Peer Profile: Shirley Buccieri & Solo Sojourns (Sept 15, 2019)
One guiding principle of this blog is that Agile Aging is neither automatic nor accidental. It requires awareness and creative imagination, knowhow and sustained commitment. Our final phase of life can be joyful, full of learning, growing and sharing. But dividends demand investments.
Peer Profiles introduce fellow seniors who have figured out how to do things the rest of us aspire to but haven’t yet made happen. Shirley Buccieri has developed innovative solutions to not one but two common senior travel challenges:
- What if you like to travel but don’t have anyone to travel with? Maybe you live alone or your partner isn’t interested or available.
- What if you’d like to linger and get to know a single destination, but hotel rates are prohibitive for extended stays and group tours too fast-paced, with rigid itineraries?
Imagine traveling where you most want, when and how you want. Custom-tailoring your trips to suit your personal passions, energy and budget. An impossible dream? Read on!
Surprises on the Road
When Shirley arrived at Amsterdam Airport, friends from a prior trip greeted her with hugs and bouquets. Even more special were the bright-yellow T-shirts they’d had printed up – for her as well as themselves – with an improvised Shirleyfest logo.
The accompanying instructions from her airport reception committee were mysterious but irresistible: “Check into your apartment. We’ll take you there. Unpack and freshen up. But do not fail to be downstairs at 6pm sharp!” At the appointed hour, her escorts guided her out the front door, across a charming lane and onto a rented canal boat, generously stocked with champagne, hors d’oeuvres and a dozen neighbors who’d soon become her new friends.
“And you wonder why I travel the way I do?” Shirley asks me with a grin.
Her Senior Passion
Every year, Shirley Buccieri travels by herself to a different distant city, living and learning there for a month. Starting with New York City as a dress rehearsal, she’s sojourned in London, Berlin, Rome, Melbourne, Montreal, Vienna, and Amsterdam. As this Peer Profile is being published, Shirley’s en route to her latest destination, Kyoto, Japan.
On each trip, she rents an apartment in a local neighborhood, settles in and gets to know her new neighbors. While she might sample signature tourist attractions during her stay, Shirley’s main focus is on immersing herself in the community, gaining a ground-level appreciation for residents’ lifestyles, interests and values. She’s labeled these expeditions “Shirleyfests” to celebrate their upbeat spirit.
Why and How She Does It
Shirley candidly explains that she never had much opportunity to travel as a child. Her father was a Midwestern schoolteacher and five siblings left few resources for luxuries. She increasingly grew to enjoy travel as an adult: for family pleasure with her husband and daughter; for work as a corporate lawyer. Now alone and retired, she was determined to continue exploring.
She also envisioned senior travel as an opportunity to “develop her right-brain self,” after a career concentrating on math, business and law. She was keen to exercise her creative, artistic and spontaneous potential on the road. This senior-growth agenda shapes her traveling style and rhythm. No fixed daily program or schedule. Keeping herself open for chance encounters, conversations, and curb-side temptations. Staying flexible, altering a route or activity on the spot if weather or whim invites.
To facilitate this explore-and-experiment approach, Shirley pays close attention to ground transportation. In every city she rides public transit to mix with the locals, rents a bicycle and walks for miles. So much exercise offers the additional benefit of counteracting the influence of enthusiastically sampled local foods. (“I eat everything! Except mushrooms. Unfortunately allergic.”)
Shirley’s convinced that solo travel is one key to the success of her immersive expeditions. “When you’re on your own, it’s amazing how people will reach out to you.” In her experience, locals might hang back from engaging visiting couples, families and, certainly, larger groups. Individuals are more approachable. Apart from freeing her up to indulge her extemporaneous meanders, her solitude opens doors and windows to the host-city culture.
