I’d never really been alone in Paris before.
For all the times I’d visited, I never just got on a plane or train and said, I’ll be exploring you on my own today.
For the person who has or hasn’t been yet, you may already guess at how Paris can be intimidating.
There’s everything that you know about it before you go. You’ve decided to experience one of the most written, filmed, and sung about cities in the world. There are a thousand monuments, millions of people, and all that nonsense about romance and food and wine. Absolutely no pressure to make this one, little, insignificant trip a meaningful one.
Then, when you get there, there’s everything you don’t know about it. Especially if you haven’t traveled much before, Paris is huge and fast paced. It can be disorienting suddenly being in front of the buildings you’d only ever seen on screens and books. The streets seem bigger, wider, bleaker. That notion of romance is hard to hang onto with the smell of calcified urine and car exhaust in your face. And this all comes before the paranoid realization that you’re never really anonymous here. People are people watching, analyzing every tug on your windblown scarf and glance to your google maps. And even if that weren’t an everyday way of life for Parisians, you’ve still got the hawkers and the beggars and the people with the clip boards assessing your every step, ready to have a chat and get something in return.
And THEN, if you’re a former French student, you’re thrice cursed. You’ve arrived with a weighty expectation of linguistic excellence hanging over your head and the soul crushing disappointment awaiting you when you first realize that YOU CAN’T UNDERSTAND ANYONE.
So there it is, the tangled knot of anxiety that is Paris to the solo and partnered-up traveler alike. This wasn’t my first time visiting by any means, but it still didn’t negate the ounce of trepidation sloshing around in my stomach as I boarded the plane.
In fact, Paris wasn’t my solo destination purely because it was Paris. I had the lure of a good friend I hadn’t seen in three years to get me searching for tickets. Turns out, if you cheat a little, your solo trip seems a lot more feasible when you know you’ll have some company along the way. And in fact, I had much more than that. My dear friend Wafa generously offered me a bed in her family’s comfy home, just a short train ride outside of Paris.
Because she had her job during the day, we knew our hours together would be limited. This crystallized into good motivation to make the most of both my ample free time and after a day full of challenging myself, I knew the evenings would equate to restorative activities with a good friend. These included roaming her neighborhood in twilight and early morning hours, getting to know her family, eating out with her friends, and having dinner conversations that became a rivalrous balance between French, English, and occasionally Tunisian and Moroccan Arabic.
A cousin of Wafa’s coworker was visiting Paris on her own too for the first time. We were immediately able to swap stories through muddled sentences that didn’t belong to either of our first languages about how imposing the city can be. Then the four of us, in our new iron clad camaraderie, rode buses and trains and floated on a city lit river together, laughing the night away. We found ways of congratulating each other in our respective languages and situations. “Congratulations on getting married!” “Congratulations on the baby!” “Congratulations on your visa being accepted to New Zealand!” “Congratulations on returning to the city of your birth!”
The heady company of these evenings and the glow of the Tour d’Eiffel was tempered by day times spent on my own. After I left Wafa at the Gare Montparnasse in the mornings, the next nine hours were reserved for just me, Paris, and the mild autumn weather.
That first morning was a little intimidating. Overwhelmed by all the choices so early in the day, I immediately ducked into a commercial center near Montparnasse. After I let the security guards check my purse, I let the gauze of anonymity alight and wandered through the empty, weekday corridors. I took the escalator up into FNAC and beckoned to remembered-afternoons, strolling through the levels without real intention, running my fingers up and down the spines of books like I used to when I lived in Nantes. I wandered into a Sephora next, looking at all the shiny colors I wasn’t seeing on the gray streets, following the glint of packaging up to the register, wishing I felt inspired by some of my old taste for makeup.
I bought something small and stupid and overpriced just to give me a reason to leave and then made my way to a bathroom and a place for coffee. Finally, suitably refreshed to meet my old ghosts, I left the mall and made my way toward the river Seine. I walked past giant empty music halls and the square with its garishly placed obelisk and the fountain where I had once gotten my photo taken in a black and white shift and gray boots.
Then after some meandering through an empty, roped, queue, I spent the entire afternoon at Musée d’Orsay, four feet-aching hours in all.
With every sharpening step, I became more and more relieved to be visiting this museum on my own. I started on the fifth floor with the impressionists and descended, level by level, breathing in the colors and the gradients and the lines. The minutes expanded as I stood in front of each canvas. I pushed myself to greet each painting as if it were my first of the day, trying vainly not to take a picture, knowing it would only be like trying to commune with old ghosts through my iPhone later, a haunting but not the real thing.
Perhaps it was the 19th century train station that lent this air of transcendence, but as I stopped to stare at each flowing facade, I felt if I could just keep looking a second longer, maybe I could reach out and touch one of the brush strokes and know exactly whose face was behind it.
The next day started off the same, with an immediate need to shake off the street-side appraisals before I could calibrate myself for the day. I strolled through royal gardens, walked past the shining opera halls, and tried to remember how to say “check please” as I finished my tartine and cafe-au-lait. Then, I decided to take in a movie and settled on a period piece in a theater on the Rue de la Gaîté. During the aptly titled film, Éternité, I watched 115 minutes of women clad in gorgeous fabric and men pressed into trim suits kiss and admire their babies while staring poignantly ahead at the years progressing into one new death after another. Chosen simply because I love Audrey Tautou and period films, I struggled to understand the 20 total minutes of dialogue and kept a careful eye on the silhouettes of the three gray haired women (the only other viewers in attendance) trying desperately to ignore my growling stomach and the raspberry tarte stashed in my purse.
On my final morning before my flight, Wafa took me to Carrefour to find some speculoos spread, and then her father drove the three of us to the airport so I could catch my flight home. In the bumper-to-bumper Saturday traffic, curled up in the back seat trying not to make my motion sickness worse, my mind floated back to the serenity I had found sitting next to the Seine, all alone, on my first day.
After Musee D’Orsay, I had made my way down to the river with blue sky and white clouds and not much else around me. I chose a bit of cement and there I sat down with my feet hanging over the edge for I don’t know how long.
It’s this moment of serenity that confounds me now. At one point on this trip in between monument viewings and new friends laughing and bumper to bumper traffic, I had sat in the autumn air in an old city, completely alone. With strangers left and right, a friend working somewhere in the middle of it, my husband working thousands of miles to the south of it, I realized the tranquility of my aloneness. I had stumbled upon one of those seismic centers of the world that are made up of so many conflicting energies they can only result in pure chemical process…That spot on the river, that afternoon in the gentle sun, it was a fleck of a minuscule of a much larger globe, where all quietness and meekness and greatness and noise are tuned and orchestrated and then maddened and calmed before they radiate out into the world for consumption. I was alone but I was not lonely. I was solo but I was not isolated. It was a moment of my own making.
In a city that once intimidated and demanded so much of me, something quiet and peaceful blossomed within me. At that riverbank, all alone, a new world started to bleed over the horizon. And the irony is, now that I’ve reached this transcendence with Paris, I’ll probably never be able to go back to what I found. The new world is ready to wash over me and that opportunity for intentional aloneness in that city will not repeat.
And there’s something a bit melancholy and joyful in that thought now.