The Power Of Podcasts When Travelling On Your Own
With headphones in it doesn’t feel like you against the world anymore
There’s an old, art deco escalator in Genoa – the Ascensore Castelletto – that carries you from the cobblestoned, haphazard streets of the city into the heights of the suburbs in a matter of seconds.
When you reach the top the lookout post is lined with mango-coloured stained glass windows and shrouded with shrubbery. But if you step just to the right or the left you can lean over the balustrade and look down at the city below you, a tangle of balconies and terracotta tiles, the Ligurian coast leaking from the horizon.
The day I took that escalator into the sky I was the loneliest I had felt on the month that I travelled alone this year. Partly, it had to do with the fact that I was sick. (Who gets food poisoning in Italy? What did I do to deserve this particular cruelty?) Partly, there was the realisation that though I was technically on a holiday this holiday was also more than a holiday. This was the antechamber before entering the next part of my life, the bit where I live in London and hope that it lives up to all my expectations. I was in a limbo full of linen dresses and sandals and basil-y pesto.
It’s not Genoa’s fault, per se. I don’t want to shoot the messenger. But I can’t escape the fact that I got to the top of that escalator, and looked out over this city I had heard so many good things about, that I had expressly chosen over other, more glamorous Italian destinations as the place I was going to spend the next ten days, and felt a kind of loneliness I can only describe as depleting. I sat down on a bench, and crossed my legs, and hunched my shoulders, and wondered what on earth I could do about it.
My phone buzzed impatiently in the pocket of my jacket. It was a notification from my favourite podcast – Blank Check, remember when I raved about that one in issue two of Badlands Journal? – letting me know that a new episode had just dropped.
All around me were people in twos and threes: Mothers and daughters, best friends, couples holding hands. I was the only person on my own. So I took out my headphones, plugged them in, and listened.
Any fans of Blank Check reading this? Then you’ll know that the best thing about that podcast is also the worst. Its runtime is a swollen, garrulous, last-drinks-at-the-bar two hours, sometimes even nudging two and a half. It’s perfect for a long commute, or a particularly tricky bit of mindless life admin work, like packing up your life in anticipation of moving to London, or when you’ve woken up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep.
And it’s also perfect for when you’re sitting on a bench at the top of a city and you’re not quite sure what to do. I listened to the whole episode (the first episode of their Brad Bird miniseries on the director’s debut film The Iron Giant), sitting on that bench for two whole hours and seven whole minutes. And then I took the escalator back down to street level and bought a slab of focaccia.
That day was the lowest the loneliness got, bracketed by illness and a foreign language and the insidious exhaustion of the halfway point of a holiday.
It didn’t go away, but whenever I felt it creeping back in I reached for the headphones. In the witching aperativo hour when bars filled with friends toasting the day with Aperol spritzes, and I longed for someone to be with me to do the same, or when I saw something that I knew my mum would have loved – a big slab of pecorino cheese, her very special favourite, waxy in the window of a beautiful old deli – and wanted to squeeze her hand and tell her straight away, but couldn’t. Or when I went to the surreal little slice of a beach, hidden on the coast just before the sharp turn into Portofino, that I had heard so much about.
On that day I wished my friends who had raved to me about the plates of vongole at the restaurant wedged into the cliff, or way the boat trips into the dock and you stumble off, half-drunk at the view before you, or the fact that the dark, indigo-blue water is so cold you feel a swear word bubbling up inside you the second you dip your toes in, were there, too. Most of the time when travelling alone I not only understand but am content in the knowledge that the person that you end up sharing your experiences is with yourself. But right then, in that moment, well, I wanted someone there, simply to know that there was another pair of eyes looking at the same thing that I was looking at.
The best thing about a cold ocean, though, is that it shocks this kind of maudlin thinking right out of you. After I got out of the water, shivering and wincing at the pebbles beneath my feet, I stretched out on my towel and put my headphones in. I listened to an episode of The High Low Show, the pop culture podcast that the friend who told me I had to go to Genoa, and I had to eat octopus at this restaurant, and I had to swim in the ocean at San Fruttuoso beach and I are both equally as obsessed with.
It was three in the morning in Australia and I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – call her. But listening to that podcast, and being in a place that we now both shared, helped stave off loneliness for an afternoon.
Photography Bonnie Hansen @ DLM
Styling Zoe Van Zanten
Hair Jayde Turner-Ledwidge @ DLM using Oribe
Makeup Cat Smith @ Union Management using MAC
Model Kerryn Paasila @ IMG