women traveling solo

I began traveling solo at the age of 17 when my mother sent me to Aix-en-Provence in southern France. I traveled there from Toronto, Canada. Here’s an excerpt from my memoir, due to be out later this year:

The summer before, on a night train down to Marseilles, I was stretched across four seats in an unoccupied compartment, sleeping. I was on my way to Aix-en-Provence to learn French at the summer school there. In the middle of the night, while the train clacked and rumbled through shuttered towns and across dark swathes of countryside, I awoke to find a well-dressed man sitting upright on the seat directly across from me. He must have crept into the compartment while I was sleeping. In the semidarkness I discerned some jerky movements going on. It took me a few seconds to comprehend his actions: while watching me stretched out and sleeping, he was pleasuring himself. Enraged, I sat bolt upright and screamed at him to get out. If he didn’t, I threatened, I’d pull the emergency alarm. He fled the compartment. I never told my parents.

I never told them either about the tree-men, the Arabs who gathered at dusk in the olive trees that ringed the women’s residence hall on the Aix-en-Provence university campus. It was the oddest, most unforgettable sight. They climbed the trunks like monkeys then perched on the higher boughs, intent on spying on us before we lowered the shutters at nightfall. My roommate was an older girl from Iowa. One evening we stood in front of the window in our room, stock-still in the half-light, watching them. “But what on earth are they doing?” I said, my voice betraying the naivety of my 17-year-old self.

“They come to look at us,” she said.

“Us? You and me?”

“All of us. All of the women in this building.”

***

 

I decided to write this post after reading an article in The New York Times, chillingly titled Adventurous. Alone. Attacked. It’s about women who choose to travel alone, and what happens to them.

I try to be vigilant as I go about my everyday life here in Paris. My personal mantra is “Anytime, anywhere,” (an assault or terrorist attack can occur at any moment in any place.) Be observant. Have eyes in the back of your head.

I once asked a New York City taxi driver if the Upper West Side was a safe neighborhood. We were speeding up Riverside Drive. At a red light he turned around, looked me straight in the eyes, and yelled, “Lady, nowhere’s safe!”

And yet we travel, and why shouldn’t we?

Mid-May I head down to Puglia, a less-explored region in the heel of Italy. I’ll be alone, I’ll explore the cities and towns, and I’ll be mindful. What does that mean, exactly? It means not staying in an Airbnb, but in a hotel in the center of town, a hotel with a manned reception desk and positive opinions on TripAdvisor and other hotel sites. It means dressing modestly and inconspicuously. It means going out at night in the center of town only if there’s a lot of people around, and returning to the hotel fairly early. It means not going into bars alone at night, and not being overly friendly if chatting with men. Keep your reserve. While traveling, I’ve seen young women behaving in a way too friendly manner with local men, unaware that in foreign countries they’re being perceived (and judged) through a completely different lens.

If I step into an elevator occupied by an individual I don’t like the looks of or from whom I’m getting bad vibes (that’s my call), I’ll step back out of that elevator. “That would be seen as rude,” someone said to me when I mentioned this. Women the world over are conditioned to be polite, smiley and pleasant. Compliant even. In some cases, this behavior pattern could actually put us in danger. Trust your gut instinct. If it doesn’t feel right, then “leg it”, as the Brits say.

In Aqaba, Jordan in the 1990s, I stood in the town square with my Arabic-speaking boyfriend watching a pack of jeering Jordanian boys hound a young American couple. The woman was in tears and the boyfriend looked terrified. They were holding hands and running like hell back to their hotel, a mob of thirty or more boys and young men following them shouting in Arabic. Their crime? The young woman was wearing a mini-skirt, bare legs and a crop top. Who would think to wear such skimpy clothing in a backwater, Muslim, Middle Eastern town? Even though it was searing hot, I wore a long, white cotton dress with half sleeves. When traveling to foreign places, inform yourself of the local culture/customs. Be respectful of them.

Once, while vacationing on a small Caribbean island called Turks and Caicos, I came across a trio of Frenchwomen sunbathing topless on the beach. I remember thinking that that might not be the smartest idea. After all, they weren’t on the French Riviera.

