‘Alone time in Paris had been pleasant enough, but it had also made me go a bit… funny’
Monica Heisey, author
My life is a series of minor pressures. Pressure to do exciting things, and to look good doing them; to know myself, sure, but also what kind of boot goes with what kind of coat; to be well read, or at least appear so; to produce aesthetically pleasing images of my face and surroundings; to be self-actualised and comfortable in my own skin; to moisturise that skin into a dewy oblivion; to be the kind of woman others might refer to as a #girlboss, but who actually thinks the term is condescending and problematically locates female empowerment within the capitalist framework; to toss my hair back in the face of adversity, looking both gorgeous and on the verge of easily speaking a second language.
For me, as for many aspirational women and motivational mugs before me, all these pressures coalesce in Paris. Paris represents elegant ease, unbothered gluten consumption, and smoking because it’s fun and feels good, and wrinkles are actually chic if you think about it. The reality is – of course – not this, but the idea of it is what keeps north Americans like me coming back. It is a cliche: a tired idea, but then I am tired, too. Fighting life’s pressures is not always more rewarding than giving into them. Also, there was a seat sale.
So, then, Paris. Perhaps just as beguiling as the city was my plan to travel unaccompanied. For my last visit, I was on my honeymoon and had just written my first book. Five years later, I was struggling to write a second one – a comic novel about young divorce (ahem). I’d decided to go somewhere I could be productively alone: writing in the morning, noodling in and out of patisseries in the afternoon; getting a bit more work done in the evening before making charged eye contact with strangers over a glass of wine and a book at some adorable bistro. If I happened to change my life on the way to 20,000 usable words, so be it.
And that is how solo travel gets you. “Woman Travelling Alone Finds Life’s Purpose And Hot Foreign Lover” is a literary genre all to itself. City guides, personal essays and anecdotes from your most beautiful friends set up holidaying alone as the most rewarding way of being a woman abroad. If it sounds boring to you, that is because you are bad at being alone with yourself, which is sad and not modern. You are probably the kind of weak person who “wants others around’’ and “sometimes goes on their phone”. Unenlightened, unadventurous, unempowered.
The narrative of solo travel is basically this: woman of means experiences existential or relational crisis (preferably one, then the other), escapes to exotic locale, learns not to sweat the small stuff, returns home with a new lease of life and a boyfriend named Paolo. I was not exactly a woman of means, but I had room on my credit card for an off-season hotel in Montmartre (“the 18th” as I tried to casually call it to a friend before losing my nerve and stammering, “near the Moulin Rouge”), a few months of Duolingo French in my back pocket and a novel I had described to my agent as “on its way” roughly four months ago. If, as the self-help books claim, one can eat, dress, shampoo, date, exercise and have sex like a French girl, I reasoned, I could fumble towards a deadline like one, too. The stage was set for a classic Dix-Huit, Pray, Love.
What actually happened is that I got bullied, immediately, by a French teenager on the Eurostar. Arriving at my (window) seat, I found it occupied. When I tried to explain the situation to the cheekbones in it, she gestured to the (aisle) seat beside her and said, “It’s the same, non?”, then went back to texting. I sank into my coward’s aisle seat and looked around. Everyone was texting. Part of my plan had been to avoid nonessential phone use. I pulled out a magazine but couldn’t focus. The whole carriage was enthralled by phones or company: a too-excited woman in a beret made plans with her boyfriend while eating a tube of Pringles à la française; a mother and daughter had a chic fight in French, before collapsing into each other’s arms in giggles; a hen do sipped 10am white wine through penis straws. And there I was: bored out of my skull before we’d even passed Lille.
Despite this rough start, I felt buoyed by my walk to the hotel, navigating the winding streets. The feeling stayed with me as I trudged up the steps to Sacré-Coeur, stopping to “take photos” (catch my breath) and “listen to the sounds of the city” (really, desperately try to catch that breath). I had dinner in a bistro near my hotel, enjoying a solo soupe à l’oignon, and browsed as many shops as I liked on the way home.
I felt brave enough to practise my bad French. It did not go well, but as a solo traveller I had the luxury of standing outside the shoe store, trying to remember the word for 39 for roughly as many minutes, without wasting anyone’s time but my own. I still got it wrong, and ended up trying on a farcically small pair of brogues, thrilled not to have a travelling partner to witness this.
