My first experience with solo travel included a humiliation-tinged napkin, a Belgium-bound train, and a French Harry Potter. Oh, and lots of tears.
I left my best friend’s wedding immediately after dinner–no electric slide, no drunken toasts, no after party. I just blew a few kisses, grabbed my pink suitcase from the coat-check and sped to the airport. I would be volunteering for an archaeology dig near the Mediterranean and then traveling for a year.
So I arrived in Paris, already full of emotion and shy on sleep. I was also armed with the delusion that 4 years of classroom French made me bilingual. I bought a ticket to Carcassonne and boarded a north-bound train. If you have just a passing familiarity with the geography of France, you’ll understand the problem. The Mediterranean, of course, is at the southern-most part of France. Nowhere near Belgium, my unexpected and most immediate destination.
I’m not sure how or when I realized I was leaving the country I had only hours ago entered, but thankfully the train attendant was much quicker on the uptake. She pointed at the ticket, rattled off some brisk questions in French, and raised her perfectly shaped eyebrow at me. I smiled, shrugged, and shamelessly begged for assistance. She admonished me to read le sign before boarding a train, handed me a scrawled napkin, and dragged me off at the next stop.
My first chaperone must have sensed I wasn’t prepared to be left to my own devices yet, because she softened up and even patted my shoulder while handing me over to another rail attendant. The new guy read the napkin, smirked, and bodily boarded me onto a south-bound train. I settled back in, pulled out my crisp new dictionary, and translated the napkin: “I do not speak French. I boarded the wrong train. Please help me get to Carcassonne.” Oh my aching ego.
More exhausting adventures ensued. I missed my afternoon rendezvous and was still about 10 miles from the rural dig-site at dusk. I tried to reach my contact, but you know, French payphones are a little different than the American version and the directions are all–you guessed it–in French. So I did what I had vowed not to do, pulled out a credit card, and checked myself into a hotel.
My linguistic delusions were grounded in reality at least enough to find food. Then I collapsed on the bed, switched on the TV, and sighed with relief at the familiar sight of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. But when Harry began stage whispering to Ron and Hermione in poorly dubbed French, I finally broke down and cried.
A good night’s sleep lifted my spirits and by morning I was already laughing at my Harry-triggered melodrama. I had navigated these first misadventures well enough considering I was a rookie. And now that I have a few more stamps on my passport I can look back and identify my top 3 tips for solo travelers:
1. Learn a phrase in the local language that will charm and assist. I like this one, “Je suis désolé mais” –pause and search for phrase– “Je parle français comme un, comment dit-on” –smile and shrug– “Un petite quatre années?” (Better to sound like a toddler speaking their language than to be too arrogant to try.)
2. Learn to laugh at yourself. After you imperfectly deliver the above phrase, everyone else will be laughing at you anyway. Then you can all switch to English or pull out the Google translator. A good laugh eases stress, which is crucial for traveling solo.
3. Learn to exude confidence while you’re asking for help. Even as a rookie traveler I saved my tears for Harry. My put-upon train attendants would have treated a lost, tearful traveler much differently than the not-quite-sheepish, map-challenged woman they encountered. Traveling alone can be enormously stressful, and for women it can be a bit scary. As long as you “read le signs” and make good choices, you probably have nothing to worry about. In fact, I actually prefer solo travel over family vacations and girlfriend getaways. I do my most creative work and meet wonderful people I would otherwise miss. So go it alone and have fun!