Another key is the extended duration of her visits. Not only can she avoid the rush and rigidity of group-tour itineraries. A month in place gives her time to hear about neat places and events and to venture out from the metropolitan core to experience complementary satellite towns and countryside. At every annual destination, Shirley makes a point of discovering and cultivating a neighborhood coffee bar near her apartment. Over the course of her month in residence, she uses this base camp to get to know regulars and become “adopted” as an appreciative and enthusiastic visitor.
Of course, going alone is not the only way to go. And it’s certainly possible to linger in a destination in the company of traveling companions. But Shirley is persuaded that the combination is magical: solo travel gives extended sojourns special purpose and potential.
Driving and sustaining her entire project are an exceptional positive spirit and energy. Everyone who meets Shirley seems to notice and comment on this dynamism. She describes herself as “really curious,” interested in local people and their stories. One of her personal mottoes is “Say Yes to Everything!” And in candid conversations, she describes her dedication to “a very improvisational life.” Spelling out this perspective, she explains, “I’m very grateful for my freedom and mobility and don’t want to waste them.”
Her connotation of “freedom” is nuanced. It definitely doesn’t mean privacy, because she’s already living alone at home and the whole point of these visits is to reach out to locals. It does mean the liberty and flexibility to move about “without consultation or compromise. If a museum exceeds expectations, I might like to stay there all day. If it’s not what I’d hoped for, I want to be able to bail after five minutes and go somewhere else.” This total independence obviously doesn’t apply if she’s with new local friends or visitors joining her from prior Shirleyfests. But when she’s by herself, she relishes unrestrained spontaneity.
Shirley’s blog, www.shirleyfest.com, is discussed below. It combines light commentary with stunning visual images. The blog’s purpose is to share her field experiences with family, friends and followers. But an indelible self-portrait emerges from the selection of material. This is a visitor who notices and celebrates streets, markets and parks, food and drink (its preparation, presentation and consumption), hosts and fellow travelers, children, history, humor, art and architecture, galleries and paintings, music and its performance, light and movement. Joie de vivre colors and animates every photo, every post.
Laying a Foundation
Although the goal of Shirley’s sojourns is to spontaneously experience and appreciate foreign communities, creating opportunities for that improvisation requires thorough planning and preparation. She may not emphasize her left brain in the telling, but it’s fully engaged in structuring strategic excursions.
Selecting a new destination begins immediately as an old sojourn winds down. Before departing, she even invites her old-destination pals to nominate candidate venues for her next round. Three criteria take precedence in her own ranking:
- A location with rich art and culture, so she can pursue her life-long artistic learning;
- First-rate public transit, combined with bikeability; and
- Decent weather in September.
Her birthday month, “a time for fresh beginnings,” September also promises that most kids will be back in school and summer tourists back at home.
With the coming year’s destination selected, Shirley next focuses on locking in a suitable apartment. Nothing posh; one-bedroom, one-bath accommodations in a local neighborhood. Using major vacation-rental websites like Home Away and VRBO, she opens contacts with potential landlords who often pass her along to better fits, once they’ve heard her priorities. Simultaneously, she emails friends with experience living or working in the target city, asking their advice on neighborhoods and accommodations. Most of her lodging selections come by word-of-mouth.
By the end of the calendar year, Shirley has settled on a new city, booked an apartment and made roundtrip airline reservations. She then sets aside the planning process until the start of summer.
When she resumes her sojourn planning, she opens a file and collects useful information about her upcoming September destination. Maps, urban-transit data, featured autumn exhibitions, concerts and local festivals. On the basis of this preliminary research, she may select a theme to investigate during her stay – like coffee culture, pets or traditional cuisine. She loads her iPhone with relevant apps, including a recommended local ride-hailing service and restaurant-rating platforms.
Simultaneously, Shirley sets out what she calls “lines in the water.” Tapping her Stateside network of family, friends and associates, she collects names of local residents of her sojourn destination who might be willing to help her make the most of her visit. (Some of these individuals might be third-country nationals, although she assiduously avoids attaching herself to expatriate enclaves on the ground.) Following through with emails to the most promising contacts, she introduces herself, her reference and her project and invites these local individuals to join her, early during her visit, for a coffee or meal to hear their orienting suggestions. Some are unavailable. But the contacts she does meet offer insiders’ recommendations that are invariably more layered and current than internet research. In Shirley’s experience, these residents are eager to share insights with a visitor who cares enough about their town to spend an entire month learning about it and sampling its attractions.