As the days passed, I fell into a rhythm of my own wants: waking up when I liked, eating exactly what I wanted for breakfast, working uninterrupted till two and then wandering into whatever museums, boutiques or cafes appealed. On my own, I felt more attuned to the city. I wore my headphones less, felt freer to amble, not needing to factor in anyone’s interests when it came to eating, entertainment, urination or rest. While I tend to let others take the reins of a given trip’s itinerary, I found myself pleasantly able to fill my own time, even to ask incredibly basic questions about menus and opening times in French. I had to admit that it was, in a very low-stakes sort of way, a bit empowering.
And yet I’d developed an odd tic. Instead of writing down amazing ideas for my novel, I’d been using my notebook to record interactions: “Barista visibly distressed at prospect of customers”; “Older woman at patisserie snuck me extra macaron and winked”; “Man at Le Progrès romantically staring? Actually wanted to borrow chair”; “Nice couple asked for directions”; “Woman at shoe store called me ‘tall’ in charged way”; “Kind server let me practise my French (huge victory until devastating reveal that she was also north American)”.
Looking over this lunatic’s catalogue, I realised that, in a city full of famous art, gorgeous architecture basking in preternaturally beautiful light and an almost impossible quantity of butter-based food, what I had cherished most about Paris were its minor moments of human connection. All this alone time had been pleasant enough, but it had also made me go a bit… funny. I was developing the air of someone who stands up front asking the bus driver about the route. I had become a bartender’s pest, wringing the last few drops of chat out of whoever had been unlucky enough to make me a martini. As I puttered around my hotel in the evenings, I talked to myself. Finally, I caved, calling a friend in Toronto and telling her everything that had happened on each day of my trip, more or less in order. After we hung up, I bombarded the group chat with snapshots. Why else had I taken all those pictures of soup, or written down those interactions, or filmed that jazz singer telling me his band was called the Hot Spaghettis? What had been the point of seeing Notre-Dame, half-burnt, if not to get two-wines-sentimental with a friend about the ravages of time? I was unconvinced of the life-changing magic of travelling alone. What I wanted – from travel, from life – was another person to be there, to witness and dissect and share the experience.
Freeze-frame, record scratch, etc. This trip took place in late January, a month and a half before the UK went into lockdown. Suddenly, “wandering a foreign country” or “speaking to another person at close range” became unimaginable luxuries. In the months since, society has scrambled to virtually replace the lost comforts of a pre-Covid-19 world, and I was gratified that chief among them was good company. While many enjoyed solitary time for craft projects or writing the next generation’s King Lear, I kept a steady schedule of FaceTime, Zoom and Houseparty dates, though, as we have all learned by now, these are scarcely a substitute for the real thing.
Back in January, I returned to the Gare du Nord unconverted to the transformational power of solo travel. I had had a perfectly nice time. Certainly it had been my least performative holiday, there being no one to help me get those wide shots for the ’gram. But, regardless of the trip’s authenticity, of the time to write, of the meals taken according to my own preference, all I really wanted was someone to eat Pringles with on the train. Though ideally, that person would advise against the beret.
Monica Heisey is a TV writer and the author of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better.
‘A few men offered camels for my hand in marriage’
Athena Kugblenu, comedian and presenter
In 2005, I went to Tunisia. I had a backpack and an A5 map I had printed off the Lonely Planet website. This more than qualified me to do the trip alone.
When I arrived in Tunis, it felt… weird. Everyone was looking at me. “Hey, Janet Jackson! Come look at my store.” I turned around, looking for Janet Jackson. “Hey, you, Bob Marley’s sister, come to my store!” Constance and/or Pearl is here, too? No way! “BEAUTIFUL BLACK WOMAN. IGNORE HIM, COME TO MY PLACE INSTEAD, I DO YOU GOOD DEAL.” “Black woman?” Oh. I’m not travelling with celebrities: I’m just travelling while Black. I was attracting attention like a sneeze on a bus in 2020.
None of this deterred me. I took a bus to Dougga, to see the Roman ruins. But when the bus arrived, it continued to drive past. I panicked. I ran to the front. “Stop, please stop!” The driver said some stuff in French. I said some stuff in English. Eventually, he let the mad English girl off the coach and I trundled my way back up the road. I think I walked for about an hour. I don’t know how many errors in personal safekeeping I chalked up that day; but I do know I was saved by a local who accepted a small amount of cash to give me a tour of the site and put me on the bus back to Tunis.
I arrived at my hotel so inexplicably pleased with myself that I decided to trek to Matmata, because they filmed Star Wars there. Matmata is quite far from Tunis, so I needed a halfway town to spend the night. I looked at my ridiculous little map. I would stay in a place called Sfax.
