I have memories of different excursions, events and milestones that I shared with former boyfriends and former friends. The memory has always been tainted by the past association. I thought that if I went alone, I’d never want to go back and edit my memory. It would be just me, and I would always have myself.
I live in a town in New York, only a little over an hour from Manhattan. This was my first time out of the United States (the Northeast United States, really) and it was also the first time that I have ever been on a plane, both of which are a huge step for someone suffering from an anxiety disorder. I made very loose plans. I knew where I would arrive and leave from, the rest I left to spontaneity. I decided that I would visit Paris and then London. Part of me thought that I must be insane to do this; part of me was very excited to do something that I’ve wanted to do since I was a child. I booked the trip around the time of my next birthday. I also got myself a non-refundable ticket to Paris before I could change my mind. A network that I belong to was coincidentally having a meet-up in Paris for the same weekend that I had planned to arrive, so I decided to take advantage of the timing and thought that it would be good to see some familiar faces while I was there. After the weekend, I would be completely on my own.
When I boarded the plane, I was so anxious and terrified that I was physically shaking. I sat down and looked out the window, wondering if this was one of my last moments. As the plane started to take off, an incredible feeling washed over me. I saw the glittering lights of NYC get farther and farther away, and then disappear into the clouds. It suddenly dawned on me that I was leaving more behind than geography. I felt as if I was shedding a cocoon of sorts, leaving behind all my fears and anxieties along with my home. I sat back and relaxed for the remainder of my flight. I was surprised. Of all of the scenarios I had envisioned, I did not anticipate actually enjoying my journey.
I arrived in Paris. I looked around as the taxi sped away, amazed at seeing the city that I had dreamed of for so long. It looked exactly as I had imagined. I was in another world. I went for a walk as soon as I had settled into my hotel room. The city appeared exactly like it was portrayed in one of those cliché movies, including the smell of bread wafting from the ubiquitous cafés. It was rainy (as expected), grey, and chilly. I loved it. I wandered from shop to shop, tasting pain au chocolat (which soon became a daily habit), sandwich au poulet, and looked at the clothes on display in the windows. Children laughed and played in the streets and people sat outside cafés, deep in conversation. People zoomed by on mopeds and bikes, their cheeks pink from the brisk air.
The first difference between Paris and New York that I noticed was the pace. In New York, walking and talking fast is the norm. In Paris, no one seems to be in a hurry for anything. My French was rustier than I remembered and it was odd to be the foreigner in a land where another language is spoken. For once, I was the one struggling to understand and making hand gestures instead of the other way around. I thought to myself that everyone should have this experience. It brought me closer to the people at home who struggled to speak English to me. I learned at once that contrary to popular belief, Parisians tend to be quite friendly if you make an attempt to communicate. I also quickly realized that “merci” was the most important word in the language. It elicited many smiles whenever I used it, which was liberally. Restaurant servers were in no hurry, it’s expected to sit a while and enjoy the meal over an extended conversation. I’m used to counting the minutes as I’m served, eating quickly, and then impatiently waiting for the check. It felt like such an indulgence to savor my meal (the lasagna in Paris was surprisingly good) and not curtail my conversation.
Over the next few days, I spent many hours slowly sipping chocolat chaud in cafés, gazing outside at passerby, and marveling at the impressive historical buildings around me. I felt an inner calm that I was not used to in the slightest. I learned in Europe that sometimes I didn’t need to do, it was enough to just be.
With my group, I visited the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Élysées, Notre Dame, saw the Louvre, and explored much of central Paris. When we first came upon the Eiffel Tower, I didn’t see it. My friend pointed out that it was right in front of me and I laughed, amazed that I could miss the landmark that I had been longing to see.
We spent time in chic bars and small restaurants alike. I also spent a day at Versailles with two friends, amazed at my first time in a castle (they just don’t have castles in New York) and seeing history unfold before me. For the first time of many in the next few weeks, the beauty before me brought tears to my eyes.
