Sorry, folks – this doesn’t have a sensational or lurid plot (at least not yet and I hope never). I am currently reading Peter Mayle’s The Vintage Caper. One of his paragraphs inspired me to write these tidbits of summer stories from a middle-aged divorced female who always travels alone. “The solitary diner is a misunderstood figure. (S)he might even be the object of some pity, since popular opinion finds it hard to accept that anyone would choose to sit alone in a crowded restaurant. And yet, for those who are comfortable in their own company, there is a lot to be said for a table for one. Without the distraction of a companion, food and wine can be given the attention they deserve. Eavesdropping is often rewarded by the fascinating indiscretions that drift across neighboring tables. And, of course, a keen observer can enjoy the sideshow provided by the other diners, essential viewing for anyone amused and intrigued by the ever-changing mosaic of human behavior.”
I was not always so comfortable. When I first lived in Paris for two years in the ‘80s, it took close to a year to overcome being too timid (trop timide), especially speaking French. My inability to speak about anything but famines, scarcities, plagues, disasters, and harvests won me no friends early on. Those were the Gaullist days still.
The change occurred when I lived with a French family who spoke no English. I found that my personality is different in France than in the U.S. At home, I live like a hermit except when I teach and never raise my voice. I quickly learned with my French family that raising one's voice is the only way ever to get a word in. I also learned during that first foreign sojourn (I was not lucky enough to get to Europe until my mid-thirties in grad school) that the French respect a certain contempt. Finally, despite having much school larnin’ German but a total inability to speak it, I took off (my ex, who was with me, had already seen all of Europe, so he stayed in Paris) for Switzerland (Bern, home of my ancestors) and Germany. Despite my horrible speaking skills, people acted like they could understand me. I came back to Paris with an attitude. I started speaking solely in the present tense till I got more comfortable, but the ‘je ne sais quoi’ attitude spoke volumes. No longer did all-purpose stores act indifferent when I tried to describe scotch tape with hand gestures.
That was long ago. My experience with Gothic cathedrals in 1995 in the Ile-de-France was only the third time I’d been to Europe. But then I got my tenure-track job in 1994 and the college at least partially subsidized research.
My first observation is that age matters – and it is all to the good to be over 40 or 50 when traveling in Europe alone, especially as a woman. I started going to all the places I wanted to see and had studied about. Here are just a few highlights. Alas, few were at Marriotts because until about six years ago I could not afford them and even now they are few and far between on the European continent, especially in France and Italy. Some of the highlights are funny (at least in retrospect) and I learned to wear a wedding ring at all times.
-On my first ever trip to Florence, I was accosted by a man outside of Santa Maria Novella. This was in the late 90s, so my French was well established, though I spoke almost no Italian. He kept following me until I finally yelled, waving my arms in a menacing manner: “Laisse-moi tranquille!” [Leave me alone! But it had a resonance in French because he had assumed I was American.] He ran away as fast as he could.
-Another such incident happened around 1998, on the RER from Paris to St-Germain-en-Laye, a well-to-do suburb on a Saturday at noon. I was reading Le Monde and there was one other well-dressed man in the particular car. He tried to strike up a conversation but I ignored him. Then (alas! There’s a first time for everything), he exposed himself. I was not yet bilingual in French, which turned out to be a good thing. Middle-agedness had given me the courage to speak my mind even without the appropriate vocabulary. So without thinking I shouted “Vâche! Putain!” (Cow! I had to take out the translation of the other because it violated 'community standards!) He, too, practically fled, undoubtedly perturbed at being called a cow.
-In 2002, while I was following a pilgrimage route from near Lyon to Le Puy-en-Vélay, I got on a train only to find myself in the midst of a teenaged team of male soccer players who had been drinking. I listened as they spoke about ‘what I was’ – this is a recurrent theme in my narrative, at least for France, since I am blonde. I listened but tried to mind my own business. They were talking about first Clinton and Lewinsky, then Bush, and finally one of the braver ones asked me about my nationality in French. When I said “americaine” they were practically in a stupor. And then, despite my initial reservations, we all had a great conversation and when they got off the train before me they all stopped and waved goodbye.
