Tag Archives: solo travel

How to Travel With a Shattered Heart

My friend has set off on a big adventure this week–her first real vacation after her divorce. She needed a teensy boost from the Cool Kids today, so we got on a chat thread. She had made it through all the logistics and teen dramaz and such and had gotten the whole crowd to their destination. Time to START HAVING FUN, right?

That’s when the sad whalloped her. She wrote, “Ashley, I don’t know how you did Paris after Richard. I really, really don’t.”

I told her the truth: “I cried every day of that trip, but that’s not the part I remember now.”


That week in Paris on my own was my first trip to Europe without my darling. I had to take a Valium and a deep red wine for dinner to make it through the flight. I hid in the bathtub as soon as I got to my hotel. I cried when I unpacked my clothes because there were so many extra drawers and hangers.

Richard had always been the one to plan the flights and hotels. I just told him where I wanted to go and he made the logistics happen.

Richard held my hand whenever the plane took off.

Richard did all the metric conversions. I once told a guy at the ski rental place that I was 1.2 meters tall and weighed 700 kilograms because I did the math wrong. Before we left on that ski trip to Austria, I had looked at a map of the Alps and commented, “3000 feet? That’s not that high. North Carolina has mountains almost that high.” He explained that we were going to 3000 meters and that was quite different from North Carolina. Like permafrost and thin oxygen kind of high. Then there was that one time in Luxembourg when I ordered myself some wine with dinner…750ml of wine. So yeah, he handled the metric system.

Richard was in charge of safety when we traveled. There was that time he fought off a pickpocket in Amsterdam. And the time I jumped on the wrong train in Belgium so he jumped with me.

He read the maps and read the time tables and read the street signs.

I wasn’t just dead weight on our adventures. I was in charge of the itinerary, cultural enrichment, translations, communications, and food. Without me, he wouldn’t have known the story of why Athens was named for Athena instead of Poseidon. He wouldn’t have learned that he kind of liked modern art. He wouldn’t have known why people place small smooth stones on graves in a Jewish cemetery. I got him to try Indonesian rijsstafel and pickels on cheddar cheese sandwiches and retsina (don’t try that last one–tastes like Pine Sol). We made a great team.

So yeah, how did I manage that first trip on my own?

I remembered that, as much as Richard had done for me, I could still do it all for myself. I applied the lessons he had taught me. I shopped ticket prices and left on Christmas night to save money. I booked a nicer hotel than he would have, so I would feel safe and have a concierge to answer my questions. I studied the Metro map and learned the major streets. I checked my landmarks, like Sacre Coeur. I learned how to hail a cab and get over the expense. I thought about my own safety and skipped crowds at night. I bought a phone card so I could call home when I got lonely.

I treated myself because he wasn’t there to delight me. I learned to say, “je voudrais une crepe avec chocolate et banana” or something like that and then I ate a chocolate and banana crepe for lunch on the sidewalk. I reserved a ticket to see Swan Lake at the National Opera (and I fell asleep during part of the first act). I bought splits of champagne at Printemps food halls. I took a Segway tour of the sites (and drove the dang thing off a six inch curb into traffic while I was admiring a street sign for a place where Hemingway had lived). I watched “Gone With the Wind” dubbed into French and ordered a giant plate of French french fries for dinner in my room. I gave myself a pound of candied orange peels dipped in dark chocolate–he had always remembered that was my favorite.


I still cried under the fluffy down duvet on my lonely bed at night, but I was crying in Paris, dammit.

So to my friend, when you are off on an adventure and realize that you are alone–here’s what I hope you will remember. That YOU who had all the good times with that other person? That you is still in there. That you still likes chocolate orange peel and Gone With the Wind. That you still enjoys wearing a killer pair of boots and strutting down a cobblestone sidewalk. That you will dawdle on a park bench in the sun. That you will ask a stranger to take your picture. That you will buy a necklace shaped like a star to remind yourself to shine.


It’s true–that you will stand in front of Rodin’s “The Kiss” and you will feel your heart seize with grief for the kiss that will never be again.

Then you will realize that you have another first kiss coming.

And that you that is still in there, that you that has gotten you through every awful thing in your past, that you will think of your future, and smile.

Hit the Road, Jacqueline!

I’ve got a bonus column over at Work It, Mom! today.  This one is about taking a trip by yourself, for yourself.  Here’s a sample:  

Whether you’re going on a big trip or a little jaunt, the important thing to remember is that you have the right to step out into the world and explore.  I’ve traveled on my own for years and I still get the jitters sometimes, but I get over it.  It’s worth it.  I repeat to myself, “Be not afraid.  Be not afraid.”  Then I go.  


