling you it’s not that hard, though it takes more work, and perhaps is more awkward (it was for me; I'm awkward). I’m also telling you: maybe we don’t travel to meet other people; maybe we travel to meet ourselves.
4. What are AA meetings like in other countries and do they compare to meetings in the US?
No idea but that seems like a great way to make friends, nay?
5. Will you go to bars? Or do excursions that involve alcohol? At all?
Sure. I mean, I’m not against it. I’m just not typically seeking it out.
6. Can you recommend travel guides/tour groups that focus on sober travel for women?
I sure can! There are a few I know of. Sober Outside is one (organizes trips for sober folk), The Sober Glow is holding a retreat and my guess is she’ll do more, and She Recovers does multiple retreats a year in various locations.
7. How do you feel in the morning?
The same way I feel in the morning here. Never hungover, sometimes tired, sometimes depressed, sometimes bounding with energy, always desperate for coffee. Worth noting: because I'm not hungover, I often wake up at 5am or 6am and hit the sites before the tourists. Major sobriety bonus.
8. How do you keep up with rituals & routines: yoga, meditation, writing?
This is kind of like asking how I keep up with brushing my teeth when I travel. I just do. I travel with a yoga mat. I find classes in the places I travel. I use Yogaglo and download meditations and yoga classes to my phone so I don’t need an internet connection and so I can meditate on the plane. I take workout clothes. I also change it up; I might do a lot of yoga in San Francisco or New York, but in Rome I walk anywhere from 10 to 20 miles a day and that’s my exercise and it’s a thrill.
That being said: it’s not the same and things for certain slip; I make a commitment to keep my meditation practice at the very least. I have non-negotiables and I return to those practices that are baseline for me. As for the writing, I have to make myself do it. I typically do it first thing in the morning, at a café with my coffee, for two hours. Then I go out into my day.
9. How do you get through "no one will know if I have one" especially if traveling alone?
I didn’t quit drinking for anyone else; I quit drinking for me. That’s the long and the short of it. I didn’t need anyone to monitor me to quit drinking or stay quit, I have myself and that is enough. I am the only person I’m accountable to in this.
This isn’t to say that being on your own in a foreign place where no one knows you or your history isn’t filled with the possibility of “no one will know if I do this thing” – that is a very real feeling that comes over me, that I’m sure comes over countless people in recovery. I have to see that thought for the lie that it is.
Of course someone knows my history, that I’m in recovery, that I really can’t drink – and that person is me. This path isn’t about doing what other people think we should do, because other people don’t have to live in our skin and with our soul and conscience. We have to live with that shit, and it’s only when we realize that we are accountable to ourselves that we are truly holding the burden of what that means, and that we are truly free.
10. Does it get easier?
Yes honey, yes. Absolutely, cross my heart. It gets easier.
11. I don't like to be alone with alcohol. How do you deal with the mini-bar?
That’s a tough one. I think that if you’re trying to quit and you can’t be around alcohol, you need to be really clear with yourself about that. I didn’t want to be afraid of alcohol, so I kept it in my house for years after I quit as a remnant and a visible reminder that alcohol had no power over me (IF I didn’t drink it). That worked for me with alcohol. That didn’t work for me with pot. I had to get pot out of my house and I still to this day don’t want it in my house nor do I want to date someone that smokes regularly and keeps it around. Some people are fine with having booze in the house but the second they go to their favorite bar it becomes difficult. So: know thyself, and don’t put yourself in situations that will mess with you or unnecessarily challenge you. Know the situations that really test you and keep yourself clear of them until you know you can face it.
Worth mentioning: there’s a balance between making it easy on yourself by keeping something out of site, and creating a lot of preciousness around a substance that creates more turmoil for you. Do the things that will keep you from being tempted, but realize that you can’t live your life making sure alcohol isn’t around you – I mean, possibly you could, but then that’s still a lot of energy and devotion to alcohol, a lot of lost liberation if you can’t be anywhere that alcohol is.
As for the specific part about the mini-bar, ask the hotel to clear your room of alcohol. That’s it. They will do that if you ask.
12. Suggestions for not drinking when it feels culturally inappropriate to decline a drink?
So, sobriety and recovery isn’t just about abstinence or quitting drinking. I mean, that’s a huge part of it (obviously) but also that’s not entirely the point. A drinking problem or a problem with drinking is a point of point of entry; an invitation to something larger. For me, it was the first time in my life I started to really ask myself what I wanted, and the first time I dared to carve out for myself what I wanted. Which means, it was the part of my life where I stopped prioritizing everyone’s yes over my no – no matter what. So, to answer your question. First: it isn’t rude to decline something that makes you sick. If you’re allergic to shell fish you’re not going to down some shrimp because custom and culture and politeness. The same thing applies here. Second: this is the part where you realize that worrying about how other people might react to you doing what you need to do for your health is a fucking waste of time and a burden you no longer have to carry. This doesn’t mean you are rude about it, of course. It does mean there is a kind way to refuse a drink, and that if someone is offended by it, that’s really not your problem.
