Of all the places I travel solo, the place where I’m the happiest is in France. Even before I spoke the language well, armed only with my high school French, I liked the places I went and the people I met. France was the first place I lived abroad and now I think that much of what I like in France is that I get to shed my English skin.
Whatever it is that irritates the rest of the world about the French doesn’t really bother me. I think that I accepted from the get go that the French had opinions and that they would judge me by how well I met their expectations. The thing was, I felt the whole world was that way, only that the French were open about it. I spent a lot of my time growing up feeling like I was not living up to the unspoken and for me unknowable expectations of the world. In France, things were just as confusing, but the French did not expect me to be able to rise to their level. I was not, after all, French. And you know, I found it a relief.
Being a foreigner provided padding against the lash of social norms. I found I didn’t measure myself against the scorecard of the culture “out there” like I did at home. I loved that I could step away from it by crossing a border.
There’s a warning in this, too. Some people, when they step out and away from the constraints of their social circle, become monsters. It might be that they are afraid and their fear makes them defensive and aggressive. It may be ignorance that gets read as disrespect. It may be a lack of empathy that allows people only to care about their trip and not about how the place they visit is actually home to others. Whatever the reason, when there’s a conflict or tension between you and the people you meet on your travels, it is easier to ignore the problem when you are in a group. You are in a bubble with your companions that can shield you from self-recognition. Traveling solo doesn’t offer that bubble, and the other culture becomes a really interesting mirror with which to see yourself. And since it isn’t your own culture or your own circle where you will see people over and over, you can take it lightly.
This happened to me when I was staying by myself in the South of France in a little town by the sea. There was sandy beach but also a “pool” created by a rectangle of piers. It was a safe place for kids to play and parents could watch from the deck. There was a ladder on one side so you could climb out.
A group of tweens was playing by the ladder, jumpling in, splashing each other, pushing a bit, all in fun. I was swimming and wanted to come out. In my head, I wondered if the kids would be a problem. I swam closer and one of them jumped in right next to me and I yelled at them. The parent nearby took me to task. Even though I was over 60 and they were teens, he felt I could have spoken quietly to them and asked them to let me pass. The monster in me felt they should have shown respect, they should have been careful, they should have…
Well, I realized the man was right. I had approached the ladder ready to yell. I didn’t want to have to say anything. But these were teenagers and I do know that kids have to learn to be aware. The question is how to teach that. I was disappointed in myself. Later that day and for the rest of my visit, I noticed that the French don’t yell at kids in public. The interaction I’d had with the man wasn’t him justifying his child but actually defending her from the harm a public scolding could do. Say what you will about the French, they are gentler with kids of all ages than we are. So I had a good look at myself.
If I’d been with another person, I imagine it would have gone differently. We would have agreed how wrong “they” were. Either the kids, or the man, or both. Or maybe all the French. But I was alone. I had no one to bolster my viewpoint. I instead was put in a position to see how French culture has its tender side. I was able to shift and see the value of a more gentle manner that was not just about me, Susan, fallng short, but a difference of culture that I took no blame for but which I hope to improve.
So going solo is a chance to see just exactly who you are without the constraints but also the buffer that your society and your culture place around you. And because it’s just you there, it is easier to sift through the experience and find what you can use and leave the rest when you move on.
Susan diRende travels the world on her own and has been living with no fixed abode since the end of 2014. This twice-monthly column aims to encourage others to try going solo and explores what can be gained from the experience. All photos ©Susan diRende
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