Words and photographs from days one & two of my solo trip to Paris, France in November of 2021.
My trip to Paris this past November feels faraway and fuzzy, but it is present in bits and pieces of smells, tastes, and feelings, all located somewhere in the back of my mind.
It is in the shape of the aqua-colored 11 train and its old, rickety doors that rarely opened on their own. It smells like sweet crepe batter that haunted every street, and cold and crispy city air that forced me to purchase a pair of gloves on my first day. It sounds like the first crack of burnt sugar over each creme brûlée I inhaled, and the Sebastian Tellier songs that swirled around in my head for five days straight. It tastes like the last meal I ate on the bed of my hostel — a bottle of Orangina and a package of grocery store pain au chocolat — and it feels like endless frustration and admiration combined: perhaps this last part is the beauty of solo travel, although I’m still kind of figuring that out.
Before I begin, I must credit Joni Mitchell for the title of this post; as with most every life event, she gives me the right words — and the most beautiful ones:
I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive
Nobody was calling me up for favors
And no one’s future decide
On the plane from Rome to Paris, I asked myself what I was doing.
I guess I ask myself this every time I step onto a plane, for being in a confined piece of metal tens of thousands of feet into the air often induces self-reflection. But this time, it was different. I was by myself, en route to a country I’d never been to, knowing about 20 French words and phrases, and holding onto a very rough itinerary I’d not had time to perfect.
I hadn’t even decided how I was going to get to my hostel from the airport once I arrived in Paris — and if you know me, you know that this is not me. I’m a planner, through and through, but I’d simply had no time to plan more than a few things.
In the end, I bought tickets and took the RER train from CDG Airport to the center of Paris, and instantly upon leaving the airport, the culture shock began. On the train, I moved my suitcase for a man who was looking for a seat. He smiled under his mask and muttered, merci.
Instant panic. How the fuck do you say “You’re welcome” in French?
Once I arrived at the Châtelet station, I wandered for a good 15 minutes before figuring out that sortie means exit. Upon exiting, I was greeted by cold, dry air that actually felt good after a long day of travel, but quickly dried out every inch of skin on my body.
I took my first breaths of Parisian air and walked a bit to find the metro I had to take to get to my hostel.
I’m quite sure that I will never forget the first time I rode the Paris metro. My fascination and love of public transportation only grew more intense each time it arrived exactly on time — a rare occurrence in Rome — and each time I successfully navigated it just by reading the signs.
I remember entering a crowded train around five p.m., rush hour, carrying my suitcase and backpack, fresh off of an airplane, trying hard to look like I knew where I was going. I rode for a few stops, and at each one, I noticed that, sometimes, the doors wouldn’t open.
This train was old, and one had to unlock its doors to exit. I watched people perform this motion as the handle clicked and the doors quickly opened, and I mastered it in my head, so that when it was my turn, I wouldn’t look like a total idiot.
In the five-and-a-half days I was in Paris, I didn’t get lost on the metro once. Having lived in Rome for the last four months and experiencing the not-so-reliable bus system that exists there, I felt like I was in heaven, and I couldn’t believe a city could have such an incredible, organized, and well-maintained system.
I got off at Belleville, which is where I stayed at the Les Piaules Hostel for the next five nights. I walked up the stairs, towards the street, and immediately, all I could smell was hot cinnamon sugar nuts. There was a vendor right outside of the metro stop, selling a myriad of flavors, each one flooding my nostrils with sweetness.
At this point in my trip, I was on a high — I had finally made it through each form of public transportation successfully, my feet weren’t in too much pain, and I (surprisingly) didn’t smell that awful. But when I finally checked into the hostel, found my bed, and had a moment to rest, I shut down.
The first evening was hard. Really hard. I stayed in a hostel, so while I wasn’t physically alone, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so homesick and isolated before. I wanted nothing more than to be back in Rome, which had just begun to feel like home.
Once I showered and got dressed to find dinner, just the mere thought of walking into a restaurant and asking for a table in French scared me, and at once, I regretted my trip. I considered cancelling my flight and going back to Rome the next day. I considered staying inside the hostel for the next five days, catching up on books and television and cancelling all of my plans. And I considered never taking another solo trip again, because I felt like I just wasn’t cut out for it.
Eventually, I forced myself to leave the hostel and go find something to eat. As I ate, I called my friend Brooke and chatted with her, partly wanting to cry and partly wanting to vomit due to my nerves. I had never felt this lost before, not even when I first arrived in Rome.
To be honest, the meal I had this night (a salad and some chèvre) was unmemorable, and I blame this on myself for not doing my usual in-depth restaurant research. The atmosphere was interesting, though: as I ate, a very old, Hemingwayesque man with grey hair and a black trench coat sat alone at the table next to me. He was doing something on a calculator, but he kept making eerily long eye contact with me as I ate. Halfway through my meal, a family sat down at the table across from him. A young boy jumped around on the booth and smiled at the man, to which he responded with silly faces that made the child laugh.
