With two of my three sons married (with children), and the youngest ensconced in college, I was ready to take some time for myself. I worked for two years after my husband passed away and then decided that the 12-hour night shift, (which usually turned into 14) at the local hospital, was enough time-in-grade after nearly 30 years, and I quit. But I’m the lucky one. I was financially able to take an early retirement at age 54.
Not one to sit quietly by the fireside, I began a second career in writing. Given my love of travel and writing, merging the two seemed a perfect fit. Writing is cathartic, and even therapeutic. With the house quiet during the day, this semi-empty-nester remodelled a spare bedroom into an office and enthusiastically began my new adventure. While I’m not completely free of responsibilities as the youngest is attending a local university and lives at home, I can’t complain too much - I still get free lawn-care service.
“Where to first?” I asked myself. I thought long and hard about my first solo trip. After scouring scores of travel websites and crossing off my list the places already visited, I decided on Paris. Now, Paris may seem a little over done, but unless you’ve seen it for yourself, you don’t know what you are missing.
And why travel alone? Solo travel may not be right for some people, but for me, it sounded like heaven. Don’t get me wrong, I’d give up just about anything to have my husband back, but that isn’t going to happen. Dwelling in sadness and depression is unhealthy and bad for the soul. I had to get on with my life.
The freedom of making plans to suit my own pleasures is downright liberating. There’s no one to put the kibosh on the hotel because it costs an extra 100 bucks a night for spa services. And how many men do you know who don’t complain about the whole trip designed around local gourmet food and art galleries? “Why not take somebody with you? A friend, or even your sister?” People asked me. It would be just one more person’s wishes and wants to consider. And besides, my sister would never leave her assortment of dogs and cats for a whole week! I’ve always been independent, and I figured, if I can save a life and I can write a book, I can do this! Truth be told, I’m not completely independent. No one is. I still have to have my financial advisor balance my chequebook. But in my defence, I did ace ratios and proportions in college.
So, after weeks of planning and preparation, I set off. I chose a hotel two blocks from the Eiffel Tower. It was across the street from the metro, but far enough outside the more expensive arrondissements. Each day was fully planned out with guided tours and jaunts to museums and galleries with blocks of time to walk around the city and explore on my own. I had heard that Paris is a “walking city.” To absorb the true flavour of Paris, walking through the city and discovering tiny local bistros and shops tucked away on side streets is a must. My high school French was pathetic, but the Parisians, fortunately for me, were helpful (if not a bit condescending - but that’s another story). My first lesson learned was to avoid taxis if possible. The cabbies are insane drivers and have no patience for foreigners who cannot calculate the Euro in five seconds flat. I got into several heated exchanges with a few of them. Take the bus or the metro, but be careful, pickpockets abound in Paris, and they love hanging out in the metro looking for tourists. They are quite accomplished and have more than a few skilled ways to lighten your pockets.
Overall, Paris is free from major crime, but don’t take chances. I booked a room in the hotel on the first floor, close to the lobby. When I explained to the receptionist that I was travelling alone, she gave me a suite just off the lobby adjoining a lovely marble-floored courtyard overflowing with beautiful palms and potted plants. I also booked my tours to Versailles and Normandy in small minivan-driven groups. This gave me a chance to chat with the other travellers and I did not feel so singularly out of place.
People tend to look at you a little funny when dining alone. That was fine with me. I sat at small tables or at the bar and people-watched or took notes for my articles. I learned that the French make meals an occasion. They are leisurely and the food is, without exception, a presentation. My first faux pas was ordering a pop with my meal. How gauche! Bottled water, and, of course, wine with meals is always served. Do not pass up the café gourmand! After a rich, calorie-laden repast, the café is much needed, and the assortment of tiny desserts is the piece de resistance. The chef’s daily desserts: perhaps a dollop of sweet pureed strawberry, a tiny molten chocolate cake, or a small scoop of coconut gelato is artfully arranged on a plate and brought to you by a tuxedoed waiter. This was dining nirvana. I’m glad I was there for only a week. My waistline could not have taken much more indulgence.
Unfortunately, the museum workers went on strike the week I was there. I was so looking forward to perusing the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay and the dozens of other notable museums. I had dreamed of taking my time strolling amongst the artwork of da Vinci, Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Delacroix and Raphael. My disappointment turned into excitement when I discovered on Sunday, the day before my departure, that the museums had opened. It was a wet, chilly day, so I donned my bright red raincoat and headed out. I wasn’t Paris haute couture, but I didn’t care. Standing in the rain for two-and-a-half hours in queue did not dampen my excitement. I waved off the umbrella salesmen and inched my way to the entrance. The Louvre was packed! There must have been a thousand people trying to get a glimpse of the Mona Lisa. I was shoved, jousted, taken along by the crowds and got lost several times, but it didn’t matter, I was in the Louvre! And believe me, it was worth every minute of waiting in the rain. After I committed each gorgeous piece of art to memory, I left and sloshed through the wet streets, crossed over Pont Royal and stood in queue again at the Musée d’Orsay.
I was wet, cold and resembled a drown rat as I headed up Quai Anatole France looking for a bistro to sit and relax and have a late lunch. I had walked about two kilometres when I reached Blvd. St. Germaine and found a small, unassuming bistro called Dauphine’s. I ducked in and found a table. Shedding my jacket and my bulging sack of souvenirs for the grandkids, I caught the waiter’s eye. I could only think of three words when he asked me what I wanted to drink: Vin. Rouge. Large! Now, I’m not much of a drinker, but I drank every drop of the delicious local Pinot Noir. After a scrumptious lunch, and a hefty tip, I persuaded the waiter, whose name was Daniel, or Danielle as he pronounced it, to let me keep the house wine bottle. “Would you like a cab?” he asked. “Oh, yeah,” I replied. I was even too pleasantly numb to fight with the cabbie.
On the flight home, I thought about how lucky I was. I spent a week in Paris doing exactly as I pleased. I went where I wanted, ate when I wanted and slept when I wanted and, more importantly, shopped without guilt; all without taking a companion's preferences into account. I was neither lonely nor afraid. In fact, it was perfect. One day, I hope to take my grandchildren to Europe, but until then, the next time I get the urge to run away from home, I plan on saying to the travel agent: “Ticket for one, please.”
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