‘You travel by yourself?!’ Sometimes it’s a question. Other times it’s more a comment. Always my questioner seems to be struggling with the discrepancy between the woman standing in front of them and the wild, fearless, maybe even irresponsible creature that the lone female traveller represents for them. ‘Yes, I travel alone,’ I reply and then, to ease their obvious discomfort, I start listing all the things I don’t do in my solo travels. I don’t travel to Timbuktu – an expression that, as far as I know, has not yet been placed on the ‘Index’ of politically incorrect phrases. I don’t travel to places where I can’t understand the language (the dialects of the various regions in Italy don’t count – even Italians can’t understand them). I don’t drive at night. I don’t stay in sketchy parts of town. I don’t cruise late night bars. I don’t wear tons of flashy jewellery (my not owning tons of flashy jewellery is irrelevant for the purposes of the answer). There are more things I don’t do, but most people quickly get the point.
Sometimes, however, there is a follow-up question, a clarification of sorts. ‘But don’t you get lonely?’ to which I answer, ‘No, I don’t get lonely.’ If they’re still looking at me askance, I elaborate. I spend a lot of time visiting gardens, and who can be lonely in a garden? Just as importantly, being able to speak with the locals in their language means that I am rarely without someone to talk to.
However, in fairness to the skeptics, ‘No, I don’t get lonely,’ is really only a partial answer. The full answer would be, ‘No, I don’t get lonely. Not that lonely. Not that often.’ Because of course there are times when a companion would be wonderful. I was reminded of this when I travelled with my daughter in France last year. So, in honour of Mother’s Day, here are some of the pleasures and advantages of travelling with a companion that I discovered on our mother-daughter trip.
An obvious advantage revolves around eating. Eating alone is a challenge. There are a few tricks – a table in the corner will make you feel less conspicuous and will give you a good view of goings-on. Writing up the day’s adventures, or phrases I overhear, helps ward off discomfort. But it is still a challenge. No matter how many times I have asked for ‘Una tavola per una persona, per favore.‘ (A table for one person, please.), it never gets any easier. Being then asked, as sometimes happens, ‘Per una persona sola?’ doesn’t help. Although one time in France, when the waiter came to take my order, he first asked, ‘Vous attendez quelqu’un?‘ When he heard that no, I was not waiting for someone, without skipping a beat, he commented, ‘Tant pis pour lui.‘ (Too bad for him.)
Having said that, eating can also, as I have had the misfortune to learn, be a challenge when travelling with someone. If your companion turns out to be a picky eater, or is more worried about gaining weight than trying the local cuisine, or gets upset when you want to stop for lunch, meal times can be a nightmare. Heureusement, my daughter and I are on the same page when it comes to eating and we never skipped lunch. (Although she insisted I should have been gaining more weight than I seemed to be with all the wine we were drinking.)
I’m sure I would never have had a delightful picnic in the Jardin des Tuileries if I had been on my own. It’s almost impossible to buy just enough for one person, so you stink up the car with the leftover fromage which, along with a chunk of paté that would for sure have given you food poisoning, you end up throwing out two days later.
A travelling companion can reveal things about yourself that you had previously been blissfully unaware of. I, for example, had been totally unaware of a tendency to become oblivious to my surroundings when I’m focused on getting a photo. I got my first inkling of this when we stumbled across the Marché des Fleurs on our way back to our hotel in Paris one day.
Nor did I have any idea how much time I spend squatting and crawling around on the ground.
And after a day of exploring, un petit verre is much more enjoyable en compagnie.
A totally unexpected benefit, food-wise, to having my daughter with me occurred in Cordes-sur-Ciel.
When I booked dinner at the Chambre d’Hôtes we were staying in, I had no idea we would be the only guests dining that evening. Or that we would be treated to a gourmet meal worthy of at least a Michelin star or two. But I was pretty sure there was no way the chef would have agreed to a booking for one person.
Another wonderful plus of having my daughter with me occurred the next day. We had spent the morning exploring the village, and then after a picnic lunch on our terrace, we headed out into the countryside to explore a couple of villages nearby.
