Lessons From My Unforgettable Solo Trip

For this Next Avenue editor, a vacation in Paris fulfills a dream

Article and photos by Julie Pfitzinger

View from the Seine
View from the Seine

I don’t think many of us give too much thought to the screen savers on our computers. Maybe you change the background photo every so often, or if you’re a purist, just switch the current solid color to another vibrant tone.

Like many, I’m on my computer quite a bit so my screen saver is part of my daily landscape. Recently, I stopped to reflect on the background on my personal computer and remembered the wonderful day last spring when I captured the image; it’s a photo I took at Jardin du Luxembourg during my very first trip to Paris.

Never Had the Opportunity

This was a much longed-for trip, one I had been thinking about for many years. In my mind, I can still see my seventh-grade French class textbook, and the filmstrips (!) featuring “Monsieur et Madame Thibaut” who were slightly glamorous cartoon figures standing in front of their house, going to the market, petting their dog. All mundane activities, but fascinating because we were talking about them in French.

Our teacher, Sister Peronne Marie, a native of France, taught us so much and so well. To this day, one of my favorite expressions is one I learned in her class; Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid. (Little by little, the bird builds his nest.)

That’s what I did, through high school and into college, where I accumulated enough credits to earn a double major in French. But there was a significant branch of my nest that was missing. I had read, written, listened to and studied French language and culture, but never had the opportunity to travel to Paris.

Since joining the Next Avenue editorial team last year, I have drawn inspiration from stories about solo travel adventures. Not only did I believe the time had come for me to fulfill my dream of seeing Paris, but I decided to go one step further and take the trip on my own.

My husband, who frequently traveled for business over the years when our two children were young, encouraged me to go solo, so I didn’t feel guilty about leaving him behind. He’s also someone who delights in reading every single plaque on every single painting at every single museum he visits. But, as I joked with him, that wasn’t exactly the pace I wanted to maintain.

What I Learned on My Solo Trip

Here are a few takeaways from my unforgettable experience:

Musee D’Orsay
Musee D’Orsay

You might do more than you planned. One of the pleasures of a solo trip is the gift of setting your own agenda.  Of course, I had a list of “must-see” spots in Paris, but knowing I only had a week, I had to be judicious. I couldn’t do everything.The way you spend your time might surprise you. I arrived early on a Friday afternoon and didn’t want to plan too much for that day since I knew I’d be worn out from traveling, and I was right. However, on Saturday, I was ready to go and had the energy to visit not one, but two, museums, plus the Eiffel Tower. Rather than stick to what I thought I’d do over the course of a couple of days, I did what I felt like doing and that was great.

Memorable moment. Before the trip, a friend from that seventh-grade French class told me the first time she saw the Eiffel Tower, she had tears in her eyes because seeing it meant so much to her. I felt the same way and thought of her, and of my other classmates, that day since that’s the class where it had all started.

Public transportation is the way to go. While I was able to navigate (fairly well) in cafés and shops with my long-ago French, the highest-level conversation I had was with a kind woman in customer service at a Metro station when I was trying to make my way to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and realized I needed to change lines, but wasn’t quite sure which station I needed to travel to next. Between her okay English and my okay French, she was able to send me on my way to the Sèvres-Babylone station, which became the new point of reference for me to get to several locations within the city. Once I mastered that, I was confident.

Memorable moment. On one trip, a man playing the accordion entered a crowded car near where I was sitting. As delighted as I was by that surprise, my fellow Parisian riders didn’t even look up from their phones. Just another day on the Metro for them.

Being a “joiner” is valuable, too. I participated in only two organized events. The first was a bike trip in Versailles with Fat Tire Tours, which included a train trip to the town of Versailles, a short bike ride to a farmers’ market to select picnic items and then onto the Palace of Versailles for a tour.

Except the last part didn’t happen — the workers at Versailles opted to go on strike that morning. Our congenial tour guide told us that in the four years he had been leading bike trips, this was only the second time that had happened. We stood in front of the gates while he told us about, as he said with a laugh, “everything we wouldn’t be seeing.”  Honestly, I wasn’t fazed by it at all. It was a beautiful day and I had biked in Versailles.

I also went on a food and history tour in Montmartre that I learned about through Airbnb. It was a small group of fewer than 10 travelers — three from Australia — and yet another charming guide led us to shops for chocolate, ice cream and crêpes. We also learned about the years that Van Gogh, Picasso and Renoir spent in Montmartre. It was a lovely way to discover more about this beautiful part of Paris.

Les Deux Magots
Les Deux Magots

Memorable momentAs a fan of the movie Amelie, not only seeing Café Deux Moulins, the corner cafe in Montmartre where much of it was filmed, but also having an Aperol Spritz there, was a highlight.

Even solo travelers can share their experiences. I posted a lot of photos on Instagram when I was in Paris, since literally everything seemed like a photo opportunity. It was a nice way to share my experiences with friends and family. I even did my first Insta Story about the Versailles closure. It took me a few minutes to figure out how to do that, but there are worse ways to spend time than sitting in a café, scrolling through pictures and writing captions.

Memorable momentSpeaking of cafes, while Monsieur et Madame Thibaut were the ones who first introduced me to Paris, in later years, it was the writing of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Simone de Beauvoir and others — as well as the works of artists like Monet and Renoir — that hooked me. For that reason, enjoying breakfast, or le petit déjeuner,  at Les Deux Magots, which Hemingway wrote about in A Moveable Feast, was definitely near the top of my list of favorite moments in Paris.

A dream trip can actually contain many smaller dreams within it, and for me, embracing the opportunity to visit places I had read about, studied and seen in films, has given me lasting memories. We all have a dream “nest” that we want to complete, so if we can do it now, we should.

This article was originally published by Next Avenue.

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