13. What about FOMO when you don't try local wine or signature cocktails when visiting new places?
I would say that if there is a place in the world where culture is defined by a local wine, it’s Italy. I don’t think I’ve missed out on truly experiencing it because I didn’t drink the wine or have a spritz. I would say, in fact, that I experienced the culture more deeply and purely because I passed on these things, because I freed up the space the bar scene and the booze typically fill up. Without those easy passes at “exploring a culture” (i.e., get drunk in another culture), I had to work at it. I also had more time. I also had more confidence. I also had energy and clarity and a zest for life because I wasn’t a walking hangover looking for a happy hour. Culture is not experienced by taking its local drugs. It’s experienced by not.
14. How do you plan vacation? Do you plan activities at certain times or do what feels good? What about idle time?
LOOLL plan. I don’t plan. I buy tickets and land. My vacation is a break for an incessant need to structure and do. Which also means that I lose my shit when I get there because I’m not held together by a schedule for once. What I typically do is wander, get lost, explore, expand, ask myself what I want to do and do that. This might not be everyone’s jam but it’s mine. I’ll work from a vacation plan when I inevitably marry someone who schedules everything including our bowel movements and then we’ll fight about it and it’ll be cute.
15. What do you enjoy drinking as a replacement for wine or beer when socializing?
The literally thousands of drink options that exist. I personally like: club soda or fizzy water, club soda with bitters, diet coke if I’m feeling like being a rebel. Some bars have non-alcoholic concoctions, and some have espresso machines, and these are exciting bars.
16. How do you respond to the complimentary bottle of wine in every AirBnB?
I tell my hosts I don’t drink and have them take it with them or I leave it there and it collects dust.
17. How do you make it through the airport?
Oh this is such a good question since I feel like I live in airports. When I drank, I would get to the airport early so I could have two to three drinks, and then of course I would drink on the plane. The drinking was what I associated with the pleasure of flying; or the point of flying. I had to restructure this big time when I stopped drinking. The first encounter with it was in May 2013; I still got to the airport early, but instead of heading to the bar, I got a Pinkberry at 10am which felt like a rebellion in of itself; it had the same subversiveness that drinking did – Fro-Yo for breakfast what?!
Honestly, what it came down to for me was redefining what the airport was. Instead of being the place where I could get a few drinks, it became a place where I could read a few magazines, drink coffee at odd hours, buy a new book. That was really and truly it: where my reward and perceived benefit before was getting a buzz on, it became getting some downtime to myself.
These days, I have TSA pre-check and status, and I can get through security relatively fast, and I also give less fucks about missing flights. I arrive 45 minutes before boarding as a rule, I grab a few waters and a coffee, I get on the plane. It doesn’t even cross my mind to drink. Please, please understand that we are built for new normals; going to the airport will become a new normal.
Lastly – if you are anxious about flying, there’s no shame in using medicine.
18. How do you travel w/other people who want to go out drinking?
I don’t. It’s not that I don’t have friends that drink, it’s just that I don’t really have friends that “go out drinking” as if it’s an Olympic sport anymore. In the early days, when mostly all my friends “went out drinking” I either went with them if I wanted to, stayed in, or booked other events for myself, like a massage or what-not. I also found that being the sober one in a community of not-sober people felt entirely good; like for once in my life I was the responsible one instead of the one puking at 7pm or the one that made everyone stay out for one more shot; I liked it; it solidified how big and beautiful and full and wholesome life can feel when you aren’t destroying yourself.
It didn’t take a lot of time for that to get old and for me to realize I didn’t want to go on trips with people that were focused on booze. Good for them and no judgment; but I was over that part of my life and I wanted different experiences that didn’t center around alcohol. I just met my friend, writer Catherine Gray, in Barcelona. We rode our bikes everywhere, ate food, saw beautiful things, laid on the beach and read books topless, drank copious amounts of coffee and tea, had meaningful conversations. That is my kind of thrill these days and I’m more apt to spend time with people who value similar experiences.
19. Do you have some tea or drink that you bring with you in the hotel?
I wrote an article on how to build a Toolbox; or you can check this one article about what I take with me when I travel.
20. What do you do after dinner when you're not ready for the night to end but only things open are bars?
First, I usually eat dinner around 9pm so it’s pretty late by the time I am done with my day. I walk places, by myself. I eat Gelato. I write. I take pictures. I walk some more. Sometimes I go on dates. Sometimes I get the itch to go see a site. Sometimes I go and sit and stare at something beautiful after the crowds have dispersed. The point isn’t, though, what I do instead of go to bars, because I don’t even have an idea of what going to bars in Rome is like. It’s what I do, period. And it’s this: whatever the fuck I want to.
21. How do you do touristy things (like city tours or food tours) without sharing your whole story?
Honey, don’t share your story unless you want to. It doesn’t come up as much as we think it will, and when it does, it’s simply this: I don’t drink alcohol. That’s it. End of story. In Italian it’s: non bevo alcool. Learn how to say you don’t drink in the local language, say it when appropriate, leave it at that.
22. Do you still go to bars/that is where most music and shows are and I love music?
23. Was it hard to switch the focus from bars, pubs, lounges to, I don't even know?
Isn’t that exciting? You don’t even know. Imagine that and the possibility that holds. There is an entire world out there, just waiting for you to discover it, just waiting for you to get entirely lost in it.