So, a few months ago I promised myself I would post about my experience traveling by myself in France, especially those aspects about being a female solo-traveler. Then life happened and I never got back to it… So, here I am, writing about my grand solo adventure.
Now, I’ve stayed in youth hostels before last summer, but it was always with someone else, usually my boyfriend. Instant bodyguard, right? But after a year in grad school and the award money from my senior thesis burning a hole in my pocket, I decided I needed to do something unforgettable. I love France and I always had romantic ideas of biking around the Provencal countryside, baguette in hand.
I first tried to organize something with friends, but seeing as the economy had recently taken a turn for the worse, job prospects were bleak and my once adventurous friends no longer had the financial means to come with. No big deal, I’d done some “backpacking” before, why not on my own? Well, there was the slight fear of having everything stolen from me once more, as happened in Barcelona. But if I could come through that experience, who’s to say I couldn’t take on more? No one, that’s who. As I scoured the interwebs, I kept finding women who had thrown caution to the wind and traveled on their own. Heck, there was a section of couchsurfing.org dedicated to females traveling on their own. And I knew the culture, the language, the food… If there ever was a place to go, France was it, and there’s no time like the present. So off I went.
My initial idea was to fly through Paris each way, seeing as it really is the only city in France that you can hop a flight to Philadelphia, much less the US. I would stay in Paris for a few days on either end of the trip and spend most of my time in the south: Montpellier, Arles, Avignon, and Nimes. Those cities were chosen for their culture, abundance of online information, and bounty of youth hostels. And I really did get the kind of adventure I was looking for from these places: history, nightlife, family fun, culture, and time to myself. But first, the best and worst parts of solo travel:
The most liberating part of traveling on my own was that I could do whatever I wanted. If I got up at the crack of dawn, no waiting around for others; if I wanted a relaxed day, there was no itinerary to spoil. If I made some friends, I could make plans without worrying about my traveling companions’ needs. At the same time, I could plan out all the activities I wanted to do, eat when and what I wanted, spend an afternoon reading or go on a 15+ mile bike ride. One day, I even had a lunch of cheese and a baguette in a field of sunflowers. I got myself lost then got myself back, no one to argue with and no one to complain to me.
But there are downsides to all of these things. If I got lost, I could only depend on myself. If I didn’t make friends, I was forced into solitude. And, worst of all, if something bad happened to me (theft, rape, lost passport), no one was there to help me through it. Sure, some days didn’t end up ok: one wrong train ticket and I was scrambling for a place to stay in Paris and cancelling my hostel in Nimes. No amount of French language knowledge helped me there. Add to that the added layer of being a woman and you have to watch out for overly friendly advances from men, which unfortunately did happen in Montpellier, Arles, and Paris. I did have one situation in Montpellier where I was at a club with some other backpackers from the youth hostel and two guys skirted the line between friendly and too friendly. But I made sure I was with a large group of people at all times and had couple walking escorts back to the hostel.
Fortunately, what I took away from this experience was not the sense that I could do anything, but that I could survive traveling on my own and, well, really liked it. I couldn’t fly by the seat of my pants like the American guy who hitchhiked and camped out on farms, but I could travel on a budget and enjoy it.
Next post, I will detail my housing arrangements and transportation (aka how to take the wrong night train in France)…