-My favorite of such stories are from restaurants in France, which is why I quoted Peter Mayle. The “what is she?” is so common, even when I am speaking French fluently to the waiter. (Sometimes waiters have told people to be quiet because ‘she’ understands French!) But the best of all, and nicest, happened in Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy. I remember everything about it because it perfectly captured Mayle’s idea. I was the only one in the restaurant except for a regular, elderly male customer. The proprietor and the elderly man were having a lively discussion about the very subject of what I was. I have never thought greatly about my existential status except when in restaurants in France. The proprietor was fairly close, the elderly man about 20 ft. away. I simply could not take it when they decided I was anglaise (English). Suddenly I shook my head and mouthed ‘non!’ Then they asked. I kind of felt bad because the man got up, came over, kissed my hand, and apologized profusely for ‘talking about me’. We all ended up having a great conversation before the regular lunch crowd arrived.
-Three years ago, I arrived in Florence and desperately wanted an early dinner meal (Italian eating times drive me crazy). I wandered around the Arno for about an hour until I happened upon a restaurant just down from the Ponte Vecchio that was open at 6:30pm. I was seated under a fake but nicely framed Mona Lisa. I ordered, then I noticed a huge group of women (only other people in the restaurant) speaking English. Toward the end of my meal (I AM shy), I went over and spoke to them. They’d only met each other during their trip, and were composed of Canadians and Americans from everywhere. We decided to have dessert together and I ordered a bottle of Vin Santo and cantucci (previously ingrained in me by a Jesuit friend) for all of us. Before we left, the proprietor gave us all a bottle of their restaurant bottled red wine to take home. So much for an early evening – I ended up back at my hotel around midnight.
-Then during my first stay at the Grand Flora (a magnificent experience) two years ago, I had Sunday lunch at a restaurant on the Via Veneto. There was a whole Italian family there who were obviously celebrating something. As my meal was ending, Nonna asked the waiter to send over a piece of birthday cake to me (it was her 80th birthday and the whole family was there). In return, I did my usual – Vin Santo never fails. Two of the younger members of the family spoke English so we had a bilingual conversation that lasted another hour.
-Finally, sometimes, I am just alone and revel in it. Although it sounds like it’s from a novel, I have sat at the Café Marly near the Louvre Pyramid and simply watched the birds land in front of me looking sideways in hopes of a breadcrumb (I give many when the waiters aren’t looking). It’s way overpriced, the waiters can sometimes be unpleasant, but the people watching (and bird watching) is unsurpassed.
To any of you who have never traveled alone, especially women, don’t be afraid. Take the necessary precautions as if you were in a big city anywhere, but most of all enjoy and take in the ambience. Don’t be intimidated. Florence, in particular, thanks to Frances Mayes, has instituted a whole program for single or divorced women dining alone. Not match-ups, but no need to feel like you need to read a newspaper or a book so as to be unobtrusive! And no (raised-eyebrows) limit to drinking wine, either – that has been a major change since I was first in Europe when women drinking wine in public in a restaurant received a ‘certain look.’
Ladies, enjoy! There will be a few slightly iffy times, but if you act confident, learn enough words to get rid of unwanted people, and simply enjoy, you will have the time of your life,
PS - This was inspired by a personal mail from a regular Insider today who travels like me. You know who you are!
I attach pictures from Beaune and Florence.
It's funny that when I was in Brussels I connected with a family in the Exec Lounge and after we got to know each she kept saying I must have read what I took to be "Yprè Love". I wrote this posting before the Julia Roberts' movie came out, and finally realized what the wife was talking about though I have not read the book. I can't claim (not on these trips) to have had profound spiritual or romantic experiences (though some of both happened much earlier in my travels), but I think the idea is long dead that a woman shouldn't travel on her own. And the rules HAVE changed, for the better, even if I am still discussed as "what she is". ProfChiara
profchiara -- I'm just catching up on some MRI reading and happened across your post. Even though it's over 3 years old, it's still so relevant! I am active in a mostly male-dominated sport and I freqently listen to the "what is she" discussion in English! I do travel alone once in a while and you have bolstered my courage to speak haltingly in other languages. Thank you for your insights, travel knowledge, and sense of humor; I enjoy it all. Safe travels!
