When in Rome

by Carolyn G. Foland

When I first found recovery, I had to figure out how to do things I loved to do, but that I’d always done while enjoying a drink. For example, eating: How can you have pizza without beer? Pâté without wine? Celebrating – what’s a wedding without champagne? An after work gathering with coworkers without a martini? Traveling – what’s Ireland without Guinness? Greece without ouzo?

I slowly worked my way back. I found I could divorce foods from certain drinks and didn’t have to be obsessed about the pairings that had been so important to me. I could now attend gatherings that involved alcohol and actually be comfortable with my nonalcoholic drink. I began traveling again by joining groups of people who were also in recovery.

I’ve had three trips with In This Life Travel, a company specializing in trips for sober people. My latest trip was a cruise in the Mediterranean preceded by three days in Rome. The cruise was also a sober retreat where we attended presentations by well-known retreat leaders: Fr. Tom Weston, Fr. Jim Harbaugh, Anne Lamott and Dr. Claudia David. They filled our at-sea days with humor and spiritual inspiration.

Scenery along the Appian Way, outside of Rome.

Scenery along the Appian Way, outside of Rome.

After three days in Florence, my partner and I joined other In This Life travelers who were flying in from the US and returning from a tour of Venice. In Rome, our tours included the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel, archeological areas, the Appian Way and a nighttime view of illuminated landmarks. After three days of nonstop touring, we boarded our ship.

Our first port of call was the Greek island of Mykonos, where we enjoyed either shopping on our own, visiting a local beach or an optional sampling of Greek appetizers, and, of course, the stunning scenery.

Later port calls had us trouping through the ancient city of Ephesus, a morning swim in the warm clear Mediterranean on the Greek island of Santorini and climbing to the Acropolis in Athens. An optional tour took us to an overnight stay in Olympia. There we took a morning tour of the original site of the city and ran our own Olympic race in the ancient stadium, followed by an authentic Greek buffet lunch made especially for our group.

I love traveling this way for a number of reasons. It provides a safe environment to do new things and see new places. The retreat portions provided by leaders I’ve come to respect always enriched me. I get to meet new people and enjoy old friends. As a single traveler, this has helped me feel confident traveling on my own. Sober travel helps me feel comfortable about staying sober as I engage in local dining and events.

Traveling with a group has its pluses and minuses. On another recent trip to the Amalfi Coast in Italy, by the end of the week our group felt herded by our professional guide. I followed the group experience with a week alone in a women-only hostel in Rome. However, I discovered that touring on public transportation took a great deal more time than being shuttled from place to place on a tour bus. I also felt I missed things a tour guide would have provided. There are always tradeoffs.

On the internet, you can find sober travel companies and sign up for their special vacation offerings. They’ll tell you what a trip or cruise will entail and which retreat leaders will be participating. They usually have great group rates for hotels, flights and ships, and often plan special excursions. This array makes choosing group and individual activities simple. You can choose what fits your interests and your budget. Their professional travel agents will answer all your questions – in emails and on the phone – and will help clarify your preferences.

If you have something on your bucket list that you want to check off, let the booking agent know in advance and see how you can be accommodated, even if you decide to do travel arrangements on your own.

2016-1-Foland-6-webWhen I choose to travel this way, which I frequently do, I try to remember the pros and cons of traveling with a group and adjust my expectations accordingly.

Evaluate your alternatives. On the recent trip to Rome and the Mediterranean, my travel companion and I could have opted out of the Rome portion of the trip. We decided to include Rome and tacked on a few days to visit Florence on our own. Others arrived before the formal tour started and explored Rome on their own.

So many people expressed an interest in touring Venice that In This Life added an additional tour option and booked the Venetian hotel and travel. When the group met in Rome, we had interesting and different experiences to share.

Adjust your expectations. Everyone has their own priorities when traveling. I’m a history buff, so I love the tour guides’ in-depth knowledge. Some people go for shopping. Sampling local food may be at the top of another person’s list.

On any given day, the agenda may not include your priorities; but try to participate in whatever is offered. Sometimes I enjoy something new I otherwise would not have tried. If you are really having trouble with the itinerary, speak to your travel company’s staff and see what alternatives may be available. Be prepared to pay extra if you want to take a taxi back to the ship or drive ahead to the next destination.

Understand that things go wrong. There’s always something that doesn’t turn out quite the way I thought it would. For example, when we got to Florence, the two-bed accommodations we had booked online were not available. We had another bed brought into our room.

Humans arrange things and occasionally make mistakes. Be prepared for these bumps; the tour leader will come up with the best solution possible. It may not be the one you would have chosen. Assigning blame, no matter how inconvenient the situation, won’t change anything.

Negative things happen on vacations; and frankly, the worse or more complicated they are, the happier I am having a professional handle them. In Florence, we were easily able to get another bed for the room on our own. However, bigger problems require more expertise. The guides and professional staff generally have more skill and clout than I do. The solutions they negotiate may not always be to my liking, but they usually save me from worse outcomes.

In short, touring with sober travel companies provides interaction with others in recovery who are also interested in travel. Some companies even offer a chance to explore one’s spiritual side with experienced retreat leaders. I highly recommend them.

2016-1-Foland-aCarolyn Foland has worked in public and private settings in mental health education and information in Kansas, New York and California. She retired from Sacramento County, California, in 2004, concluding her career as a public administrator in health and human services. Her formal degrees are in journalism and public administration.


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