In the weeks before, you lean forward into that moment when the trip begins. The moment when you will put one new shoe over the border and step into the adventure, when everything goes Technicolor around you, and you become The Traveler.
When is the exact moment when you cut the invisible cord and truly, irrevocably depart?
My dear friend drops me at the airport door as he has done many times. He dispenses blessings like a priest giving last rites and sends me on my way. Once through security, the detector arch like a door, I’m on the other side, in this new space. There is nothing but Me and a very compact roll-on bag that contains only what this anonymous “Me” will need to trek through the world without footprints.
One thing I like about travelling on my own is that I own my time. I know I will land at my connecting airport earlier than is really necessary. With airline club day pass in hand, I savor the hours with my maps and iPad. I buy the last glass of wine on this shore…with bubbles. The journey has begun.
Air France knows what they are doing. There is something wonderful about the line to board the plane. How is it so civilized? I chat with a spare and chic older couple as we wait. We are blank slates to each other. We share stories and they ask who am I. (I’m not sure yet.) As we file in, we realize we are seat mates. We settle in and the flight attendant brings us an aperitif. (yes, an aperitif. In coach. Merci.) The entertainment system on the seat back has not just movies and TV but audio presentations of entire operas. I pick La Boheme just because. Oh, Air France. I’m happy for this cozy respite.
A weak sun greets us as we land in the early morning. We fly through customs. There is no waiting for luggage with my wheeled closet. I sail into… a mass of unhappy people trying to understand how to take the train into the center of Paris. North American credit cards don’t read in the ticket kiosks and the change machine is not working. And the ticket kiosk take cash but only exact change. One pauvre l’homme mans a solitary window for two hundred people.
Is this like child birth, the sweaty, grubby, peevish part of a trip that you always forget upon arriving home? Finally I’m on the RER train, surrounded not by urbane French citoyens but equally sweaty Canadian and British tourists who look too large and open-faced for their surroundings.
I did not give up on this RER train. One of its major stops is beside my hotel. The idea was genius two months ago in a world where my credit card and currency were at home. I prevail. Once a ticket was in hand, it could not be more convenient. And cheap.
I roll my not-now-so-compact seeming bag out of the train. My bag, my maps, my crumpled jacket and I ascend the mossy steps out of the station.
I am now The Traveller. The mid-morning sun has burned off uncertainty as I rise out of the depths into the very heart of Paris. Notre Dame is over my shoulder. Around me the British and Canadian counterparts have scattered through our previous stops and it’s…just…French… in my ears.
What I Learned
- It’s great to get your local currency from the ATM at the airport, particularly if you have checked on the international fees.
- With credit and debit cards at simple machines like train and metro ticket dispensers, however, unless you have a chip or in some cases a chip and pin credit card, you can be in trouble . (Stores, restaurants, or a staffed window at the train station, no problem.)
- Safety flash – if you travel down the escalator into a sea of frustrated tourists, turn around. Once I realized that we all needed cash AND the correct change, it was over. No store or coffee shop facing this mob was going to pony up. Backtracking, I bought coffee back near the customs area. Twice. Change in hand, I dove back in and pretended to be from Barcelona.
- Be nice, be helpful or be quiet as you stand in the boarding line. While solo travel brings anonymity, the plan is different. You may be spending eight hours in the company of the person next to you. They may have good chocolate or at least give you shared time on the armrest.