My first solo trip to Europe happened in 2007, when I was in my early forties. Traveling has never been easy for me, but I needed to attend a conference, so I made myself do it. I felt terrified most of the time, but there was also a pleasing sense of autonomy, and exhilaration at finally seeing places I had only read about.
This was the last time I used a real camera, instead of a phone camera, which helps to explain why my photos turned out so well. I still think they’re the best photographs I’ve ever shot. No doubt they are much like everyone else’s tourist photos of Paris, but one difference is that I visited in late December, a time when very few other tourists are there. The city was peaceful, people were patient with me, and I felt welcome.
I had the most charming of rooms for the romantically-inclined: a tiny attic space with flowered wallpaper and a view over the mansard rooftops of Paris. This is what they used to call a “garret”–where all the penniless poets and artists starved in the nineteenth century.
Even the Louvre was uncrowded. There was no line to get in, and the Mesopotamian galleries (my favorites) were empty. The only area of real congestion was the Mona Lisa, but I suppose that is axiomatic and will never change.
I was only there for two full days, so I didn’t get to see everything on my list (the Père Lachaise cemetery and Montmartre were my two biggest regrets). Some places exceeded my expectations. I especially enjoyed the Musée D’Orsay, not so much for the Impressionist art as for the lovely building itself.
I think some people dislike traveling solo because meals can be lonely. That part, I didn’t mind. I don’t feel self-conscious about dining alone, and I enjoy it. Sometimes the staff will give you a bad table if you’re a party of one, but sometimes they take pity on you and treat you well. I had lots of good food in Paris, but my favorite was L’As du Fallafel in the Marais, which you buy from a window and eat standing on the street. The best falafel I’ve ever had.
I did a LOT of walking. When I look back, I’m surprised I accomplished as much as I did in that short time. My conference was in Lille and I spent most of my trip there (one part of Paris I did not enjoy was the Gare du Nord).
I was up at dawn to see the Eiffel Tower.
I got to the Tower before it opened and I was one of the first people in. I took the elevator to the middle viewing floor, planning to walk back down the stairs, as my guidebook recommended.
When I was done admiring the view, I opened a door that led to the stairs. But partway down, I hit a stile that was closed, so I had to climb back up to the second-level platform. Much to my shock, that door either did not open from the inside, or had been locked in the meantime. I was trapped!
I began to panic. Nobody else was on the stairs, as it was still early in the morning, and most people simply take the elevator down. I didn’t know how to get out, and it was very cold, with the winter wind whipping through the metal lattices. Finally I went back down to the closed stile and awkwardly climbed over it. A group of Asian tourists who were on their way up avidly snapped photos of my transgression. I’m not sure whether (or how) they got through.
I rode the Metro all the way out to La Défense, which is the business district west of the city. During the holidays they have a huge “Christmas Village” with stalls selling all sorts of seasonal foods and gifts. I loved seeing the roasted chestnuts, bûches de noël (“Yule log” cakes) and marzipan. But what interested me most was the massive arch, which was built in the 1980s.
Paris is full of wonders like this, both ancient and modern. My most cherished memory is of sitting in the Sainte-Chapelle, drinking in the beauty of its stained glass. It’s the chapel built by King Louis IX in 1248 to house his collection of relics, including what he believed to be Christ’s crown of thorns. I remember going up to the chapel through a very narrow, winding stone staircase. The cramped stairs made a shocking contrast with the soaring beauty of the chapel, but both are equally medieval.
Maybe this trip has a special place in my heart because I did it by myself. It wasn’t easy, but since then I have felt less fearful about traveling alone.