One of the real pleasures of solo travel is that a solo traveler can perhaps more easily decide to, say, go to a cheeseburger joint on his last night in Paris instead of seeking out more elevated cuisine. When that cheeseburger joint is located in a cool, quiet neighborhood and is ranked #6 among the 14,446 restaurants in Paris, it’s an even easier choice. When you go to Paris, go here. And have dessert. And thank me later.
One of the negatives of solo travel, though, can be those moments at dinner, which are the only times I typically feel any sense of loneliness when I travel. There’s something quite enjoyable about the way many Europeans linger over a dinner with conservation, wine, and coffee that emphasizes the feeling of being alone.
My last night in Paris (and the real end of my trip) was planned for an evening dinner followed by a visit to one of the museums that stays open until midnight. Instead, seated close to a couple of guys (one from Paris, the other a Frenchman living in Chicago), I ended up having a three hour conversation over food and drinks, a conversation that ranged from discussions about the relative merits of American and European universities, French and American politics, the value of cultural capital, and a debate about the philosopher Frantz Fanon.
The three of us, who never actually exchanged names, slipped into a conversation while the owner of the restaurant periodically popped over to make sure that everything was to our liking and to tempt us with further items from the menu. It was a quiet, rainy Wednesday night, so the restaurant was never terribly busy and I noticed a number of tables whose diners lingered for a long time as well.
It was an excellent way to end the trip and fitting, given that I tried to be more extroverted with strangers the entire month. I had dinner with some Poles after attending a protest with them in Krakow, met and made some friends on walking tours, and did more than I normally do to reach out to other people. As much as I love seeing new sights and wandering through museums that tell the history of a place, some of the most rewarding travel experiences over the past five years have simply been those chance conversations with people I’m likely never to see again.
Before I started traveling, I had often heard the stereotype that Parisians were rude. Since I’ve started traveling, I’ve heard that Parisians are rude from other travelers, but that has never been my experience. My horrifyingly bad “bonjour” has always been greeted with a smile and even, on occasion, with a thoroughly dishonest compliment. As a side note, there may not have been a more thrilling moment on the entire trip than at the Natural History Museum, my “Un billet s’il vous plaît” was met with a response that suggested the ticket collector believed I spoke French. Killing it. 🙂
There are undoubtedly rude people everywhere, but I am often reminded of a young American woman I met on the train to Budapest a few years ago. Before I could even say a word about how I felt about the places I’d seen, which were similar to many she’d visited, she launched into a tirade about how the people of Paris, Vienna, and Berlin had all been rude. She’d decided–as we all sometimes perhaps do–that people were impolite and awful, but travel has made it even more clear to me that we get from people what we give them and Americans, who are often the loudest in the room, would do a lot better for themselves by embracing a little quiet.
I’m always going to be a bit shy, but this trip certainly emphasized the value of looking for those chances to get to know people I meet on the road, whether they’re fellow travelers or locals eager to share something about the places they know.
And while the debate about Fanon didn’t come to a conclusion, I’m thankful for the chance to have met those guys, the woman from Shanghai I met on the train between Sigulda and Riga, the Poles who taught me about their country’s struggles with democracy, and everyone else I had the chance to meet, even the vaguely menacing Latvian I met on the way from Riga to Sigulda, because, in the end, it was a chance to hear from another point of view, and isn’t that, along with finding the best cheeseburgers possible, why we travel?