It’s Valentines Day in Paris, and thankfully, the French have spared us all from the indecency of chalky, pink candy hearts with nauseating sayings like ‘Be mine,’ or ‘I wuv you.’
And at the boulangerie near my hotel, a tray of gingerbread hearts powdered with white sugar. The only homage to love on this 14th of February.
Valentine’s day with French class and indifference – my kind of holiday!
But in Paris, I have found myself again confronted to my status as that most mythical of creatures, the lone She-Wolf. Read: as a single woman.
In the city of love, couples whisper and laugh softly at each others jokes, their gazes fiercely trained on each other, fingers intertwined. And a waiter who tells me, “vous êtes seule? Mais ce n’est pas bien!”
You’re alone? That’s not good!
It was on these parting words from a waiter in lovely, gay Paris that I burst out laughing, making my quick exist from the restaurant, shaking my head and saying, “non, ça ira / no it’s fine.”
The waiter’s words echoed the words of a Parisian cab driver who, six years earlier, had asked me: “Mademoiselle, do you have a boyfriend? No!? But why?! Do you have a lover, then?”
Had I heard this correctly? Had a perfect stranger just asked me if I was having sex without any strings attached? MON DIEU!
As I recounted the tale of the French waiter to one of my dearest friends, it prompted her to ask me: “Why do men think it’s acceptable to ask that question? Is he saying that being single is not ok?”
Indeed: being single in Europe, as in Canada, is a lifestyle choice that we are imposing on others. *wink, wink*
Implicit is the message that it’s socially provocative, undesirable to be a single She-Wolf traveller. Parce qu’une femme sans amour, c’est comme une fleur sans soleil / A woman without love is a like a flower without the sun.
For a brief moment, I lament being alone. As a (male) friend once told me, “Paris is beautiful…. but when you’re alone there, don’t you feel like someone is missing next to you?”
Le sigh. Yes…. a little.
Photo courtesy of YoungAdventuress.com
But that is a private thought, and such public, judgy, shaming comments like those of the waiter and cab driver have always been the thorn in my side while travelling. I have often returned to Canada from European travel grinding my teeth, thinking that the continent who brought us the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution was a little more backwards when it came to the lone She-Wolf.
I have not always travelled alone. Travelling with a boyfriend can be a valuable experience that teaches a couple what they are made of. Because nothing tests the strength of a relationship like getting lost on the way to a hotel at 2 am after a 10-hour bus ride, whilst carrying a 20-pound backpack soaked with rancid red wine. Or navigating a foreign metro systems, which some men perceived as a rite of masculinity akin to wrestling a bear, bare-chested and armed only with a stick.
Alas, my former flame wanted to get up early every morning and spend our days walking the city, whereas I wanted the occasional sleep-in, afternoons spent lazily drinking wine on the Danube, and putting my finger on the pulse of the local H&M scene (inquiring minds want to know if they carry the same merchandise in downtown Prague as in downtown Toronto.
And in all my world travels, only in Europe has my status as a lone She-Wolf seemed to shock. In Italy, a cab driver argumentatively told me that surely, my boyfriend could not have ‘allowed’ or ‘approved’ of my solo trip to Rome. I laughed: “he had no say in the matter.”
In Latin America, I was happily subjected to charming flirtat
ions (“soy triste – no hablas español! I’m sad, you don’t speak Spanish”), but my status as a lone She-Wolfe never came up.
In the handful of African countries I have visited, what preoccupied people (read: women) far more was whether or not I had yet procreated. When I indicated that no, I hadn’t yet produced heirs, they smiled and moved on. Subject closed.
In Istanbul, though privy to the careful attentions of many charming suitors, I had opted instead to make my own way into the city. This was the first trip I had every chosen on my own – I was in Istanbul purely for pleasure, no work, and not a detour on my way to a work-related destination. I was determined to make it count – my time, my decisions, my calls.
And solo travel is just that – it is an exercise in self-discovery: you call all the shots, get up when you feel like it, and if you realize that you’ve been walking 30 minutes the wrong way under a torrid Roman sun, you realize you have no one but yourself to blame.
Solo travel makes a woman out of a girl – it means learning to read a map, navigating the underground, asking directions, figuring out currency exchange rates, and above all, it helps us understand choice and the nature of our own desires.
You want to geek out at the Tower of London, and have a few moments of silence for Anne Boleyn, who herself defied gender conventions of her time? Do it! You want to go see the Sufis whirl in Istanbul? Knock yourself out! You want to smoke and drink at the foot of Notre Dame de Paris? The future is yours.
And while these small, touristy decisions may initially appear trivial, they are not. They speak to who we are, what we want from ourselves, and for ourselves.
Attached or single, the lone She-Wolf can howl at the moon in all her glory.