Have Freedom, Will Travel
I had a ticket. I had my passport. And he had cold feet. I might have known fairy tales don't come true. Seven months out of my marriage, I had met the "great love of my life." We dated a year. I'd always longed to see Europe, and, with my divorce final, we planned the trip together. Then two weeks before takeoff, he took off. Having piggybacked two breakups, I felt as if I'd been through a double divorce. Here I was, thirty-nine years old, with two small children, and facing my ultimate fear: a life alone. Was I ready to spend a month in Europe by myself? I had a hard time going to a movie alone! But it did seem now or never. The kids would be with their dad, the money came as part of my property settlement, and I had a job waiting when I returned. Okay, if I was going to be lonely for the next few years, I might as well start by being lonely in Europe.
The highlight of my journey was to be Paris, the city I'd always wanted to see. But now I was frightened to travel without a companion. I steeled myself and went anyway. I arrived at the train station in Paris panicked and disoriented. I hadn't used my college French in twenty years. Pulling my red suitcase on wobbly wheels behind me, I was shoved and pushed by perspiring travelers reeking of cigarette smoke, different diets and not nearly enough deodorant. The roar of many languages bombarding me seemed unintelligible, just babble. On my first Metro ride, I encountered an incompetent, clumsy pickpocket. I melted him with a look, and he eased his hand from my purse to fade into the crowded car. At my stop, I hauled my heavy suitcase up the steep stairs and froze. Cars zoomed helter skelter, honking belligerently. Somewhere in this confusing city my hotel was hidden, but the directions I had scrawled suddenly weren't legible. I stopped two people. Both greeted me with that Parisian countenance that said: "Yes, I speak English, but you'll have to struggle with your French if you want to talk to me." I walked up one street and across another. A wheel broke off my suitcase. When I finally found the hotel, my heart was pounding, I was sweating like a basketball player and my spirits drooped. They flattened altogether when I saw my room. I couldn't stay. Could I? The wallpaper looked like it had been through a fire. The bedsprings creaked. The bathroom was down the hall, and the window looked out onto the brick wall of another building. Welcome to Paris. I sincerely wanted to die. I missed my friend. I was entering my third week away from home and my kids, and I had arrived in the most romantic city in the world, alone. Alone and lonely. Alone, lonely and petrified.
The most important thing I did in Paris happened at that moment. I knew that if I didn't go out, right then, and find a place to have dinner, I would hide in this cubicle my entire time in Paris. My dream would be foregone, and I might never learn to enjoy the world as a single individual. So I pulled myself together and went out. Evening in Paris was light and balmy. When I reached the Tuileries, I strolled along a winding path, listening to birds sing, watching children float toy sailboats in a huge fountain. No one seemed to be in a hurry. Paris was beautiful. And I was here alone but suddenly not lonely. My sense of accomplishment at overcoming my fear and vulnerability had left me feeling free, not abandoned. I wore out two pairs of shoes during my week's stay in Paris. I did everything there was to do, and it was the greatest week of my European vacation. I returned home a believer in the healing power of solitary travel. Years later, I still urge divorcing or widowed friends to take their solo flight in the form of travel plans. Those who have gone have returned changed; even by a four-day weekend in Santa Fe, an Amtrak ride up the coast or an organized tour of Civil War battlefields. Traveling alone redeems itself by demanding self-reliance and building the kind of confidence that serves the single life well. Certainly Paris became my metaphor for addressing life's challenges on my own. Now when I meet an obstacle I just say to myself, If 1 can go to Paris, 1 can go anywhere.