And no matter how careful and organized we are, the unexpected will always arise. Like the time Air France lost my suitcase on a flight from France to Cuba. At my Havana hotel, the desk clerk remarked that it might be on the next incoming flight. So I took a taxi back to the airport, watched the luggage carousel of the next incoming flight from Paris go round and round, but my suitcase wasn’t on it. When I left the airport it was around 10 pm. The taxi driver seemed pleasant enough, but ten minutes into the ride he stopped at a roadside café to pick up a friend. And then, ten minutes later, he suddenly exited the main highway and veered onto a smaller, completely darkened road. Perplexed at first, and then scared and convinced they were going to rape and leave me for dead in a field, I began screaming. Alarmed, the taxi driver stopped the car. Another car headed towards us. I sprang out of the taxicab and flagged it down. It was occupied by a nice man and woman. Uncomprehending, the taxi driver and his friend explained to me in broken English that he was just dropping off his friend who lived down that smaller road. It was an absurd scenario: five of us standing in the pitch-black Cuban night, sugar cane fields on either side of us, the car lights the only illumination. I had only been in the country twelve hours. They all convinced me that I was safe. In the end I was driven back to my hotel without incident. My suitcase never did turn up.

And lastly, I’ve only gotten drunk once while traveling alone, it was completely accidental. I had driven all the way down to Key West from Miami in a rental car. The sun was blazing hot and the car A/C was broken. Me and my French girlfriend, Véronique, had been vacationing in Miami. She had gone home, I headed south. Crossing the Seven Mile Bridge was awesome, but by the time I checked into my hotel my throat was parched from the heat. The hotel receptionist recommended a restaurant up the road. It was mid-afternoon, and the bar was in a garden. On an empty stomach I guzzled a large Key lime colada. I didn’t realize how potent it was. It was so refreshing I guzzled a second one. And then I fell off my bar stool into a bush. I eventually managed to make my way back to the hotel. Luckily it was daytime; it could have been risky had it been night.

Here’s a blog post from my solo trip to Naples where, within ten minutes of arriving, I was attacked in the street –

https://julietinparis.net/2018/01/17/see-naples-and-die-2/

 

deep in the English countryside…a glorious Sussex retreat near the sea

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While searching for a country retreat for myself (yoga, Pilates, detox, etc.), I stumbled across this gem located in the middle of a national park in East Sussex. It was once the home of British economist, John Maynard Keynes. Tilton House has magnificent views across the Sussex Downs to the sea.

Virginia Woolf lived nearby as well as the painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to stay at the handsome Georgian country house where eminent economist John Maynard Keynes once lived with his exotic Russian ballerina wife Lydia Lopokova? Okay, you might not be able to dance naked on the lawn under the moonlight like Lopokova did, but you can still sling a hammock up in the garden to soak in the spectacular South Downs views (“there’s no better air for work than here,” Keynes proclaimed), or curl up by the wood-burning stove in the library where Keynes wrote Economic Consequences of Peace. Or take a five-minute stroll along the lane to nearby Charleston Farmhouse, a walk that Keynes, a key figure in the bohemian Bloomsbury Group, would have done hundreds of times. At weekends Tilton House offers courses and workshops – yoga and Pilates retreats (with lessons held in a purpose-built yurt), writing courses, reading weekends, song-writing workshops and the like – while during the week and in most holidays it offers B&B. The four B&B rooms (all with private bathrooms, one en suite) are decorated simply yet elegantly, and all come with idyllic views that will have you reaching for your walking boots (or yoga mat) as soon as you wake up and draw the curtains.

Here are more photos and the programs below, most of them yoga, that Tilton House offers. Below that is a link to an English blogger who describes a weekend spent at Tilton House.

http://www.tiltonhouse.co.uk/

https://pinkpeonyrose.wordpress.com/2017/10/15/yoga-and-history-at-tilton-house/

revoke article 50 and remain in the EU! The botched Brexit debacle.

I sit here stunned, flabbergasted, by the sheer ineptitude of Theresa May and her handling of Brexit. I think what shocks me most is the seemingly cavalier and devil-may-care (do you see the pun here? Devil-May-Care) manner in which some members of the Conservative Party (the hardline Euroskeptics) are playing with the UK’s future, the UK’s youth, the UK’s economy, and the general welfare of its citizens. May is neither hardline nor Euroskeptic (she voted Remain), but her leadership qualities are seriously deficient.

It was the leaders of the European Union Council who, at the eleventh hour in Brussels last Thursday, took over the reins and imposed the terms of Brexit and the cut-off dates: April 12th and May 22nd. Why did they do this? Exasperated by May’s lack of clarity and command, and her plea for a three-month Brexit delay, they literally wrested control of the calamitous situation and took charge.

