I am a native in this world And think in it as a native thinks

Sunday, January 9, 2011

St-Malo 1985 (Travel Flashback)

In 1985 I lost my job, and spent my severance on a trip to France. I never really intended to go alone; I was planning six weeks travelling around France, followed by several days in London with family, and various friends planned to meet up with me for a week or two along the way.

One by one, they all dropped out, and I decided to go anyway, armed only with a French Rail pass and a copy of Let's Go France. I think I decided to go just because the idea scared me so much. I'm naturally shy, and though I spoke decent traveller's French, this was long before easy online reservations, and it took me several days to work up the courage to call the hotel in Paris that was my first stop and reserve a room in French. The rest of my hotel rooms would have to be found when I got there. I threw up from sheer panic several times on the flight over.

The first morning, I couldn't find the breakfast room; the only door I could see was marked private and though I could hear the clink of china behind it I was too shy to knock. Instead I went back to my room and cried. I cried a lot on that trip. Every town was a new challenge, finding a hotel, finding a grocery, finding a bank. Sometimes even a cafe was too intimidating and I had yogurt or an apple or half a roast chicken from a charcuterie for my dinner.

But I saw so much. I went to Lyon and Beaune and Annecy and Chamonix and Aixs-les-Bains and Angers and Mont St-Michel and Bayeux. If I liked a town I stayed an extra day; if I didn't I left the next morning. I met people. I had adventures.

Then I got the flu in Quimper, a bleak (at least in November) town at the far reaches of Bretagne, in a part of France called Finisterre. You would probably translate that as Land's End, but at the time I called it The Ends of the Earth. I was stuck for several days in a musty hotel, coughing, fever dreaming, and reading the only English books I could find near the hotel, which were two slim Ed McBains and Joan Collins's autobiography. Being sick and alone in a foreign country is terrifying, and more than once I thought about bailing on the rest of the trip and going to my uncle in London. And if getting to London had been easier, I might have done that.

Instead, the minute I felt strong enough, I took a train to St-Malo. It was raining, and cold and I was still sick, but I felt much better just being somewhere with more than one cafe. The next day the sun was out and I had that wonderful sense of resurrection you have when you've been really ill, and St-Malo seemed magical. I walked on the beaches and the ramparts and I was happy. Perfectly happy (despite my expression in that picture.)

The next morning when I came down for breakfast, the hotel bar, which had been deserted on Sunday, was packed with sailors and dockworkers, drinking and smoking and yelling across the room at each other. And it never even occurred to me to leave, or cry. I fought my way to a table and had my breakfast.

I've always considered this trip to be the best thing I've ever done for myself. I'm still too timid, and there are many times that holds me back, but I'm not afraid to travel by myself, and some of my best adventures have happened only because I was alone. I'm happy to have a companion, but I never wait for one to be available.

I'm going. Come along! And if you can't, I'm going anyway.

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