Travelling alone is a challenge - especially as a young woman

A Cork woman promenades in Nice and the azure horizon cleanses her eyes of a zillion hours on Zoom

Neasa Murphy is a travel writer from Cork city, who found her love of exploring when she lived in Shanghai, China, as a UCC student. She arrived in Nice at the beginning of February, but has not yet decided how long she will stay in France. “For now I’m just travelling and writing as much as I can,” she says

I have a thing for the Starbucks in Dublin airport. I know it makes no sense. It has no small-town café charm or novel hipster aesthetic. It offers no cosy armchairs or particularly enticing treats. It’s a functional and indistinguishable place, like any airport branch of any global coffee chain, and yet, I recently discovered a certain affection for the place.

I was perched on a tall spindly chair, nursing a coffee and waiting for a flight to France when it happened. A memory of a similar moment, in almost the exact same spot floated to the forefront of my mind. The terminal was busier that day, but it was an easier time for travel, and I’d been lucky to get a seat with a plug. I was excited and nervous; I was going to Thailand, alone.

A few years earlier, I had sat in the same Starbucks before a flight to Switzerland, where I was about to join a family as an au pair. I had wondered what the year would bring, what the kids would be like, how much it would snow. Had I stopped there on my way to China as an exchange student? I wasn’t sure, but it was possible. And there I was again, on a grey afternoon in January, cautiously coming back to the world of travel, following a tumultuous two years for the whole world.


Despite its noisy surroundings and utilitarian design, the Starbucks in Dublin Airport suddenly meant something to me - it had a sense of home.

We often think of home as something outside of ourselves. Home is people, places, personal items, but a sense of home is something we always carry within. A waft of roast potatoes has the same warm appeal no matter where in the world your nose finds it and there’s a reason certain stories, though told and retold countless times, remain entertaining. The aromas we love, the places we return to and the anecdotes we repeat are pathways back to our best experiences, keys to a vault full of things we think we have forgotten. Even when they’re crafted from words, they unlock something words can’t quite express.

The disruption and uncertainty of the past two years made it difficult to access that vault. With many of our usual comforts gone and the world feeling increasingly divided and unstable, we were left to pace anxiously about the house, searching frantically for something that always just seemed to be at hand before. I wasn’t looking for my keys in Dublin Airport, but as I sat there that afternoon, something clicked into place. I heard the lock wriggle open a turn.

When you're sitting on the beach with your sandwich, watching waves crash, and children play, maybe just on that blue horizon, is a time when we'll all feel at home again

Travel has offered me many different homes. I’ve found home in the camaraderie of hostel dorms in South East Asia. I’ve found it in the confidence I built learning to speak French in Switzerland. I’ve found it in the kindness of a passing stranger who directs you, with enthusiasm, to a train station, or a café, when you can’t speak a word of their language, nor they a word of yours. And so I imagined I’d find it once again, in the sunshine of the Côte d’Azur, where I planned to ease back into my love of travel after what feels like a long time, but is maybe just a difficult one.

I had forgotten that no reward comes without challenge and travel, especially solo, especially as a young woman, has always had its challenges.

My arrival in Nice is bumpy. I disembark the tram from the airport late in the evening, hyper-aware of my noisy suitcase and evident reliance on Google maps in the quiet, unfamiliar streets. When I arrive at my hostel I choose not to venture back out into the unknown, ordering a very un-local first meal on Deliveroo instead.

The promising tingles I’d felt in Dublin Airport’s Starbucks remain, but they are now joined by a slight trepidation and a wave of fatigue from a day spent on the move.

The next day is an improvement: I promenade, as one does in Nice, along the busy walkway, the famous azure horizon cleansing my eyes of the zillion hours they’ve spent on Zoom and Google Docs during the past year. I find my way to the Colline du Château, which boasts both a breath-taking panoramic perspective of the city and historical significance predating even the Roman Empire.

It seems fitting, in such a place, to meditate on all that we humans have already survived; a brief but pleasant escape from the feeling that I’ve forgotten how to travel. But the feeling returns.

I’m indecisive about where to eat. I consider returning to the hostel, search online for ideas, wander the streets but don’t commit to a restaurant, and when I finally do sit down somewhere, I don’t know what, or how to order. French phrases that used to flow freely now get stuck in my throat; it has been too long since I’ve used them, and they’ve tucked themselves away in the vault, reluctant to come out after being ignored for so long.

A neurotic determination not to commit any cultural faux pas combined with a concern for Covid precautions makes me awkward as I enter shops and cafés, heaven forbid I be dismissed as another ignorant tourist. I forget that ordering “un café s’il vous pla?t,” without further clarification, will earn you an espresso, not an americano.

Finally, when I open my windows on my second morning in the South of France, all set to soak up the sunshine and the sounds of a waking city, something cumbersome drops violently from above, knocking me hard on the head before landing on the floor with a clatter. The curtain pole in my budget-friendly accommodation was loose. Oh là là.What a start.

But where there’s challenge, there’s reward. When I successfully order “un café américain,” it often costs less than two euro, a simple but significant source of joy for a coffee lover accustomed to Cork city’s less-than-ideal prices. And it’s not just the coffee that’s inviting: the Côte d’Azur itself, home to millionaires and celebrities galore, rather than sneering at my scruffy trainers as I feared it might, reveals itself to be diverse, charming, alive with culture, steeped in history, and far less intimidating than I’d imagined.

The public transport is extensive, efficient, and affordable. Museums are generally inexpensive and often free for students. Even lunch in Cannes can be an affordable luxury, if you take a fresh sandwich from the boulangerie to one of the impressively well-maintained public beaches.

As the days pass, so do my nerves. Little by little my French returns, reassuring me that it was there all along, it just wanted a little attention. And as I get to know this vibrant, alluring region, the door to the vault, where all my travel know-how, independence, and curiosity seems to live, slowly but surely swings open.

As always, there are friends to be made in the dorm rooms, boutiques to stumble upon in the streets, local treats to taste and little pieces of myself I didn’t know existed, waiting for me to find them, out in the big wide world.

When I open up more, so does the vault. The pandemic isn’t over yet and the world remains an uncertain place to exist - in fact the wider world remains anything but peaceful. But it’s difficult, when you’re sitting on the beach with your sandwich, watching waves crash, and children play, just as they’ve always done, not to hope that soon, maybe just on that blue horizon, is a time when we’ll all feel at home again, not just where we live, where we work, or in Starbucks at Dublin Airport, but in the world.

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