The next day, my boss who’s a lawyer, said to me at work – “The EU handed her a gift!”

EU leaders were visibly bemused during last night’s Brexit debate described as ’90 minutes of nothing’ where Mrs May appeared ‘evasive, had no plan and even seemed confused’ when asked what she will do if her deal is voted down again.

One prime minister told aides afterwards: ‘The only thing that came through with clarity was her lack of a plan’ and one EU aide said afterwards: ‘She didn’t have a plan, so we needed to come up with one for her’.

The deeply humiliated and beleaguered Prime Minister May had no choice but to agree with the EU Council and revoke her pledge that the UK would leave the EU on March 29th.

Yesterday I signed the online petition calling for the UK government to revoke article 50 and remain in the European Union. To date it has 5 million signatures. The link is below. If you are a British citizen or UK resident who does not support Brexit, I urge you to sign it. Today, Saturday March 23rd, a People’s Vote March in which hundreds of thousands are expected to attend is descending on London. I would have liked to have been there.

“Hey, hey, Theresa May! We demand a final say!”

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Running coverage in The Guardian on the “one million march” in London below, as well as the petition link –

https://www.theguardian.com

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/241584

theater in Paris – the Salem witch trials

I booked the last seat for Les Sorcières de Salem (The Witches of Salem), a modern day French adaptation of The Crucible.

The play I am going to see “evokes what nowadays may fall within the field of a “witch-hunt” in France, Europe or anywhere else (religious fanaticism, persecutions, racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, misogyny, moral order).”

The Crucible is a 1953 play by American playwright Arthur Miller. It is a dramatized and partially fictionalized story of the Salem witch trials that took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during 1692-93. Miller wrote the play as an allegory for McCarthyism,  when the United States government persecuted people accused of being communists. Miller himself was questioned by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities in 1956 and convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to identify others present at meetings he had attended.

The Espace Cardin is a small, intimist theater tucked away on a quiet tree-lined street, the avenue Gabriel, a stone’s throw from the Place de la Concorde.

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Below is the English-language link of upcoming theater performances throughout March, April, May and June.

https://www.theatredelaville-paris.com/en/spectacles/saison-2018-2019/theatre

Paris battle scars

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Today, Sunday, I jumped on the metro and headed over to Avenue de Friedland which runs parallel to the Champs-Elysées. I wanted to witness the damage caused by the gilets jaunes protests that take place every Saturday in the center of the city (and in other cities around the country.)

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I was particularly shocked to see this hotel boarded up and looking derelict. Back in the 1980s and 90s, my mother and I stayed in this lovely hotel. I actually walked inside and wanted to say to the receptionist “Are you OK?” 

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I walked the entire length of the avenue which eventually turns into Boulevard Haussmann. It was eerie, especially on a Sunday when there’s not much traffic.

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FISCAL JUSTICE. This is the NUMBER ONE complaint of the French people. When President Macron slapped an additional tax on elderly retirees who struggle to live decently on their tiny pensions, that was the LAST STRAW. It was this clumsy mistake – plus the rise in gasoline prices – that triggered the gilets jaunes protests. And meanwhile behemoth corporations who earn billions in profits each year pay no tax whatsoever. Unfair and unjust.

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This is ironic. ETAT DE SIEGE means STATE OF SIEGE, but it’s a play on words. The store sells chairs. The word “siège” refers to a chair or a seat.

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All banks were boarded up, including cash machines.

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Much is broken. But the worst is the broken trust in government (and politicians.) No trust whatsoever.

At 2:30 pm I was standing on the Place Saint Augustin. Then I walked down the Boulevard des Malesherbes towards Place de la Madeleine.

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Here’s another bank with the graffiti RENDEZ LA TUNE which means ‘return the money.’ Except it’s spelled THUNE (slang for money).

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Other graffiti in the streets of Paris includes the following (these are not my photos) –

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We think, so we no longer follow you. (message to the government)

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OK, Google, pay your taxes

graf three

Fiscal fraud is disgusting, so are your fries! Kisses. (message to McDonalds)

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Macron, do as I do, tax your buddies.

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2019: nothing but good revolutions

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Ministry retirements for our Grandmothers!

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Please leave the State in the toilets where you found it

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I have nothing, but I am not nothing.

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Macron and the CAC40 thieves?  CAC 40 is the French stock market index that tracks the 40 largest French stocks. 