We had just turned onto the narrow, country road that would take us to Monestiés, when Laura cried out, ‘Look Mom ! There’s a garden!’ And sure enough, there, by the side of the road, surrounded by fields as far as the eye could see, was a garden. I pulled over to have a closer look. It seemed so odd. Who had created it? – or more precisely, who was creating it? Some areas looked as if they had been recently planted.
We walked up and down along the road, admiring the garden, when, as if out of nowhere, the mystery gardener appeared. As she came toward us, I grew uneasy. Even though we had stayed on the road, I somehow felt as if we had been trespassing. Pas de soucis. She smiled and called out ‘Bonjour‘.
Soon, like old friends, we were chatting away about rock gardens and favourite plants and detestable pucerons (aphids). And about how she had lived in Perpignan until her husband died and had then returned to the family home to be with her son and his family.
It was one of those encounters that are as delightful as they are unexpected and one that I probably would not have experienced had it not been for my daughter. Pointing out the garden to me was such a sweet gesture – made all the sweeter by the fact that she knew she was going to have to tag along on a few garden visits when we arrived in Provence. And before you start thinking I’m the evil Mom of the West, a bit of background info might be in order.
After I had booked everything for our trip together, my daughter discovered that, due to the miracles of the digital age, she didn’t have to physically be on the campus where she was studying and could join me much earlier than she had originally thought. While this of course was wonderful news – fortunately I always book a double room – who wants the miserable, single room in the back with no view? – it meant that she would now be joining me before I had finished visiting gardens.
Another personal discovery was that, with motherhood, I seem to have developed a kind of displaced vertigo.
To describe the Route des Crêtes as a road unlike any other is an understatement that in no way prepares you for the real thing. But I had driven it before and knew what we were in for. The official website describe it as un véritable itinéraire bis pour amoureux de grands panoramas, de liberté et de vertige. I was fine with the grand panoramas and the freedom. It was the vertigo that caught me unawares.
One thing I did not need to discover was the mother-daughter disconnect in physical fitness.
One day we went for a hike in the calanques, fjord-like inlets west of Cassis.
As you can see, the calanques are beautiful. They are also rocky and steep. I wonder if these photos give any sense of how hot it was.
A travelling companion can also come in handy when you want to show how big something is. No need for the ‘shoe shot’ (The First Renaissance Garden III, Sept. 22, 2013) when you have someone you can cajole into posing in front of a big specimen.
This was more useful than you might think. One day we slipped over the border into Italy to visit the Giardino Botanico di Hanbury.
Another rather peculiar benefit was revealed to me one day in Provence. After a lovely lunch along one of the rivers that flow through the delightful town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue we had driven a good half hour north to visit what had been described on the website as une découverte exceptionnelle. The restored gardens of a 1st century Roman villa. I had carefully timed our arrival to coincide with the afternoon opening at 15h. But when we arrived, the ‘exceptional discovery’ was shut tight and apart from an elderly French couple who had also come to visit the site and a few gardeners who were cleaning up a cemetery on the other side of the alley, there was no-one in sight.
I had a little chat with the French couple. They found it very strange and were obviously uncomfortable with the fact that one of their tourist sites was not open at the official time. I was also uncomfortable with this fact, but since climbing over the rather high iron gate seemed unbecoming for a mother, I decided to check out the cemetery the gardeners had been working on. Ten minutes later, since there was still no sign of life from inside the gates, I went over to the gardeners and had another little chat. They too were uncomfortable with the unexplained closure. One of them offered to call the person who was in charge of opening things up. I passed the next half hour mostly ranting and raving and was just on the point of leaving when a car drove up the alley.
We watched, the gardeners, the French couple and us two Canadians, as a young woman got out of the car, went over to the gate and opened it. All in a leisurely, provençal fashion. We paid the entrance fee, which at 8 euros seemed a bit high and with no apology, barely a ‘Bonjour’ from the mademoiselle, we went to visit the garden. I’ll spare you the details and just say that it was not worth the wait or the drive. But what I did learn that afternoon was that when things don’t go right, for some reason it’s not quite as irritating when you have someone to share the unpleasant experience with.
Another plus, which fortunately only became apparent on the last day of our trip, was that when the weather isn’t what you’d hoped for, it doesn’t seem as bad when you have company.
There was one downside. I had a feeling travelling solo again was going to take some getting used to.