They weren’t used to single Black women there, either. A few men offered a number of camels for my hand in marriage. I checked into the first hotel I could find. My room looked like a prison cell and the bed felt like breeze-blocks. Thick, heavy, mucus-laden snoring from the next room kept me up all night. I checked out at first light and hopped on the first bus to Matmata.
What can I say about Matmata? I’ve said it already. They filmed Star Wars there. It’s quite dusty. I took pictures of some jaded, decades-old film sets. I met another guide who took pity on this random, wandering British woman and let me ride on the back of his bike (which I am pretty sure I was not insured for). He took me to all the things I was supposed to take pictures of, and I even participated in a bit of Privilege Tourism – a meal with a Berber family (“They live in the ground! How quaint!”). I felt terrible about the whole thing.
I got a direct bus back to Tunis and spent the next few days holed up in my hotel. I didn’t want any more adventures, because I was crap at them. Nor did I want to go out and be reminded of my racial categorisation and gender every 30 seconds.
Arriving back home after a week of being shouted at by men felt odd. I waited on the tube platform in London. No one noticed. I sat in the carriage. No one noticed. I walked home from the station. No one noticed. Perhaps there was something to miss about Tunisia, after all. I wouldn’t have minded one unsolicited compliment. I was getting used to being told how many camels I was worth.
Athena Kugblenu is a regular co-host of The Guilty Feminist podcast and hosts her own, Keeping Athena Company. She is performing at the Next Up comedy festival on 28 July.
‘Mum’s head hole was far from ideal, but I tanned my hourglass bod’
Jamie Demetriou, comedian, actor and screenwriter
“My friend has moved to Majorca for a year and he has a spare mattress!” Announcements like this from my radiant mum were the seed from which most of my childhood holidays grew. Without the funds for hotels, we were reliant on family and friends moving to Europe and politely saying we could come to visit without meaning it. Them: “You should come one day! Maybe!” Us: “See you today!”
This particular year it was to be Majorca Mattress Madness + Me & Mum. I had high hopes. I was a curvy 10-year-old with curtains and a suspicion that cruisin’ to Maj’ with my Marj for two weeks would go down in history as one of the all-time-great, chilled jaunts.
Our Club 10-50 trip began with a bang, if you understand “bang” to mean “our section of the plane stank so badly of sewage due to a pipe malfunction that I remember seeing two people crying”. On arrival we were greeted by Mum’s nice friend who was putting us up in his flat. He was to be our suave-ish guide; let’s call him Norgay.
There was an immediate tension between him and me. Not a bad one, per se; he just made a lot of mild factual statements, but phrased them as poignant questions by ending them with a manly “mm?”, eg, “I love ginger beer, mm?” or, “You’re going to be sleeping on the floor behind a bookcase for two weeks with your mum because my flat isn’t big enough for a holiday, mm?” We reached his apartment, got settled behind the bookcase, introduced ourselves to the legion of cockroaches, I combed my curtains and we headed out.
Evening one. Norgay took us to a beach party held by his English-speaking, cucumber-sandwichy am-dram group. They were all hammered and, as a 10-year-old who didn’t know what, “Haha, no, I mustn’t… Oh, go on then!” meant, I felt lost. To try to make me feel at home, Norgay attempted a fatherly rugby tackle on me while I was paddling. In doing so, he slipped a disc, rendering him unable to show us around for the rest of the trip. Olé.
Day two. Norgay’s fresh torso slant meant a slower approach. “I know a beautiful, sandy beach, mm?” Bliss. Except it turned out he’d accidentally said “sandy beach” when he meant to say “bark chippings next to a rocky bog”. But a beach is a beach, y’know? And at least Mum didn’t go to enter the bog, slip, hit her head on a rock, pass out, then wake up with a big bloody crack in the back of her head. Wait, yes, she did do that. It was horrible. My poor mum tried to put a brave face on it: “Let’s go home and get a good fun sleep!” In other words, “I’m not conscious!”
Night. Norgay’s apartment overlooked an alley full of 24-hour bars, where (as I understand it) they held nightly scary-scream competitions, seemingly judged on a combination of decibel, blood-curdle and ability to wake up a soft 10-year-old boy as he lies facing the gaping bloody hole in his mum’s head. I could never decide on a winner. All 10s.
Days three to nine. With wounded carers, there wasn’t a huge amount I could do. I’d packed a VHS of four episodes of Only Fools And Horses that I watched on a loop. One day I was staring at it, eyes glazed, and it cut out. Hmm. I went to pull out the unfamiliar Euro plug, accidentally pulling the plastic casing off the metal prongs, leaving them in the wall. OK. Guess I’ll pull out the prongs with my young, pudgy hands? I don’t know how many volts of electricity passed through me, but my teeth chattered until my mum pulled me off the wall. Home now? Please?