Traveling alone is the only way for me. Part of that is because I live alone and like it that way, part because I want to do the things I want when I want, do research during my trips, and had a horrible experience once when a "friend" stayed with me in Paris for a week. It almost ended our friendship because she became a different person altogether, scared to go out or do anything (the opposite of her US personality) and angry at me because I'm not into nightlife.
But listening in foreign languages is fun. When I was in Venice recently, I heard French restaurants guests talking about Italians (and Italians complaining about French), so it definitely was not American-specific. Some of my cases have ended up with me being annoyed but more often I went with it as I got more confident and would smile at the person who had just made a comment that was utterly wrong (having it decided that I'm German or English elicits that response) or frown when I don't like the tenor of their remark. It can often lead to amusing conversations.
A great post for the ages. As most of my traveling abroad is with a small group, there is a lot of give and take as to the how, where and why of our daily jaunts and excursions. We do try to discuss our needs and wants in advance, but with living on two different continents (and hemispheres) and with the busy-ness of life, we aren't always able to get our ideas across and sometimes wants and needs get lost in translation (like my passionately expressed desire to visit Cesky Krumlov last May, which went unmet!) What I've learned to do is to head out in advance of my party and spend a few days on my own. That way I can accomplish some things which are a definite priority for me, and when the group assembles in place, come what may, I am already satisfied. This is what I will do when I head over to the UK next year, and even in a couple of weeks when I'm in Sydney, I'm hoping to escape on my own for a day.
I have to confess that I am not totally comfortable going it alone, but you are absolutely correct that it is a great way to observe and ultimately interact with locals, most always a highlight when traveling.
Thanx for sharing your very interesting travel experiences!
I travel both alone and with others, and I find the experiences very different, each enjoyable in their own way.
Being alone allows me to focus on whatever I am doing. I can take as much or little time as I want to. I can also pick just what I want to do, change my mind and my plans till my hearts content. It is also easier to be open to meeting new people, some of which have remained friends over the years.
Traveling with others lets me see things from other perspectives and forces me to reduce the list of things we are going to do, as its much more difficult to organize and time what you are doing with others when you have to take into account their needs and preferences. I use to be more flexible about traveling with others. but a few bad experiences has made me more choosy about who I travel with. They have to have similiar tastes and dispositions. Those that I have traveled with for many years, we have developed a very comfortable travel routine where we might do some things together that we are both interested in, and other things on our own. Its hard breaking in new travel partners, especially if they have significantly different preferences.
I just about always have a list of things I want to see that far exceeds the amount of time available. If I am traveling with others, I use the list to let them pick what they prefer to whittle down my list. I try to include things that they are experts in, then I get to take advantage of their knowledge. For instance my sister danced ballet and passed her 3rd level Cecchetti exams, so if I want to go to the ballet, I just about always include her. She also studied art by doing it, where I read about it, so she is also great in art museums. My Hungarian mother speaks about 7 languages, and is also a great travel partner. Even in the US in museums, she can read some of the ancient languages, as Hungarian has alot of similarities, and it was actually a Hungarian Archeolgist at Harvard that figured out the code for Assyrian. We have also had a great time trying to figure out words from language families, like the similiarities between Finnish, Hungarian and Basque which are from the Finno-Urgic language families. After laughing ourselves silly over trying to pronounce words from our guide book, we finally figured out that they were modern words adapted or created long after the migrations, and decided to limit our search to just words that primitive people might have used like, tree, mountain, river, etc.
Besides being my normal mode of being, traveling alone provides me with another opportunity I love: to get to know people I will probably never see again and learn more about their culture. Even in Western Europe, I'm usually an oddity as a female traveling alone, so that leads to the sometimes awkward conversations I overhear in other languages. But I also find that while I never talk to strangers (or even that much acquaintances) at home, I almost go out of my way to do so in other countries. Ever since the bucket list (that I didn't know I was doing at the time) started, I have gotten to know ordinary Egyptians, Turks, Palestinians, Greeks, Andalusians, as well as the usually suspects -- Romans, Venetians, and others. As a historian, this has helped me so much in what I do and how I understand. To give one example -- every time I have been in every part of Greece, the locals always tell me how much more history I know of their country than they do. Sadly, they're mostly right. A Greek philosophy professor I had in the 1970s was very disillusioned when he first when to Greece because of the lack of education. The Greeks are the first to admit this -- and get this, they ask me to explain some of their ancient history. It can be a weird conversation, but out of it comes a mutual respect and liking.