The next day, I was set to separate from my group and head for London alone. I became terrified. What was I thinking, going off to yet another country on an unfamiliar continent alone? I started to panic, thinking that I had made a huge mistake. I knew that it was too late to back out now, so I hopped on the Eurostar with my friend the next day and one nap later, I was in London. It was a very strange sensation to take a two hour train ride and suddenly be in what seemed to be yet another world. In Paris, most of it seemed grey, the city was always weeping, people tended to be cloaked in black and grey. In London, I was greeted by the brightness of the city, red buses sped by and once again the pace was different. Cars zoomed by and people walked briskly to their destinations. I must say that this felt more normal to me than the slow pace of Paris. If Paris is a young, impossibly chic and slightly dour young woman, London is a healthy middle-aged man: streaks of grey and showing its age, but still vibrant and full of life.
I settled into a bed and breakfast and spent my first night eating a takeaway and watching the BBC, hesitant to stray outside the hotel. The next day I had a lunch date with someone. I timidly walked over to the tube station and struggled to use my Oyster card correctly. I was pleased that it was a lot easier than I thought to arrive at my destination. I saw my friend standing in Green Park and we walked over to Buckingham Palace. I have never had much interest in the current royal family but the very size and grandeur of the palace was quite a sight to see. We went to a teashop so that I could get my first package of proper tea. We took the tube again and walked around past Big Ben, the House of Parliament, and the London Eye . We took pictures with a street artist and walked along the Thames. I was so overwhelmed by the city that I had no idea what I wanted to see first. I went home, happy to have made a start in the sightseeing and decided to visit the Tower of London the next day, as I have a slight Tudor obsession.
I went on the tube, which after only one day I had learned was a very efficient and simple way of traveling. As I exited the station, I gasped as the Tower stood before me, equally intimidating and stunning. I hastily purchased a ticket and went for an hour tour with a Beefeater. When he told us that we were standing at the Tower where Sir Thomas More awaited his fate, I gazed up at it in awe. He showed us around, pointing out where the particularly noteworthy prisoners were held, and the history of the Tower itself. We sat in the church as he told us tales of what was buried there. I was stunned when he told us that he was standing atop the site where Anne Boleyn was buried. It felt as if all the historical figures that I’d read about were suddenly coming to life; I could imagine the famous patrons sitting in the church, contemplating their lives and their fates. I spent several hours there exploring and taking photos. I was so enthralled that I stayed until it was about to close. It was one thing to read about history, but to be there was as if it was unfolding in front of my eyes. I suppose it’s a bit morbid to want to see the rooms where such sadness and misery existed, but it made me very happy to see everything that I’d heard about for so long.
During my trip, I spent hours upon hours exploring and walking the streets alone, and as a result of all of the time to think freely, there were a couple of moments where I was struck with thoughts of stunning clarity.
On Saturday night, I walked around the streets of Kensington and Chelsea, waited for an exhibit to open at the V&A museum. I wandered over to Harrods to watch the lights. I stood alone at night outside the magnificent display of the holiday lights, and I looked around at the people surrounding me. I was surrounded by what appeared to be happy couples and happy families. I was the only person alone in a sea of faces. I felt a wave of loneliness come over me as it sunk in how truly alone I was. I started to doubt my decision when it struck me that I had learned a very important lesson. I can make it on my own, I can take care of myself, even if it hurts, even if it breaks my heart.
I might still be scared, but the world has so much to offer me. And if I hide from it, I won’t experience any of that. If my heart keeps breaking, it still has the ability to open again and break again and heal again.
On one of my last nights in London, I took the tube to Green Park and walked through central London. I wandered around from street to street, alone with my thoughts. I walked for hours. Eventually I wandered into the Chinatown area of London. A young man who couldn’t have been more than twenty saw me in the street and started trying to chat me up. As I walked past the tourist shops, he tried to get me to let him purchase me a gift. He asked if I was an American (even the flattest New York accent is quite telling) and when I replied asked who I had come with on my visit. I told him that I had come here completely alone. “Wow, you’re very independent. Coming all the way from America by yourself just to see London. That’s amazing.” Until he spoke those words, I hadn’t realized it. What I had done was amazing. The impact on me of coming alone and how it meant that I finally knew that I could take care of myself finally sunk in. I smiled to myself, content with the gift he had given me, the knowledge that I now knew that I could truly take care of myself. I lost him in the streets of Chinatown, underneath the paper red lanterns strewn about the streets, and walked on alone.