The waiter comes my way with a beautiful champagne cocktail floating before him on a tray – the bubbles through the fresh squeezed grapefruit juice catch the light in the wood paneled bar at the Hotel de la Cite in Carcassonne. It’s civilized, the sun is setting, the view of the historic ramparts encircles us and I’m wearing the only dress I packed.
I am a citizen of the world, the extremely cool people at the end of the room have invited me over to chat, and this is the self I imagine when I am planning a solo adventure.
But one thing about travelling on your own is that you spend a lot of time with you – surprising faults surface, your own thoughts are loud in your head, your reactions and responses not shaded from your view.
What I learned is that my independence can turn confrontational, my good planning territorial, and my efficiency far too single-minded. How dare anyone breach or put at risk the space, place and plans of my perfect holiday?
As I talked with Kim and Rene (the extremely cool people), in that beautiful bar, this was the topic. They felt it too. Rene, a native of France, and his wife, Kim, met in the Netherlands and live now in the Pacific Northwest. They were taking a day in Carcassonne, in fact, after being robbed in their car in Barcelona by two young immigrant teens. They are far more evolved and savvy than me but they found themselves surprised by the way the stress of that event brought out prejudice and judgment about people on the street around them. They were having a hard time shaking that response. I knew what they meant. What we talked about then are the nightmares of the progressive American, nightmares because we think we are past these fears – fears about people around us based on ethnicity, class, and appearance when we feel at risk. This brings some serious self-doubt about who we are. Compound that with an overall resistance of anyone causing delays, problems or frankly exhibiting very poor planning and it’s not good. (The resentment of poor planning may be just my issue.)
Travel doesn’t create these responses. The gift of travel is that these unwanted flashes become visible at a time when I have the mental space to examine and confront them. Awareness is everything.
So how do you save your soul when you’re on your own? For me, it was looking for an opportunity and making a 180 degree turn even for a small thing. There were only a handful of connections that would get me from Paris to Pontorson, the station for Mont Saint-Michel, in the way I wanted. The TGV train from Paris to Caen had a delay and, instead of having a leisurely 20 minutes to make the connection to the small regional train from there to Pontorson, I had missed the connection by 8 minutes when we finally pulled into the station.
Out of habit, I ran for it. The conductor in my path told me to keep going, the train was still waiting at the next platform. You know what the “next platform” can mean. Yeah, not so next. Down the steps, under the tracks, and up on the other side.
I’m off like a gun has sounded. My perfect trip was still within my reach. Running toward those wet stone steps, weaving between slowpokes, (really, how much luggage did you bring?), I spot an obstacle, a young dad with toddler and a baby in light, collapsible stroller. He has paused at the top of these same stairs. He has to go down, too. It’s a moment of truth. So I stop, ask him if he needs me, (YES), grasp the front of the little stroller and down we all go. Thank goodness he turned right as I turned left. I didn’t have enough self-actualization to hang in and do this on the up steps. So I shot up those stairs and onto my train with a couple of minutes and a sounding horn to spare.
For at least that afternoon, I had saved some part of who I hope I am. I’m still working on the big stuff. What I learned is that you cannot be so focused on the plan that you aren’t a citizen of the community around you. I also learned that the close calls, the hitches, and the moments of uncertainty create some of the best parts of the trip and let me appreciate actually making the train, finding the hotel, and learning to navigate – instead of taking it all for granted.
What Else I Learned
Always run for the missed connection. It may be waiting and really you have nothing to lose.
Ask for help especially on train platforms.
It’s better to miss the train than travel solo with someone you don’t like.