Time for another travel essay. Today’s topic: that time I decided to travel alone.
You know all those books and articles espousing the benefits and joys of traveling alone, especially when you’re a woman?
Well, I did it once, and … I didn’t really like it.
Towards the end of my teaching assistantship in France, I was trying to pack in as much traveling as possible before I moved permanently back to the US to begin my ‘real’ life. But at that point, near the end, nearly all my friends were broke. I was, too, for the most part, but I wasn’t about to let that stop me.
I had never really traveled alone before. Sure, I’d done the physical part of traveling alone — flying alone, taking a train alone — but it was always to a destination where I’d be meeting up with people. This time I was staying in a hostel alone, eating alone, full stop.
I was excited. I’m naturally an introvert, and had spent the past several months traveling with all kinds of people, which were mostly good experiences, but there was the occasional argument over what to do or where to eat or how and when to split up. But this time, everything would be up to me. I wouldn’t have to talk to a soul.
And so I set off from my little town of Saint-Lô one day, armed with nothing but my camera, my books, and my optimism. First stop: Paris. This would be an easy one; I’d been to Paris dozens of times before. But never alone.
I checked into my hostel near the Louvre, locked up my stuff, and then headed out to explore the parts of Paris I hadn’t been to yet. My first stop was Père Lachaise, the cemetery where Jim Morrison is buried, among other people. On my way there I was hit on by some teenage boys in the metro, which was annoying, but not earth-shattering; this was France, and my friends and I knew by now that as young females, getting hit on was pretty much par for the course.
The one thing I hadn’t counted on: I had never been a female traveler alone before.
No sooner had I settled down on one of Père Lachaise’s benches and pulled out my sandwich than a man came over to chat with me. I politely informed him I had a boyfriend, which was my standard response to getting hit on, regardless of whether or not it was true (it was, for the record, on this trip) but alas, the only way to deter him was to get up and leave.
I lasted nearly half an hour before being approached again, this time by a guy wanting to show me all the famous graves. He hung out here a lot, he explained, because he was descended from Claude Monet. Not sure what one had to do with the other, I declined his offer and left the cemetery. Apparently it was a good place to pick up women; I wish someone had warned me.
I had more exploring to do, but was wary of going it alone now. So I went back to my hostel, where I nearly cried with relief upon realizing that I was sharing my hostel room with three American girls who looked about my age. “Hi!” I exclaimed like a maniac, in the hopes of making friends and then having some backup for when I had to venture back out onto the mean streets of Paris. But they looked at me like I was the uncool kid trying to intrude on their group. So I quickly backed down.
I ate dinner alone in my hostel room. I didn’t have the energy to go back out that day.
The next day, I picked out the most androgynous outfit I had packed (which wasn’t all that androgynous; my fashion sense tends towards the girly), tucked my hair up under a hat, wore no makeup, and set off in the hopes of being left alone.
My hopes were not realized. At one point that day, at the Luxembourg Gardens, a man asked for my phone number, only for me to tell him that I didn’t have a phone — as it rang inside my bag. At another point, I was eating dinner and trying to read at a table on the sidewalk, and no less than three men stopped walking and tried to chat with me. To one of them, I claimed I didn’t speak French … then he pointed out the book I was reading was in French. Le sigh.
The waiter came over then, shooed the guy away, and moved me to a table in the back of the restaurant. I love dining al fresco, but agreed with him the move was necessary.
“You can eat in peace now,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said gratefully. I’d finally made a friend who wasn’t hitting on me.
The waiter winked. “I get off work at eleven.”
At this point, I had moved beyond irritated to straight-up angry. I had just as much of a right as anybody to walk around without being bothered. I was so mad, I cut my Paris portion of the trip short and boarded the train to the second part of my trip: Étretat.
Étretat is a tiny town in upper Normandy known for its spectacular white cliffs (made famous by the great-great-great grandfather of the guy I’d met at Père Lachaise). I arrived by train and then bus, checked myself into the cheapest hotel there — no hostels in Étretat — and set out into the town, wary and alert.
But here, in tiny-town France, I got my wish. Everyone left me alone.
For the first day, it was blissful. I walked the cliffs, photographed the flora and fauna, watched the sun set, ate dinner alone at a restaurant. The next day, I visited the local church, met some friendly cows, read alone at a cafe.
And then on the third day, I started to get a little … lonely.
I tried striking up a conversation with my waiter at a cafe; he was too busy to talk to me. Then I tried talking to the shopkeeper at a caramel store. He was also uninterested. Back at my hotel, I make a remark to the woman at the counter; she smiled tightly and went on with her business.
My last day in Étretat, I sat on the beach, drinking Calvados out of a little bottle and wishing I had someone to talk to. So much so that when a seagull alighted on the stones next to me, I waved happily at it.
“Hi!” I said.
The seagull cocked its head.
“Comment ca va?” I tried.
He hopped closer to me. Finally, a friend!
I talked to the seagull for a few minutes longer, not at all bothered by the weirdness of it (at that point, I’d had a fair amount of the Calvados). And then, once the sun had set over the magnificent white cliffs, I headed back into town, ate alone, went to bed alone, and the next day, boarded the bus alone to head back to Saint-Lô.
On the way back, I reflected upon what had gone wrong; on why an introvert like me had had such a not-great time. And I came to this.
I like being alone — when it’s my choice. I want to be able to choose to talk to someone, or choose not to. But the issue with traveling alone in a country where people (read: men) view you as either a prize to be won or a tourist to be dismissed, the choice about whether or not to talk to anyone is no longer yours. It’s theirs.
I haven’t traveled alone since then. And that’s fine by me.
Image taken by me, Étretat, France, May 2007.