I always promised myself that I’d go to Paris the first time either in love or alone.
In every fantasy I’d ever had of the City of Light, it was a fabulously romantic experience, but with no real adult romance on the horizon post-college, I was dying to see the city I’d read so much about. If it wasn’t going to be with the love of my life, it was still going to be a statement of self, carried off in a fancy fashion.
I should note here that there are lots of how-to’s written for the solo backpacker, those hardy souls who come back from Southeast Asia with their giant batik pants and elephant-bathing photos and insist that they’re “travelers, not tourists.” The first step of planning a successful solo trip was admitting to myself that that’s not me. I travel to see the best that the world has to offer, and there’s nothing interesting to me about eating only the cheapest possible meals while wearing quick-dry cargo shorts and sleeping in hostel bunk beds. I’m not jetsetting around the world, exactly, but a trip must necessitate a pretty dress in my luggage or I’m probably not enjoying myself.
So when I decided to take the plunge to celebrate a big promotion at work, I really indulged. I booked a room at the Hotel de Crillon, made dinner reservations at the Hotel Costes and picked up a pair of Christian Louboutins at the boutique on the Rue du Fauborg Saint-Honoré as a souvenir.
Admittedly, while it was a bit cliche of what I imagined a glamorous single life was, it changed the way I approached my 20s, and in some ways, the rest of my life.
People who talk about solo travel often point out the logistical advantages: You can do exactly what you want to do, exactly when you want to do it. You can eat where you want, skip the stuff that bores you, sleep late and talk to everyone or no one depending on your mood. But the best part of traveling alone is what it does for you mentally.
There’s something about the disjunction of being out of your routine that makes being alone more noticeable. Without the comforting anesthetics of Netflix, takeout and unlimited Internet browsing, it’s harder to ignore the fact that you’re eating alone or having a glass of wine by yourself. Faced with nothing but my own thoughts and my own company at dinner, I started to get a little sad and was immediately confronted with the choice to be happy.
There’s an art to being alone with intention, and that first day in Paris, I started to study it.
There are a few precautions I’ve learned to take to avoid actual loneliness. Halfway through my first week in Paris, for instance, I’d convinced a friend to come from Switzerland to hang out for a few days. A few years later while on a solo trip to Rome, I decided to get oriented in the city and have a little fun by booking a wine tasting through Context Travel. That combination of a few scheduled commitments that give the trip structure, supplemented with a list of museums, galleries, stores and sights sorted by neighborhood that I can select from based on my mood, has proved to be the magic combination for me.
With no one there to play the “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” game, I can simply pick a destination and head off in that general direction, and see where the day takes me. And while safety is something I consider when selecting a destination—I tend to choose big cities with lots of daytime activities and well-developed residential areas for solo trips, as opposed to destinations where nightlife is the main appeal, since I don’t love going out late alone—basic common sense will keep you safe out in the world just like it does at home. My three main rules (don’t drink too much, don’t go anywhere with a bunch of strangers without an exit strategy, and pay attention to the people around you) aren’t really any different than the rules I follow where I live in New York City.
No matter your relationship status, there are times when we all walk our path alone in life, so the things you learn by actually traveling alone on purpose are hugely important. Think of it as a crash course in life lessons, with killer Instagrams as a bonus.
In Paris, I learned not to apologize for my own interests. I indulged in three or four museums a day, stopped in strange old taxidermy boutiques and vintage magazine shops, and walked nearly three miles to try a baguette I’d only read about. I learned that confidence and spontaneity are highly attractive traits to the opposite sex, and that’s it’s possible to indulge in them while still respecting my personal boundaries. And most importantly, I learned that while I was so focused on not caring about what people thought, I’d overlooked the fact that they were never thinking about me in the first place. Think of the last meal you had in a restaurant—and now try to remember who was sitting at the next table. Can you even recall? That’s about as memorable as you’ll be to anyone who sees you eating alone. It’s immensely freeing to realize that you don’t have to focus on the fact that you’re not with anyone—because nobody else is.
Many solo trips later, to some of the world’s great cities and to some of her beautiful beaches, I’ve gotten to focus on having the experiences that I’m most excited about, without compromise or concern for what other people think.
And while I didn’t go strolling through the Jardin du Luxembourg hoping to change my life in any way (if only I’d had enough nouns and verbs to tell a handsome Frenchman about the book I was reading!) it’s made every solo experience after that easier. What’s getting myself to a wedding in Boston alone compared to navigating the Delhi airport? If I can withstand the lavish attentions of a Roman waiter, surely I can enjoy the comparative peace of a dinner at the bar of a restaurant I’ve been to dozens of times? Traveling solo helped me learn to quiet that voice in my head that worries about being alone, and reminds me that I’m not waiting for my life to start. My life is happening here, now, and it’s up to me to live it.