I have often said to my students and others humorously that most of my friends are dead people (those I study). I can add to that that most of my acquaintances are from other countries -- people I will never see again (except in a few hotel cases) but who have enriched my life enormously.
Agree that when you travel with other people, you usually do not usually meet other people, either local or fellow travelers.
I do have one exception to that rule, and that was my ex who was very good at actively engaging and making friends with just about everyone we came in contact with. He is an exception though, and came from a diplomatic family where this is how the entire family operated.
No one else I travel with does this. My sister and some of GFs that are in sales are very good at more or less working the contacts of everyone on our cruise ships, etc, but its more like knowing who every one is and what they are doing. My ex's diplomatic approach, you would swear we had been life long friends or relatives, and most we have stayed in contact with over the years.
I think it helps me get out of my normal shy, hermitlike self when abroad because I usually go to places where I know the history and often the language, so I felt comfortable exerting myself in ways I don't even try to do at home. I also feel when I travel that I should set a good example as an American abroad. While most people in Europe think of us as overly cheerful, they actually tend to appreciate that fact. But I HAVE seen 'ugly American' behavior too.
I have noticed that when people are in other cultures they tend to behavior differently. I think its because its difficult to figure out which cultural rules to use, your own, those of the country your in, or some combination. This is when the ugly tourist (fill in the country appears), and they opt out of both cultures rules.
At first I thought it was just the ugly American, due to all that was said in books and movies The more I travel, I noticed that every country has its own, rude travelers that are confused by cultures, and take advantage of the situation to be selfish.
First time I saw this was in Bali. We were at a local Balinese hotel, and they had a breakfast buffet (not very Balinese but they were trying to make westerners feel welcome). At the omlette station was an older Italian women trying to order an omlette in Italian. Most Balinese speak several languages, so the poor fellow was trying every language he knew to try to find the language they might have in common. Unfortunately, she kept repeating herself in Italian, a language he did not speak, and just kept repeating it louder and louder in Italian (something Americans are accused of doing). I know only a little Italian, and tend to understand more than I can speak, as it shares alot of words with Spanish and French, so I did my best to encourage her to show him what she wanted by pointing. All the ingredients were lined up in bowls, and all you had to do was point at the ingredients to put into the omellete. Seems like common sense to me. I also think people panic at not being able to express themselves and forget what they can easily do like point, pantomime, use an electronic translator, or paperback dictionary, etc
I have a question for you that is a little bit off the topic of this thread.
Just finished, "Roma" by Steven Sayler. In the author's notes at the end when he talks about his source material. He said he got his idea for writing historical fiction from T.J. Cornell's, "The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (1000 B.C. to 264 B.C) where Cornell says that, "... in pre-modern history....writers are permitted to reconstruct from their own imagination, the feelings, aspirations and motives of persons and gruops, to conjure up plausible scenes-on the battlefield, on the streets, or in the redroom-and even to put their own words into the mouths of persons in the drama.These conventions were accepted without question in antiquity when history was at least in part a rhetorical exercise".
I was just wondering what you thought about the difference between modern historians that are more facts oriented, versus the pre-modern historian that sounds like they may have been closer to our historical novelists, which is really how I like learning my history, and how best relate and understand it.
Its a great way to prepare for my upcoming Rome trip.
This practices goes way back to antiquity and the first "more or less" objective historian, Thucydides, who wrote the history of the Peloponnesian Wars. It was taken as general practice that you convey the gist of things, add speeches that might never have been given but are edifying, and take liberties with the facts to make the story better. I wouldn't make the comparison with historical fiction, because in the latter case it is fiction. Ancient and medieval historians tended to be telling what they considered a true story, but found no problem with embellishment, putting words in someone's mouth, or using appearance to judge character. They also did this a lot during the Italian Renaissance.