On my first morning in Paris, on the way to the Eiffel Tower, I stopped at a café called Aux Cerises on Avenue de Suffren. This was the first café I had visited since my arrival.
As it turned out, it was the very first day of business at Aux Cerises. The young women proprietors told me (one in French, one in English) that I was their very first customer. They were still putting final touches on the tables, carefully arranging French fashion magazines on a chic wall rack and sweeping around the café tables outside.
I think the idea of control is what guided me to take this solo trip.
I held a steaming cappuccino in my hands, greatly appreciating the notion of “firsts.” Today was the start of a solo trip, my first visit not only to Paris, but to Europe. I was about to explore a city I had dreamt about for years, an experience brought to life by a revelation I had several months before I stepped inside that brand-new café: If not now, when?
Taking Nothing for Granted
My journey to Paris began in a darkened clinic room, lying on an exam table. I was not at all distracted by the bright tropical fish swimming through an aquarium, filling a giant screen on the wall in front of me.
What was distracting me were the feelings of fear swimming through my mind. I was waiting for the results of an ultrasound, or more to the point, I was waiting to find out if I had breast cancer.
I’m one of those women who always found a reason to postpone getting a mammogram—fear. Which is not a reason. During a recent check-up, my doctor had suggested, politely yet firmly, that it was time for me to schedule one. My first mammogram had been several years ago, and it took place after a good friend had been diagnosed with breast cancer. A good friend who is now gone.
At the conclusion of the scheduled mammogram, the technician told me not to worry if I was called back for a second exam. “When there’s a longer space of time between mammograms, it’s not uncommon for them to want to take a closer look,” she said.
The second mammogram reminded me that nothing in life should be taken for granted. Ever.
Sure enough, they wanted a closer look. The follow-up visit wouldn’t be for a week, and I did a fairly good job of not allowing my imagination to venture too far beyond the Monday morning appointment, with “fairly” being the operative word.
Back to the darkened room. The technician had gone to talk to a doctor about the results of my ultrasound. I realize I’m not alone in knowing what a wait like that feels like. I knew that I was either going to be one of the fortunate ones, or that my life was about to change in a profound way.
The technician came back into the room and told me everything was fine. I took a breath, and my eyes filled with tears. As I thanked her, and stumbled over telling her how scared I’d been, she was pleasant, but not effusive, saying that, in most cases, “the news is usually good.”
But I was picturing women who now had to set up more appointments, who would have to visit the cancer resource center I passed on my way in, who would have to begin building their strength for what was ahead.
As I walked through the damp December cold of the hospital’s underground parking lot, I suddenly sensed that I, too, was building strength. I had been powerfully reminded that nothing in life should be taken for granted. Ever. For now, I was healthy. I’m in my 50s, so in addition to being grateful for my health, I realized there was something else I needed to do.
I went home, pulled up my calendar, and started planning my solo trip to Paris.
Why I Was Sure It Had to Be Solo
When I knew with absolute certainty that I was finally going to take the trip I’d dreamed of since junior high French class, I also recognized it was a trip I’d take alone. The way I wanted to experience Paris was without an agenda, without anyone else’s ideas, suggestions, or needs. I wanted to live in Paris, if only for a week in May, by myself. My husband, who traveled for years when our two children were young while I stayed behind, was supportive and knew of my longtime desire to see Paris.
The fact that I’d missed a chance to go to Europe years ago filled me with regret.
Friends reacted one of two ways: Some seemed a little envious that I was bold enough to travel alone; others couldn’t imagine a solo journey. One recognized that she talked too much and would hate not having others there to listen to her. I prefer to observe quietly, always.
The fact that I had never been to Europe didn’t make me proud. I had the chance to go to Italy for a semester when I was in college, but I had a boyfriend. How could I leave him behind? Let’s file that under “regret” for many reasons.
And as my late mother’s daughter, I also carried a bit of her second-hand regret in my heart. Despite voicing many times over the years that she wished she could see Paris, she never did. My father, who was at Normandy during World War II but never spoke of it, had no desire to return to Europe, and, according to my mom, she didn’t blame him at all. I doubt that was how she really felt. But make no mistake—I didn’t want to see Paris for her, I wanted to see it for me.
Solo Trip to Paris: Humming with Life
And it was the trip of a lifetime. The overwhelming feeling I experienced in Paris was joy. I saw many things I expected to see, some that I didn’t. I walked a lot, and, yes, ate many croissants. I spoke some French and was twice asked for directions, which for me was too high a bar, but those were small triumphant moments when I felt like I fit into the scheme of that glorious city.
Several times in Paris I thought about the moment in that cold parking lot when I had decided to make this trip.
Solo travel also allowed me to practice my passion for observation. In line for ice cream at Jardin des Tuileries, I spotted a man and woman, likely my age, engaging in quite a bit of good old-fashioned PDA, causing the teenage girls directly behind them to stifle giggles. The couple, oblivious to everyone around them, completely intrigued me. Affair? New marriage? I just didn’t sense they were spending their time in Paris talking about when their Millennial child would finally move out.
I was also delighted to spot some “love locks.” Despite the removal of hundreds of thousands from the Pont des Arts and other bridges in Paris in 2015 due to their excessive weight, love persists and the locks still appear, dotted with names, initials, and hearts. I saw one that simply said “We will be okay.” I was very curious about that story—there had to be one—and wondered, Are they?
Sometimes I thought about the moment in that cold parking lot when I had decided to make this trip and the tense moments that came before it. Every day, everything around me—the people, the museums and historical buildings, the gorgeous garden spaces in Tuileries and Luxembourg, even the traffic—was humming with life. I felt grateful for this experience, this adventure, and this opportunity.
The Woman I Wanted to Be
When you reach your 50s, there are plenty of opportunities to take a long view on every choice, decision, mistake, and regret that brought you to where you are today. Every woman has a different set of circumstances to examine. Some of life happens because of what we do—or don’t do. Some of it is completely out of our control. Thinking back on the experience with my mammogram, I knew that whatever the test results were going to be was fully out of my control.
I am going to be the type of woman who pursues firsts, regardless of age.
But I think the idea of control is what guided me to take this solo trip. At this moment in my life, I could take control. I could choose not to be a woman who always dreamed of seeing Paris but never did. I didn’t have to be the one to say to herself—or others—“Oh, I think that time has passed. I should have gone in my 20s.” No, I thought defiantly, I am not going to be that woman. I am going to be one who pursues firsts, regardless of age.
My visit to Paris was a first that meant so much to me—making a long-held dream come true, embedding myself in the daily flow of a foreign life, taking me away from the routine back home. With my eye already on airfare for next May, I hope there will be a second.
Julia Wright is an editor, writer and poet whose work has been published in several local and national magazines.