How Are Shirleyfests Working Out?
Shirley’s 10-year assessment is unqualifiedly affirmative. She considers her sojourns an overwhelming success. In every city. Without exception. “Consistently exceeding expectations. Every neighborhood I’ve settled in has been full of warm, welcoming people delighted to show me around.” And she’s convinced this hospitality is not attributable to her personality or available only to her.
I asked how Shirleyfests work in practice, in particular how encounters with local residents broaden and deepen her visits. “Melbourne is a great example of the power of locals to truly make my month memorable.” Three of Shirley’s San Francisco friends helped her to put lines-in-the-water, reaching out in advance to their Melbourne contacts. Once she had settled in, one contact and his wife invited her to visit the Morningstar wine region. They also encouraged her not to miss an excursion to Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art. A second contact invited her to the Australian Football Grand Final, “a bit like our Super Bowl.” He also arranged for her to give a featured-guest interview on prime-time radio.
Melbourne residents Shirley met on the ground with no advance referrals proved equally congenial. A first-day walking-tour guide introduced her to a circle of women law students who were keen to hear Shirley’s career advice. Two young seatmates at a crowded restaurant helped Shirley discover Melbourne’s best small coffeehouses and later shared invaluable insiders’ tips for her planned Kyoto sojourn.
In all of these cases, Shirley was able to reciprocate friendship and hospitality by entertaining these new friends or their children when they visited California.
How has Shirley tweaked her solo-sojourn model over the years? She flagged two main modifications. One is that she’s become much savvier about selecting apartments. This is crucial for each visit’s success. Not only does she care deeply about “my living space, fresh, bright and welcoming.” A vibrant local neighborhood is the anchor for her entire immersion.
She found out immediately in her traveling decade that, in an intensely competitive market, most advertising landlords embellish and exaggerate their properties’ comparative advantages and finesse their liabilities. To detect and counter this puffing, Shirley developed a practice of “diving deep” into on-line reviews and then emailing detailed questions to a shortlist of promising candidates. This two-step screening exposes potential problems and narrows choices. Equally important, it encourages serious landlords to pass her on to better fits if they can’t accommodate her needs. These local referrals have frequently produced wonderful quarters that she hadn’t detected on her own.
A second change has been increasingly to feature food and cooking in her local exploration and experimentation. A self-described “serious foodie,” Shirley’s been a member of a cooking club at home since the 1980s. In her sojourn cities, she’s confirmed that cuisine can be an inviting window into local customs and culture, history and tastes. Markets are humming with surprising produce and other raw materials. Vendors and chefs love to talk about their specialties and sources. Cooking for new friends in her apartment gives Shirley an opportunity to reciprocate hospitality. A food focus is never exclusive, but it’s richly revealing.
She hastens to add that other sojourners can make equally good “investigative” use of their own senior passions – for example, architecture or sports, music or crafts. The point is to select a personal theme for local exploration and sharing and then follow it where it leads, with curiosity and an open mind.
But What about Downside Risks?
Whenever Shirley gives solo-travel interviews or workshops to fellow American seniors, after the admiration and applause subside the same set of concerns is anxiously voiced. What about personal safety and security, especially for an older woman traveling alone? Health, illnesses and medical emergencies? Inability to communicate? Loneliness in an unfamiliar country? Financial affordability?
Safety and Security
A compact 5’2”, Shirley happily concedes she’s no Amazon warrior. What she offers her questioners in place of brawn is reassurance anchored by prudence and common sense:
- “Be street-smart. Trust your experience and intuition.
