It's been a while since I've travelled alone. In another lifetime, domestic and international travel was integral to my job. It was a groove of frequent flyer miles, hotel points, car rental upgrades; a suitcase that was always half-packed with the essentials, just waiting for the next journey. Being home was the exception, the interlude between dashes to the airport. I've never regretted giving up the hassles of travel, particularly the post-9/11 frantic harassment of airport security and the dismal state of airline service. Happily my travels these days are mostly for holiday, on flights bound for Europe, hand-in-hand with the only person I can suffer to see me through turbulence and jet lag. Brendan and I are viaggiatori simpatici. We dream of the same destinations, push ahead with equal energy levels, become tired and hungry in tandem and bicker over maps and directions without really caring who's right. We always find our way.
But I cannot deny the certain bliss of traveling alone. Undertaking a solo journey abroad is like dumping 1,000 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on dining room table. It begins as a mission of intoxicating near-impossibility, but as you organize patterns and fit those first pieces together, you covet your independence and encircle your puzzle with protective arms, not wanting anyone to interfere with your reverie.
For a reverie it is. Traveling alone means slipping into a dream state, where anything is possible. With each encounter, snafu and discovery, the surroundings reflect you in a mirror that only you can see. This solitary state makes you vulnerable to the world and somehow floating above it. At any given moment, no one really knows where you are, what you are doing, tasting, hearing, seeing. The delightful and the disconcerting occur. During the private journey you rejoice and suffer alone.
Being a solo traveler is sitting in silence at a café on the Île Saint-Louis, sipping a chocolat chaud and watching the sun set Notre Dame aglow.
It is falling to my knees in the crypt of the Shoah Memorial before the tomb of the unknown Jewish martyr and crying alone in that vast, dark space.
It's being asked for directions to the Censier-Daubenton métro stop by a panicked looking Parisian elementary school teacher who has a gaggle of five-year-olds attached to him by a long strap; then being stopped a few minutes later on Rue Mouffetard by a grandmother, looking for the church where a funeral is about to begin.
It's lugging my suitcase up six flights of a stairs that curl like the inside of a sea snail shell, because I can't fathom squeezing myself into the tiny lift.
It's ordering a second glass of Minervois at a restaurant deep in the Marais, wondering if I'll remember the route back to the hotel in the dark.
It's running at dawn on the beach at Cannes with no one to keep watch over my shoes and socks while I wade in the Mediterranean.
It's meeting a vignernon and thinking how my husband would love this kind, gentle man who makes the most wonderful Armagnac I've ever tasted. And thinking, we'll meet again, and Brendan will be with me...
I fell into a deep sleep on the high-speed train carrying me from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris to Cannes on the Côte d'Azur. There was one change of trains, long into the journey. I awoke with a jolt when my iPod slipped from my lap and fell to the floor, jerking away the earpiece. I caught the tail end of the conductor's announcement of our arrival. In my jet lagged haze, I grabbed my bag and stumbled down the steps of my two-tiered car, knowing I had but a few minutes to make my connection. I climbed a set of stairs and crossed to the main terminal, looking for the departure quay. Then it dawned on me. This compact, bright, calm hall was not the hurly-burly Saint-Charles station in Marseilles. I had disembarked in the idyll of Aix-en-Provence. And my train - the one on which I should have remained - had just left the station.
Likely this wouldn't have happened had I not been alone. Then again, I wouldn't have the memory of those moments with the stationmaster, chatting about hunting wild boar in the vineyards of the Rhône, before being deposited on the next TGV that whisked me away to Cannes.