Days nine to 14. I remember this period as peaceful. Mum and I wandered around looking for a travel agency that would give us flights home for cheap, or free. We laughed lots and found a nice beach where Mum could siesta and I could wade my new ginger beer-filled puppy fat in “Did you see that, Mum?”-sized waves (around 75cm). Gorgeous.
Weirdly, I haven’t thought about this holiday in 20 years. As a sort of adult now, I obviously can’t help but sympathise much more with my mum. She so wanted me to have a nice holiday: surely forking out for flights was enough to ensure that I would? It did. Bark, rocks, head holes and screaming were far from ideal, mainly for her. But I got to swim, I tanned my hourglass bod and memories were created that I’m proud to have in my head-loft. Thanks, Mum.
And at least we didn’t miss our flight home by a day because she accidentally wrote the dates down wrong. Mm?
Jamie Demetriou writes and stars in Stath Lets Flats.
‘Sleeping was out of the question because the air conditioning sounded like an orchestra of pneumatic drills’
Diane Morgan, comedian and writer
It was the day 9/11 happened. I hadn’t seen the news, and was eating a sandwich in London’s Covent Garden when my boyfriend rang to say, “I don’t think we’ll be going on holiday tomorrow.” I said, “Oh, you’re fucking joking! Why?!”
This was my first proper holiday abroad, to Greece. Amazingly, we still went. Everyone on the plane was a bit apprehensive. Luckily, the pilot understood this and put us at ease by saying: “Hello, ladies and gentlemen. I know you must all be feeling nervous after yesterday’s events, but I can assure you we will not be flying into any tall buildings.” To add to the sense of trepidation, it was a no-frills airline – one of the ones where the flight attendant walks up the gangway selling scratchcards and you can get a tattoo done in the cockpit.
My abiding memory is missing the last bus back to the hotel one night and having to sleep on a cliff face, where I got so badly sunburnt, I was like a piece of chorizo carved into human shape; a chorizo Morph. It was so awful, I flinch at the thought of Greece now. I can barely keep an olive down.
My other terrible holiday was to Marrakech. I had a romantic idea of Morocco, probably from watching Indiana Jones. I thought people would be sitting around on carpets sipping tea and eating baklava.
Several people had said to me: “Oh, you must go to Marrakech – it’s simply wonderful!” But those people were liars. It was more like Beirut in the 1980s: massive holes in the road, and monkeys tied up by the neck to “perform” for tourists.
After a long day’s sightseeing I could at least go back to the comfort and safety of the hotel, although it had looked different on the website. Those photos certainly didn’t feature the dead cat that was outside the reception. Still, they’d gone to the trouble of twisting my bath towels into the shape of a swan. The fact that it looked more like a cock and balls was by the by. Sleeping was out of the question because the air conditioning sounded like an orchestra of pneumatic drills was playing inside my head, but it was either that or boil to death. I chose the drills.
Breakfast at the hotel was ham, cheese, boiled eggs and a Ski yoghurt, all served up on what looked like a decorator’s painting table. It wasn’t very appetising but I hoped we might find somewhere delicious for lunch. We ended up in a seafood place. I’d never really liked seafood but I was hungry. The waiter assured us that the prawns were exceptionally fresh. He wasn’t wrong: they were still moving around on the plate. They looked as if they were begging us not to eat them with sign language. Suddenly the boiled eggs and Ski yoghurt didn’t look so bad.
I didn’t want to give up on the holiday, though. I wanted to find a nice local market. You know, the ones that sell pottery, incredibly expensive olive oil and ceramic lemons. Every time someone buys one, the Moroccans must laugh their heads off: “Haha, we sold another one: I cannot believe these idiots!”
I found a souk. Fantastic! Until a little Moroccan lad followed me around for a full hour shouting: “You British? You British? Luvverly jubberly.” When I told him I didn’t want to buy his rugs, this Del Boy turned on me, calling me a “filthy British whore”! But if you don’t want a rug, you don’t want a rug.
I was glad when the whole thing was over. Even the turbulence on the way back was the worst I’ve ever experienced – people screaming for their lives.
Shortly after this I went on a short trip to Paris, “the city of love”, and was charged the equivalent of £18 for a smoothie. Now I just stick the central heating on and stay home.
Diane Morgan performs as Philomena Cunk, and stars in Motherland and After Life.
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