- Dress for local appropriateness and respectfulness. Avoid tourist giveaways – 10-inch camera lenses, expensive jewelry or dressing for the beach in a capital city.
- If you feel uncomfortable in an encounter or conversation, excuse yourself and walk away.”
She also enlists the denizens of her neighborhood coffee bar as tacit bodyguards.
In Shirley’s international traveling experience, foreign-language proficiency has never been essential. “Thankfully, since I’m a terrible linguist!” As support for this assessment, she echoes a recent New York Times assessment that foreigners, especially Europeans and especially teens and young adults, are increasingly bilingual in English. [nytimes.com/2019/08/10/opinion/Sunday/Europeans-speak-english.html].
She uses Google Translator for key words outside city centers. And as a demonstration of her respectfulness, she enrolls in a summer “Language for Travelers” short course at home before starting out.
“As a solo traveler,” she counsels, “you can be as solitary or social as you wish. Maybe both on alternate days! It is totally your call.” No group-tour pressure to join a hike or a class. But equally, no need to let yourself be isolated.
Shirley’s lines-in-the-water generate a roster of potential local companions. Her neighborhood coffee bar fills in fellowship gaps. And if she ever craves group affinity, she signs up for a local walking tour. Over the course of her month, siblings and friends from home sometimes also drop in, welcome sources of sharing and familiarity. In the worst case, which for her has never come close, “you can always pull the plug and head for home early. This is a vacation, not a prison.”
Almost no one has unlimited financial resources to spend on travel. Shirley’s take on prudent budgeting for her solo sojourns is that “Everything in life is a choice. I’d rather consume experiences than things.” She explains that she deliberately exercises frugality during the year in order to save for expenditures during her trips.
She goes on to insist that “living like a local” can be affordable even in world capitals. Especially if, like her, you like to shop in farmers’ markets and cook in your apartment. Walking, biking and riding public transit are significant money-savers. And a small apartment in a local neighborhood “bears no relation to the Ritz Carlton!”
Shirley added a blog to her traveling program during her three most recent annual cycles. The initiative was sparked by a Christmas gift from her daughter, setting up a WordPress site with professional facilitation. Shirley had always loved taking sojourn photos with an IPad and jotting accompanying entries in a journal for her own memories and records. Now she had a vehicle for sharing her images and impressions. She went back and inserted a few photos and texts for the pre-blog destinations, creating a full chronology. Shirley is determined that the tail doesn’t wag this dog. “The blog doesn’t get to say where I go or what I see and do.” That said, her distinctively personal approach to travel clearly holds broad appeal. Her daughter recently pointed out to her mother’s amazement that Shirley has blog followers in 91 countries.
A decade in and still going strong, Shirley Buccieri is more enthusiastic about solo sojourns than when she started. Fellow seniors intrigued but intimidated by solo travel regularly hedge their bets when expressing their admiration. “You’re so brave! I could never do what you do.” Her reply is emphatic: “We’re talking about Amsterdam, not Antarctica! Anybody can do what I do. Give it a try. Life is too short, especially in retirement, to forgo something so wonderful. It’s an incentive, not a deterrent, to say ‘I’ve never done this before.’ But you’ve got to take the first step. What you give is what you get.”
And in another conversation, “Who cares if you make a mistake in a foreign city? Missed your tram stop? Jump off at the next one and just double back. You’re alone, so no one will know! You may even discover something new and different while turning around.”
Shirley emphasizes that, with month-long stays, “Time is your friend. You have time to discover, to revisit and re-savor what you’ve enjoyed, to solve local puzzles. Best of all, to build local friendships.” Those friendships don’t conclude when a sojourn is over. She is expanding and sustaining a global network of kindred spirits, keeping in touch and often reconnecting.
“My goal is to inspire and be inspired. I hope my blog can encourage other seniors to follow my lead, experiencing the pleasures of solo travel. But I’ll definitely keep on going, whether I have one blog follower or one thousand.”
She closes with a coda from a true adventurer:
“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.”