Traveling Alone

Paris, November 2014

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

~ Mark Twain

It's been a good ten years or more since I've travelled all on my lonesome. And traveling alone to a country where English is not the predominant language? This was probably the first time. My recent trip to Paris was only for three days, but to me it felt like a kickstart to something that has laid dormant in me for a long time. Something akin to freedom, independence, my sense of adventure.

The Husband and I have travelled and lived in many places and countries since we met in 2007. Prior to that, I traveled throughout Southeast Asia for work, and before that, visited parts of the USA when I was studying and living in Michigan. But I was rarely, if ever, on my own. I traveled with friends, boyfriends, work colleagues, or visited people who showed me around. On the rare occasion where I was on my own, I could always communicate, ask questions, read directions without any problems. I never felt out of my depth.

My time in Paris kicked me right out of the comfortable box I'd made a home for myself in without even realising it. Suddenly, I had no one to depend on but myself. It was up to me and me alone to make decisions, to go to places, to do things. I had to learn to navigate a city where I could not pronounce the street names. My phone battery died on me halfway on my first night in the city, leaving me stranded in the middle of a cold and dark street where I didn't see another person for a few good blocks. I ordered food from menus I couldn't read, and walked streets I'd never seen before in my life, from one arrondissement to another, from morning till evening.

There was such a freedom in knowing I could do anything I wanted, be anywhere I wanted, without rushing back to the hotel to put the baby down for a nap, without looking for child-friendly places where my toddler could run around, without worrying about strollers and steps and narrow doorways. There were no plans (well, some plans - it is me you're talking about after all!), and this sudden liberation was both wonderful and also a little daunting.

More than once I found myself sitting in a cafe, in complete indecision over whether or not to do something or go somewhere. There were times when I wanted feedback. I wanted someone to talk with over a glass of wine, to enthused with when I saw something spectacular. There were moments when I felt awkward and alone sitting in a busy restaurant where everyone else had company.

And when those moments came, I allowed myself to feel uncomfortable - but only for a few minutes. Once I'd made up my mind to embrace every minute of my travel, whatever happened, the fact that I was in Paris, all on my own, without any agenda and without having to cater to anyone else's needs but my own, was a complete revelation. I didn't have anyone to talk to, so I started paying more attention to my surroundings. I sat and observed and listened. 

I watched a well-dressed Parisian woman talking animatedly, fingers dancing all over the table as she regaled a story to her companion. I watched a young boy kicking a ball with his father at the Tuileries Garden and laughing merrily. I sat on a bench inside the Notre Dame for an hour and listened as altar boys sang, their voices pure and majestic echoing through the beautiful church. I shed a tear as I lit a candle and said a prayer for my family. Once I started embracing being in my own company, the fact that I didn't have to talk to anyone, do anything I didn't want to do, be anywhere I didn't want to be, felt so rare and peaceful, and I was able to fully relish and enjoy the experience.

Solo traveling is not for everyone. A few people looked at me in both horror and fascination when I'd mentioned to them that I was heading to Paris on my own. But I would do it again, the very same way, given the chance. And I would do it again for any other place and destination in the future too. It's a different kind of experience to traveling with people, but certainly not any less rewarding or enriching.

In fact, I think you actually experience more of a place when you travel alone, simply because you have no other distractions than to be completely present and 'in the moment' at all times. You reflect more, you dig deeper, and at the end of the journey - no matter how short or long - you leave with a better understanding of who you are and what you're capable of, something that you'll take with you even when the memory of a place has long faded into the past, which can only ever be a good thing.


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