“How long will you be in London?”
“Four days. Then four days in Paris. Then three days back in London, and then home to Los Angeles.”
“And what are you going to do in Paris?”
“I’m going to write.”
The customs agent gave me one last, long, critical look, then flipped to a page near the back of my passport, stamped it, and sent me on my way.
I have a hard time with endings. Well, OK, endings and beginnings. I prefer the comfortable middle. You know, the part where you feel like you’ve gotten the hang of something, when you’ve learned enough about a skill or a situation to feel like you’re good at it? The comfortable middle is comfortable. But it’s also not where we grow.
And so, after another ending – the Los Angeles production of my play War Stories – and before several big, brave, new beginnings – changing my job, uprooting my life, and moving to a new, unfamiliar city – I decided to do what I often do when I’m in transition but am not quite ready for the next thing: I took a trip. And I decided that since I’m on the verge of big changes, my trip should be equivalently big, as in, a journey of several thousand miles across an ocean, big.
Fifteen years ago, as a twenty-one-year old college student, I spent a semester studying in London and fell promptly in love. Now, whenever I cross the big ocean, London is the first place I land. It helps that the city is familiar, that I speak the language, and that I have lovely friends to stay with while I’m there.
But the eleven-hour flight from Los Angeles also means that once in Europe, I always feel compelled to go somewhere else in addition to London, to make the most of the long voyage. And this time was no different. But where should I go?
I settled on Paris. It’s only a short distance from London by train, I have a basic understanding of the language thanks to two years of college French, and, well, it’s Paris.
I chose to travel to Paris alone, with the goal of spending much of my time there writing. I found a discounted train ticket on Eurostar, booked a charming one-bedroom apartment on Airbnb, and off I went, on a four-day creative retreat.
I am no stranger to solo travel. Often, I prefer it. It’s not that I’m antisocial – I usually always prefer being with other people to being alone – but when it comes to traveling, I have found that I like to be able to do and see what I want without being encumbered by someone else’s agenda.
And there are other benefits to traveling solo, too. For me, on the verge of a big life transition, I knew that I needed the alone time for introspection and to gain some mental clarity. And as a creative person, I also knew that I wouldn’t get any real work done if I filled up my days with other people and too many other activities.
The four days in Paris passed quickly. I spent them by exploring the historical Marais neighborhood where I was staying, wandering a maze of narrow cobblestone streets and marveling at magical sunsets over elegant old buildings. I lingered for hours in Musée d’Orsay, absorbing the magnificent sculptures and Impressionist paintings, as well as a stunning temporary exhibit called “Beyond the Stars,” featuring mystical landscape paintings by artists ranging from Monet to Kandinsky that invited the viewer to ponder the mysteries of existence.
I climbed the hills of Montmartre and brushed aside hustlers clambering to draw my portrait (for a fee, of course). I listened to buskers playing an ebullient set of New Orleans style jazz in a metro station. I daydreamed while walking along the Seine eating ice cream (Yes, it was sunny and warm enough for ice cream, in March!) And I sat on a bench in the beautiful old square at Place des Vosges and scribbled in my journal until day turned to dusk and a police officer asked me to leave because the park was closing.
In the end, I didn’t do as much writing as I’d planned. But I did do a lot of thinking. I did a lot of what Julia Cameron, the author of the seminal book on creativity, The Artist’s Way, calls “filling the well,” meaning that I spent time soaking in ideas and images and inspiration. And I do believe that it’s important for creative people to strike a balance between action and reflection; that both are equally important when it comes to doing our work.
It’s true that solo travel can sometimes be scary and a bit lonely. And as a woman alone in a large city, it’s important to always be vigilant and self-aware. But every time I go somewhere on my own, I learn something about myself that I didn’t know. I feel a little bit more comfortable in my own skin. And I find that the experience is always worth it. Because adventure – and exploration – is worthwhile in itself.