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I bought the plane ticket to Paris on a whim. I needed to get away. I was struggling to get over both a guy who needed space and a flu that couldn't get enough of me. I was juggling two waitress jobs. I was losing my friends, and my sister had taken to calling my co-workers to check if I was alive.
I had planned on walking part of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a pilgrimage in Spain popular with both the deeply religious and the adventure-seeker with a hankering for tapas. The Internet had told me April would be warm there. But by the time I landed in Paris, the forecast had devolved into a depressing amalgam of rain and sleet with no end in sight.
My visions of sitting on a rock in the sun contemplating life and writing in my journal at night over wine and cured meats were dashed, and I was left with no plan.
I decided to do the tourist thing. After all, how often would I find myself in Paris with two weeks to kill? I could contemplate life atop the Eiffel Tower. I could write in my journal at a bistro table, surrounded by Parisians with Agnès B satchels and Christian Louboutin shoes.
Unfortunately, Paris and I got off on the wrong Louboutin.
My dingy hostel at 35 euros a night was not exactly fabuleux. The common room was cold and damp, and the rooms got so hot at night that sleep was all but impossible. And making acquaintances was not easy, as everyone was glued to their iPhone or iPad.
Having left my arsenal of electronics at home, I was left leafing through German magazines while everyone chattered happily on Skype. It seems the fun of travelling alone is lost on a lot of kids – though many of them were on weekend holidays, not a journey of self-discovery like me.
The romance of being a wanderer in the City of Light was stymied by the fact that I was dressed for hiking the Pyrenees. I did share spaces with people whose left shoes had cost more than my flight, but I was not part of their club. To them, I was l'américaine stupide with my raincoat and fanny pack.
It's not fair to say that Parisians are rude. However, I'm pretty sure the concept of “after you” is foreign to them. You could die hovering at the edge of the Métro turnstile waiting for someone to slow down and let you in.
I hate to admit it, but I found solace among the tourists at the Louvre. I was glad to be among my people, the marginalized non-French. After a while, though, watching people walk around hand in hand, talking in hushed tones, posing for cheesy photos, I couldn't help but feel I was missing out. Being alone was becoming a drag.
And drag myself I did, to the Eiffel Tower, thinking it would be weird to have gone to Paris and not have seen its heart and symbol of romance. My own heart wasn't in it, though. In fact, I hadn't even noticed it looming ahead until I was almost upon it.
“Oh!” I looked up, startled. “Okay. It's tall,” I said to no one. I was not awestruck. I didn't go to the top. Satisfied that I could say I saw it, I elbowed my way onto the Métro and back to the hostel, where I hunkered down in my bunk for a nap. Lying there, pretending there wasn’t a large, hairy stranger lounging on his own bunk a few feet away, I was struck by a thought: What the hell am I doing here?
I had barely had time to see my family in months. They've always been supportive of my travels, contenting themselves with weekly two-line e-mails gushing about the weather from whatever beach I happened to be on, but I knew they missed me. And I realized that I missed them. My one-year-old nephew barely knew me. My sister had no clue what was going on in my life. My mother would be turning 60 while I was searching for myself in Paris.
In a way, I did find myself there: I glimpsed myself way across the ocean, at home, wondering where my body had disappeared to. It was time to go home.
I’d been shelling out $50 a night for a small rectangle of mattress and a morning croissant. It didn't take long to work out I’d be no worse financially by leaving a few days early.
I felt a bit the fool for spending so much money on a holiday I didn't enjoy, but I guess sometimes perspective isn't cheap. I was happy to spend my mother's 60th with her rather than my journal. I went on a pirate adventure with my niece at the movies. My sister and I talked for hours one night, making up for lost time over a bottle of champagne. It's true that champagne tastes better when it's shared.
I babysat my nephew, Charlie, the morning after I got home. After playing with trucks and practising going up and down stairs, we decided to go for a walk. When we reached the end of the road, my companion stopped and stood gazing at what he’d brought me to see.
“Umnh,” he said, pointing across the street at twin structures gleaming green and white in the distance. We stood quietly, hand in hand, staring at the two parked dump trucks, full of awe – him at the trucks, me at him. And, for the first time on my vacation, I really felt like I was somewhere special.
Kerri Flanagan lives in Montreal.
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