I arrived in Paris in an early January afternoon last year. The sun was already setting, casting a golden hue across the city that felt so restless with excitement. Preceding the trip I had felt a mixture of anguish and nervousness, but most of all, excitement. I had finally done what I had always wanted to – I had run away to Paris by myself.
The city famed for its romantic architecture, cuisine, music, and art might have seemed counterintuitive for someone longing to escape the very sentiment of romantic love. I had, in fact, been to Paris only a year earlier, but this time I had gone to radically rewrite my understanding of love.
The breakup itself was far from the standard dissolution of a relationship, but rather, a slow culmination of extraordinarily painful events that prompted me to end things in a way that could only be likened to ripping off a plaster.
It was in memories of our 2019 Paris trip that I could feel myself longing for a person who never truly existed. We had walked on cobblestoned streets under hazy street lamps, cheeks red from too much cheap wine and winter’s chill; moments that couldn’t have felt further removed from how it had all ended.
As an English student and avid reader, Paris had long been the site of rich literary heritage and my cultural fantasies. Many of my favourite writers and thinkers – Victor Hugo, James Joyce, F Scott Fitzgerald, Oscar Wilde, Simone de Beauvoir, Ernest Hemingway – roamed the streets of Paris and wrote much of their infamous works here. There were traces of their works everywhere, permanently etched into the city and unfathomably exciting to a second year English student.
“I had, in fact, been to Paris only a year earlier, but this time I had gone to radically rewrite my understanding of love from a romantic act to one focused on myself.”
Nearing the end of 2019, I found myself craving a visit to Paris once more. I was blessed with a flexible schedule after my January exams, prime access to seasonally reduced tickets, and a home that was reasonably close to London St Pancras International. The main source of hesitation for this trip was the fear of being alone and lonely.
Although the pandemic has unquestionably made isolation and loneliness an inevitability for us all, there is a certain vulnerability that comes with choosing to do activities by yourself that we are compulsively told we should be doing with a significant other. Yet, I found that on setting off I became enthralled in a world of avid reading and writing. Any self-consciousness had completely disappeared and I began to feel a hunger for exploring every nook and cranny of the city.
In my tour of literary Paris, perhaps the most significant visit was to Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, where the aforementioned writers would congregate and drink and discuss their work. I had been the year before, but the feeling was very different this time. This time, I had come here in search of renewal and creative inspiration.
“There is a certain vulnerability that comes with choosing to do activities by yourself that we are compulsively told we should be doing with a significant other.”
I spent my first evening writing in the comfort of its café, facing the construction site that was the Notre Dame cathedral. As I’d been the year prior, it was a little jarring to see the integration of various building machinery and its stunning gothic architecture. After a few hours of pouring over the titles on offer and ashamedly playing with the resident cat, Aggie, I walked along the banks of the Seine, the City of Light glittering before me.
The following day saw me walk from Luxembourg Gardens to Musee D’Orsay, Rivoli 59 to Montmartre in time for catching the sunset. I had selectively come to the city in late January, partially for monetary reasons, predominantly as I grew restless in the interim period between my January assessments and spring semester. The city had a calm kind of quiet to it, and although the evenings saw the city come to life, during the day it was peaceful and solitary.
As a woman, the concept of travelling by yourself is loaded with worries such as your safety and the feeling of outright awkwardness in public spaces. A cacophony of thoughts were racing around my head at all times. Am I doing this because no one wanted to do it with me? Do I relish being alone?
Questions like these are certainly hard to avoid as a woman travelling alone, particularly one attempting to rewrite heartbreak. Yet surprisingly, I found a great deal of comfort in my own company, perhaps for the first time in quite some time. I became so consumed by writing and reading that any fear of being single had completely vanished.
“The Paris I had come to see was a feeling manifested in the alleys and bars alight with people and sound and music.”
On my final evening, I spent the early afternoon back in Shakespeare & Co. and ended up meeting two wonderful new friends who too, were by themselves. Just like that, any concerns I had about being strange or odd for having taken myself on holiday, had disappeared.
After saying goodbye to my new friends, my final stop was in hopes of catching the Eiffel Tower alight. I waited in the early evening with little luck, before heading back to the nearest Metro station to get to Gare du Nord. I didn’t particularly mind though; the Paris I was interested in wasn’t soaring above the city or atop Montmartre.
Instead, the Paris I had come to see was a feeling manifested in the alleys and bars alight with people and sound and music. I left the City of Light in the gathering darkness, with a renewed sense of curiosity and intrigue about the people I watched disappear from the comfort of my train seat. I was alone, but I certainly wasn’t lonely.
Katie is a writer and MA English Literature student based in Durham, UK. She has written for Dazed, VICE, Refinery29, and Huck Mag covering culture, social justice issues, literature, and feminism. In September 2021, Katie will begin her PhD in English Literature and Medical Humanities at Durham University. @KatieAnneTobin
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