By Amy Thibodeau
Four years ago I wasn't very well traveled outside of my native North America. I'd seen most of the major centers in Canada and the tourist circuit in the United States, but I'd never been abroad and, apart from a winter vacation to a resort in the Dominican Republic, I had never been anywhere with a distinctly different culture or language from the one I grew up in.
I was still living in my home town; I owned a house, had pets, was in a long term relationship and I even had a pretty great job working for a museum. I thought I was happy and outwardly I felt pretty content to continue my life in this fashion. As an aside, a travel-obsessed lifestyle isn't for everyone; some people find great happiness with the kind of life I've just described and that's great. The difference for me is that though I thought I was happy, I was actually unfulfilled in ways I wasn't allowing myself to acknowledge - otherwise what happened wouldn't have happened. Plenty of people travel to Paris every year and it doesn't make them sell their house, quit their job and move thousands of miles away from home.
One of my best friends had fallen in love with a British man and she'd moved to London to begin a new life with him. In a lot of ways she had been living a life similar to mine; she seemed settled, had bought a big beautiful house with a partner she'd been with for years, and she had pets and a job. A year before she moved to London, if anyone was laying bets, the odds would have been on her staying put. Everything was settled. Maybe we weren't living sparkly lives but we were mostly carrying on doing the things that girls nearing their thirties do; we were realistic. When I imagined the future, it involved us meeting for dinner at the same sushi restaurant in the center of town, drinks in the pub next door and maybe the odd live gig at a local venue. It was all okay.
Then she went and fell in love overseas and moved away; she ruined everything.
Friendship is a funny thing and I remember when this all happened, beneath the happiness I felt for her was a bit of jealousy and even a tiny bit of anger (though of course I admitted to neither of these feelings). I can remember telling myself that she was crazy to take the risk; but what I was really trying to do was convince myself that this life I'd built that was certainly enough, was still enough for me. If my friend, with all of her ties and responsibilities, could make this kind of a change it meant that I could do it too. And that possibility was terrifying.
About eight months after she moved to London I visited her. She took me to see all the things that tourists are meant to see when visiting London: we had nice lunches, boozy nights out over karaoke, a ride on the London Eye, we went shopping in Covent Garden, we even saw Prince play at the O2 Arena.
It was early August and I remember thinking that London was a great, smelly blur. I spent our time outside the flat following blindly behind my friend and her husband, scampering to keep up. I never knew where I was or where I needed to go because I had two lovely people willing to lead me everywhere. At the time they lived in Bermondsey in South London and my friend and I would often walk through the London Bridge area - a place in London that still confounds me with its maze-like streets and layers of city built on top of one another. You think you're on street level and then you climb a flight of stairs and suddenly find ... another level of street. After living in London for awhile, I now find a huge amount of charm in this very old, cobbled area of the city, but back then I was confused and overcome by the garish faces of actors trying to drag us into the Dungeons theme park.
Ever since first watching the movie Le Fabuleux Destin D'Amelie Poulin I'd been in love with the idea of Paris. I imagined quirky cafes filled with poets, and eating pastries in the filtered late afternoon light along the Seine, my lips perpetually stained red from the constant supply of wine. Before traveling overseas, I'd booked the Eurostar return from London to Paris and a private room in a little hostel in Montmartre (the main area of the city showcased in the Amelie film). I wasn't sure when I'd ever be so close to Paris again and wanted to make sure I would get the chance to see it. It's lucky that I'd booked in advance because after a week of feeling lost in London, my confidence was shot and the idea of going to Paris alone scared me to death. But everything was already paid for. I felt like a child who has argued with her mother to be allowed to go off the high diving board at the pool; the mother finally relents and the child climbs up the ladder only to find that she is terrified of jumping off. She freezes and wants to turn around and climb back down, but everyone is watching. And so, she jumps.
There is something romantic about traveling by train. As I watched gray London slide away, I felt like the child falling from the high platform and it was exhilarating. I continued to plummet as I fumbled my way to Montmartre and my hostel and spent a few perfect days navigating a city that immediately felt like home to me. Parisians have the reputation of being thorny to outsiders and I'm sure there's some truth to that, but I was in love. There is art everywhere in Paris; on the Metro, tired looking old men play haunting melodies on their accordions, lovers make out on park benches and there's a monument to beauty every time you turn a corner. Wandering around Montmartre, which is certainly as confusing an area as London Bridge, wasn't frightening or overwhelming because I didn't really have anywhere to be; you can't get lost when you don't have a destination. Getting completely turned around and then finding my way out again was one of the experiences I loved and I found that the men and women who ran the local fresh fruit and vegetable stands that are so common in Montmartre were always willing to point me in the right direction - usually while gentle correcting my shoddy French. Meals alone taken while listening to the animated prattle of French speakers at nearby tables while I dipped in and out of a book were some of my favorite moments, along with the rain that seemed to pour down every night muffling the sound of the church bells from nearby Sacre Coeur.
For me, the key to falling in love with Paris and consequently with travel, was that on my first visit I was alone. It was just me and the city. I am always surprised when I hear people say they hate Paris but I suspect their experience is so negative because they go with an agenda. Groups of people pile into Paris with itineraries - endless lists of things they must do and see within a tight schedule. It's like a scavenger hunt for culture. And as anyone who has ever been lonely and single knows, the harder you look for connection and the more desperate you are to find something special, the more it tends to allude you. And so in their rush to see 'everything', they see nothing and they leave Paris wondering what all the fuss is about.
When I returned home to Canada and all of my responsibilities, I imagined that I would never be able to live in Paris or London. I'd created a world of stability for myself and with that, walls that would be very difficult to break down in large part because I'd selected them lovingly and built them with care. But now, four years later, I've lived in London, visited Paris a second time, spent time in Istanbul and Berlin, and am now in a small fishing village on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, at the beginning of an entire year of travel. If I could put my finger on the moment that gave me the courage to change my life, it would be those three short days I spent wandering the streets of Paris alone.