It was a sunny morning in August but I could feel the Parisian chill, which felt refreshing. I arrived an hour before the Eiffel Tower opened and the line was long. Many tourists also got up early to beat the crowds. I stood in line and avoided making eye contact with the men selling souvenirs. Then a young woman with the biggest smile I had ever seen got in line behind me. She was wearing a floral dress with tights, a denim jacket, and had on a backpack. Her name was Mirna, she was from Mexico, and it was her first time in Paris too. As a fellow female solo traveler she began making conversation. On our way our way up the Eifel tower I learned what brought her to Paris.
It was my first time flying across the Atlantic, eight hours, and thirty thousand feet in the air. The time went by fast thanks to the complimentary wine and cocktails. My first destination was London, England. Once I stepped off the underground at King’s Cross St. Pancreas Station double decker red buses greeted me, cars driving on the other side of the road and rain. I was wide-eyed, idealistic, and a little scared, so I held on to my wallet and dragged my luggage. I have lived in Chicago since my first year of college, and I consider it my city now. Living in a large city and being first generation American provided me with the craving to go and see the world.
“Alone? You can’t go alone,” my mom said. “Why are you going alone?” my friends asked? I knew I had to go alone, it was my trip to take, and I mapped the journey. I saved money for the entire summer. The trip took me to three countries: England, France and Italy. And five cities: London, Paris, Bordeaux, Rome and Florence. Here’s what I learned after two weeks: there’s no better way to get to know yourself than to travel alone, indecisiveness can be a good thing, be open to making new friends, and wine is a good idea in any time zone.
I learned to know myself, not only because going overseas alone was a brave thing to do but also, I could give into whatever my heart desired. I spent an hour in Shakespeare and Company surrounded by books and history. The walls decorated with pictures of Ernest Hemingway with Sylvia Beach. The old typewriters, antique furniture, Sylvia’s private library were worth my time. And the view from the second floor window, had views of the river, the street art vendors, and Notre Dame. I searched for a book to buy until I found a tittle that spoke to me, and settled for A Wrinkle in Time.
There were no rules on this trip as far as what I was allowed to do or see. I spent as much time as I needed admiring a painting or sitting outside a café watching people go by. I liked taking the smaller streets of Paris and seeing people walking their dogs, and artists painting in their studious. The magical moments sparked when I was far from the crowds and I walked as a Parisian. I bought a twist-off bottle of wine at a supermarket to keep in my hotel room, and drank it warm out of a paper cup. It didn’t matter, I was in Paris and all I had to do was look out the window to confirm it. I cheered to that!
Indecisiveness struck me in London and no one could tell me not to. After a long day of sightseeing, Westminster Abbey, Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, and taking selfies with the guards, I wanted to eat fish and chips. I checked out the menus outside a few pubs but I couldn’t commit to one. I wanted the authentic feel not just a place that would cater to tourists. I found a pub off one of the main roads almost in an alley, Sherlock Holmes style. They charged nine pounds for fish and chips so I went in. The dish included, a large piece of golden fried cod, thick potatoes crunchy on the outside, all over a bed of peas. Hard apple cider is a must, Strongbow, to be precise. The pint was large with the effects equal to a martini.
On any trip it is important to make friends. I visited my friend Manuel and his French wife Laura in Bordeaux. The best memories I made with them happened out in their balcony. The nights were warm with plenty of stars in the sky to go around. The streets were quiet and “Le Soldat” by Florent Pagny played on the radio. Laura had a spread of French food and wine on the table, foie gras, cheese, duck sausage and baguettes. Manuel brought out the cigarettes and we smoked, laughed and drank wine. Manuel invited some of his friends Lisa and Eric to meet me. I got to hear all about Lisa’s divorce to Eric, they met in Barcelona a few years back.
It’s a monumental experience when the dream of a lifetime comes true. Those moments belong to me and to nobody else. On the plane I thought about what I learned but I couldn’t narrow it all down. After an eleven-hour flight, I was flying over Lake Michigan. I saw the Chicago skyline and I remembered the first time I saw it from a plane. I considered the city so large and imposing before I made the trip. As I watched the plane pass those modern buildings, parks and docks something looked different. The city looked astoundingly small compared to the world I left behind.