I relied on observation to keep my mind occupied throughout this trip. I had some great conversations with people while I was out-and-about, but for the most part, during my meals, I ate in silence. When I look back on each meal I ate, I remember at least one person/group of people who ate beside me: I created stories about their lives, I watched them enjoy their food and wine, and I listened to them laugh.
Thank God for imagination.
That night, I slept better than I had in weeks: it was the kind of sleep where you wake up with a sore body and fresh eyes.
I planned a few activities through Airbnb, the first one being a bike tour through Les Marais, in the 4th arrondissement of Paris.
Before leaving, I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford eating out every day, so I brought tons of granola bars and pan goccioli from Rome that sustained me each morning for breakfast. I quickly ate as I walked to the metro, and then I hopped on, riding for a few stops on the 11 train until I reached the meeting spot.
I hadn’t ridden a bike in a few years, so I’m not sure why I thought I could ride a bike in Paris, of all places. Of course, I remembered how to do it, as one never really forgets, but the whole concept of “balance” was not one I had actively thought about for quite some time.
Besides that, I was so not dressed for the weather. It was really, really cold and windy, and at one point it even began to sprinkle. I kept telling myself You’re in Paris! and tried so hard to distract myself from the cold and from the homesickness, but it was difficult — and almost getting hit by Parisian drivers (multiple times) didn’t help much.
But then, at this moment, riding along the Seine, half-listening to the tour guide, I felt, for the first time, that I was in the right place. Paris was dark and grey and gloomy, but at once, it lit up.
As I stood beside my bike, I took a deep breath, and tried not to get too teary-eyed. I could see the bottom of the Eiffel Tower; this was the first time I’d ever caught a glimpse of it in person. And instantly, the inner child within me, whose first travel-centered dream was to see the iconic iron landmark, had awoken. She told me to wake up and smell the goddamn roses.
You’re in Paris!
A few weeks before I arrived, I messaged my longtime Internet friend Abby, telling her that I was going to be in Paris at the end of November. We made a plan to meet up that afternoon for the very first time, so after the bike tour, I stopped at the hostel for a snack and made my way over to our meeting spot.
I was nervous — after a day-and-a-half of anxiety, meeting someone I’d never met before was just another leaf to add to the pile. What if we actually had nothing in common? What if I’m too awkward? What if she doesn’t like me?
You know, the usual.
I first “met” Abby on Pinterest, and after that, we began to chat through Instagram when I asked her for some blogging advice, probably five years ago now. I think her constant presence on my social media feed was, in a way, a manifestation for my own relocation to Rome, as she left the states for college in Paris and has been there ever since.
That afternoon, I had one of the very best conversations I’d had in a while. We had so much to talk about, after nearly five years of only knowing each other through the Internet. I felt so grateful for this connection; we spoke for a good two hours over coffee, catching up and sharing all the stuff that isn’t always visible on Instagram. By the end, I decided that I couldn’t wait to return to Paris, because I immediately looked forward to meeting up again.
It’s weird: I always consider myself an introvert, but sometimes all I need is a good conversation — the opposite of alone time — to feel more alive. Perhaps this was because I had spent the last day and a half alone in a new city, but regardless, I felt much more alive and ready to take on the rest of the trip after we spoke. (Abby, if you happen to read this, thank you for such a lovely time and for being such a positive presence in my life!)
Once we said our goodbyes, I headed back to Belleville with a whole new confident and caffeine-filled mind. For dinner that evening, I found a restaurant to eat at, La Cantine de Belleville. When I arrived, I asked for une table pour un, and had a pretty perfect meal.
I ordered a glass of rosé, which was served with ice (or, maybe, I just ordered it with ice without knowing), along with a salad that I still dream about, months later. It was dressed with some sort of honey vinaigrette, walnuts, apple slices, tomatoes, and baguette pieces, topped with slightly-toasted chèvre, drizzled in even more honey.
As I ate, I cut each piece of honeyed chèvre with a butter knife, spreading it over each baguette and savoring each bite. In that moment, I knew I’d be craving this very salad in the future, and I was right. I can still taste the warmth of the cheese alongside the tangy vinaigrette, which I washed down with the icy, flowery rosé.
During this meal, I remembered reading an article a few days before about solo traveling and the supposed challenge of eating alone in restaurants. The writer had recommended not having meals out when you know it will be busy, because it might make you sad, seeing families and friends and couples enjoying each other’s company.
I didn’t follow this advice and I thought, for just a second, that I was crazy for not feeling sad. A huge group of women sat beside me, laughing and joking amid bites of food. Across the dining room sat a family with children running around and getting in the waiter’s way. People continually walked in the door in groups, asking for large tables or securing reservations. I was surrounded by community — somewhat detached from it — yet I could only feel peace and pride.
So as I took my first bite of real crème brûlée, I smiled, overjoyed that I got to experience this with no one else but myself: my own best friend.
In between each crunch of sugar, I reflected on my day, writing down my thoughts on a napkin, and feeling optimistic for the next few to come. I admitted to myself that solo travel was hard — but I was proud that I had gotten through the first day-and-a-half, proud that I had made it this far, and proud of making this dream come true.
Stay tuned for the next few parts of this series, where I’ll share more photos and stories from the rest of my trip!