Click on this vintage travel poster from my favorite destination to read more about it!


visit greece

And In the Other Pocket…

pocket coinsWhile I am thinking about amulets, charms, and talismans this week, let me share the contents of my left coat pocket–22 Euro cents.  I use these coins like worry stones; as I walk along, I rub them between my fingers, passing them one over the other and back again in a circle.  The feel of them in my hand is relaxing and never fails to make me smile.  If I were Greek, I might carry worry beads to calm myself into a meditative state with rhythmic clicking.  If I were Hindu, I might wear a mala on my wrist to count prayers.  Cultures and religions across the globe use prayer beads in one form or another to mark the rhythm of letting go, turning over or sinking in.  We all need something to fiddle with. 

Twenty two cents.  That’s what I had left at the end of my last trip to Europe, the week in Paris on my own.  Richard and I used to play a game at the end of a trip.  We’d try to spend our cash down to the last penny so we weren’t left with any foreign money to take home as souvenirs or god forbid, exchange at Thomas Cook.  I have a thimble from Munich, a bookmark from Prague, a postcard from Amsterdam.  I once spent my last money on a breakfast banana in Berlin then forgot all about it until I was busted by the USDA beagle sniffer dog once we landed in Atlanta!  I’m standing there minding my own business when I look down and the beagle has gone into a sit on the floor next to me and placed her delicate paw right on top of my trusty backpack!  ACK!!  I guess I’ve seen one too many episodes of “Locked Up Abroad.”  I mean, let’s just say…that backpack had done a good bit of living…not “Midnight Express” or anything but y’know.  A very serious customs agent escorted me to a plexiglass cubicle where I was directed to open my luggage and keep my hands in view.  There sat the contraband banana, cleverly concealed on top of everything.  I breathed a sigh of relief and asked, “Does the dog get to keep the banana?”  (The answer is no.)

I was in Europe the very day the Euro became the official currency of the Eurozone.  Shopkeepers grumbled at having to reprice everything and print new signs and they hated seeing us coming with our super-strong dollars (that was way back when!).  The day the currency switched, we were traveling by train to Bruges in Belgium from Delft in the Netherlands, so I kept guilders in my front left pocket, francs in the right, euros in my jacket.  It was New Years Day, so the restaurants and shops where we could have used a debit card were closed.  It’s pretty frustrating to get crisp new euros out of an ATM only to find that the vending machines all still take the old coin.  That explains why we had to make a meal in Ghent of leftover Christmas Hershey bars and two hot Cokes.  Ugly Americans…bringing Hersheys to Belgium!  It was a last resort.  We had mussels and black beer for dinner to atone for the sin. 

You can tell by the smooth edges of these coins that they’ve taken away many a worry for me.  They’re both from France (the RF mark indicates that) and minted in 2005.  I have one phrase that describes that time in my life and I stole it from a New Year’s shop window display in Paris:  “Love 2006, F*ck 2005.”  

But that’s just my two cents!

A Pocket Full of Luck

It was cold enough to wear a coat today for my short walk from the parking lot to my office.  When I pulled my right hand out of the pocket to press the crossing signal, a scrap of paper fluttered to the ground.  Luckily, I saw it fall.  As I snatched it up from the sidewalk (saying a little thank you that there was no wind), I felt my whole body tighten with panic at the idea that I might have lost my talisman that’s been in that pocket since January 2, 2006.

boarding pass

It’s just a boarding pass stub from an Air France flight from Charles de Gaulle to Atlanta.  Economy class, seat 44G.

I’ve been other places since then and I’ve even shoved other boarding passes into the pocket of that coat.  This one is special because it’s from the trip I took to Paris on my own to cap off the hardest year of my life.  I keep it in my coat pocket to remind myself of who I can be–the woman who will not be defeated by sadness.  The woman who will insist on adventure.

I really do believe that we make our own good luck, so most of my lucky charms are reminders to myself of great days or hard-won victories.  When I decided to spend a week in Paris between Christmas and New Year’s of 2005, I heard a lot of “You’re going to Paris by yourself?”  Yes.  But I made a conscious effort to create the right energy around this trip by saying “I’m going to Paris on my own.”  I hear “abandoned, bereft, left” when I think of “alone.”  I hear “in charge of deciding what to do next” when I say “on my own.”  I had had enough of being alone and was ready to try being on my own. 

Richard and I had a tradition of taking a big adventure trip between Christmas and the New Year.  The first year, we went to Amsterdam and Bruges.  The next year, Salzburg and skiing in Innsbruck then on to Munich.  The next year, the pink sands of Bermuda and snorkeling along coral reefs.  The next year…the hospital.  The next year, I was on my own.  When the fall of 2005 rolled around, I was so full of resentment that I wouldn’t get to go on an adventure that year (or ever again, in the back of my mind).  But eventually it dawned on me that I could go–I would just need to go in a different way so that I would feel safe and could enjoy myself.  I wanted to reclaim ADVENTURE.

I chose Paris because I had been there before right after college and I spoke enough French to get by.  It was also one of the few places in the world that Richard had NOT wanted to go, so I didn’t feel guilty that I was getting to do something and he was missing out.  Instead of staying in the budget hotels that we usually chose, I reserved a room in a nicer hotel, with a concierge who spoke English and a Metro stop a block away.  I thought my way through every point of the planning and I got a little bit excited.  Even if I panicked once I got there and stayed in my hotel room, by god, it was a Parisian hotel!

My daddy drove me to the airport on Christmas night.  Now that I have children of my own, I have some empathy for how he must have felt, dropping his widowed baby girl off at the airport to fly off  by herself.  On her own.  He didn’t say a negative word.  I got to my seat, took the last Valium I had been saving up, set my iPod to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (the version by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole) and went to sleep.

I woke up in Paris.  On my own.  Holy shit.  My heart was pounding and that place behind my eyes was very twinkly.  Under my breath, I chanted the mantra my college professor, Dr. Darlene Mettler had told me about travel:  Be Deliberate.  “Just get your bag.  Get your bag.    OK, now find a cab.  Find a cab.  Find a cab.  Write out the address so you don’t have to pronounce all those vowels….Boulevard Hausmann.”  I got a cab, settled into the backseat.  The driver typed the address into his GPS (which spoke with a very sexy French accent) then turned on the radio.  Guess what was playing?  “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”  Yep.  Where bluebirds fly.

I’ll tell the other stories some other day.  I can’t say enough about how important it is for women to travel on their own.  It was a great week.  It wasn’t always a happy week, but it was a great week.

One day, I went to the Rue des Rosiers in the old Jewish Quarter to buy my friend a menorah as a gift.  I had heard about a little Judaica shop called Diasporama.  The name was too clever to pass up, so I ducked inside…hoping that I wouldn’t make a shiksa blunder.  I tried out my French–“Je voudrais un ‘menorah’ pour un cadeux…”  The bustling maternal shopkeeper tutted at me while looking over her reading glasses.  Her daughter came to my aid.  She helped me select an elegant, modernist  menorah in stainless steel and took it to the counter to wrap it up.  While I was waiting, the grandmother seated behind the counter gave me a smile.  I said (in French!) that something she was cooking smelled delicious.  And in the way of grandmothers across the globe, she offered me a bowl of cabbage soup!  I declined and explained that I had just had Moroccan food around the corner.  She waved away the very idea but patted me on the hand.  That simple touch–the first time I had been touched in a week–made my breath stop and I felt myself beginning to cry.  The three of them, there together, being kind to me when I had been so worried about doing or saying something wrong.  I looked for something to distract myself.  A small straw basket of talismans sat by the cash register.  I picked one up and turned it over in my palm.  The Hand of Miriam.

"Hand of Miriam" or Hamsa (Arabic) used to ward off the evil eye.

“Hand of Miriam” or Hamsa used to ward off the evil eye.

It’s a good luck charm.  I learned that if the fingers are spread apart, it is to deflect the evil eye.  If the fingers are depicted together, they catch good luck.  At three euros, I added it to the purchase and bought myself a little extra traveling luck.

When I’m traveling on my own and people ask me if I am alone, I say that my husband is meeting me just around the corner at the hotel or a restaurant or a shop.  During that week, I had said it a couple of times and the lie had left me feeling sometimes bereft and sometimes gleeful because in Paris I didn’t have to stick with my sad story.  But I told these women that I was on my own in Paris.  They welcomed me and congratulated me.  I left that place feeling safer than I had all week.  I had been offered food, a touch, help in choosing a gift and a little good luck.

I love the Hamsa, but it feels like a prop, something I am putting on.  I can’t read the Hebrew inscription and I don’t really worry about the evil eye on your average Monday.  It ended up in my suitcase and I only see it when I am packing for trips. It reminds me of Paris and the woman I let myself be that afternoon in the Rue des Rosiers.

The boarding pass became my everyday good luck charm.  I run it through my fingers as I walk from the parking lot to work to remind myself of the woman who went to Paris on her own.  It’s growing silky and soft with age.  It’s corners are worn smooth.