 

 

Femen and International Women’s Day

I wrote this post six years ago. Clearly, the subject is still relevant which is why I’m reposting it today. The above photo shows Inna Shevchenko, leader of Femen in Paris.

It is in Paris where the training center of this extraordinary activist group that calls itself Femen is located. The Guardian newspaper calls them “topless warriors.”

I’m blown away by the courageous audacity of these young women. I admire them. But I’m also saddened because as a teenager of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s in North America, I have to ask:  What happened? Or rather, what didn’t happen? Why, four decades later, are we still engaged in battle?  I thought we had abolished sexism, inequality and the rest.  It’s too clear that women the world over must keep affirming, keep defining and keep defending the cause in the face of subjugating forces that try to beat us down.  We must be ever-vigilant.

Femen protests against all forms of injustice. Their slogans are concise. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland:

Gangster party in Davos.

Poor because of you.

Better bare than burka.

Fashion fascism (against anorexia)

Pope Benedict XVI:  Game over.

My body, my rules.

Last week on this blog I posted the news of Stéphane Hessel’s death, a dissident who encouraged citizens to stand up and express outrage over all forms of injustice. I wonder what he would have thought of this all-female militant group who do exactly that.

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The Femen movement was created in the Ukraine in 2008 to protest against sex tourism, prostitution and the exploitation of women in the former Soviet state. Inna Shevchenko (pictured in first photo up top and below) is the feminist crusader in charge of the Paris boot camp. Daughter of an army officer, she joined the Kiev protests. Ukraine is not a Brothel was their slogan. As a consequence she lost her job as a press officer. She then fled her country for France.

Femen has set up camp in Paris’s poor and ethnically mixed Goutte d’Or district.

“The decision to bring the fight to France and open a training centre was a French initiative, an invitation from French feminists who sent us a message saying they needed us,” said Inna.  “Before then we thought of France as a first world and already feminist country that didn’t really need us. Since arriving, I have met many Frenchwomen and they say they need to start the fight again. We are bringing a new face, new blood, a new fight to feminism.”

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Inna Shevchenko, the 24-year-old leader of Femen in France

Is it not contradictory, a journalist asked her, that the new feminists are using nakedness to rail against female exploitation?

“Ah, but we have a different idea; we are talking about peaceful war, peaceful terrorism,” Inna said. “We are taking off our clothes so people can see that we have no weapons except our bodies. It’s a powerful way to fight in a man’s world. We live with men’s domination, and this is the only way to provoke them, to destabilize them; it’s the only way to get attention.”

Activists from the Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN

“We don’t hide our bodies, we don’t hide our faces, we confront our enemies face to face. We look them in the eyes and we have to be well prepared physically for that.”

There was, she explained patiently, no contradiction in going topless or naked to protest against what they view as the three main evils of a global “patriarchal society”: sexual exploitation, dictatorship and religion. Protesting naked, as Femen’s slogans insist, is liberté, a reappropriation of their own bodies as opposed to pornography or snatched photographs which is exploitation.

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On a less intellectual level, taking their clothes off ensures a lot of publicity.

She added: “Believe me, it is really difficult for me to take my clothes off and stand in a public place. But this is the fight, and the fight is never easy.”

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Oh, look…an early Femen painted by Eugène Delacroix in 1830. It’s called Liberty Leading the People. A woman personifying Liberty holds the flag of the French Revolution in one hand and brandishes a bayonette with the other.

FEMEN members demonstrate at the congress centrum

Women of the world, unite.

Richard Yates, revisited

 

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I’ve just ordered these books from Amazon. They’ll be delivered to a locker located in a shopping mall ten minutes away from my office. Of course I’ve read Yates’ best-selling Revolutionary Road, but I haven’t read his other books, so I’m looking forward to it.

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Hailed as “America’s finest realistic novelist” by the Boston Globe, Richard Yates, author of Revolutionary Road, garnered rare critical acclaim for his bracing, unsentimental portraits of middle-class American life.

Disturbing the Peace is no exception. Haunting, troubling, and mesmerizing, it shines a brilliant, unwavering light into the darkest recesses of a man’s psyche.

To all appearances, John Wilder has all the trappings of success, circa 1960: a promising career in advertising, a loving family, a beautiful apartment, even a country home. John’s evenings are spent with associates at quiet Manhattan lounges and his weekends with friends at glittering cocktail parties. But something deep within this seemingly perfect life has long since gone wrong. Something has disturbed John’s fragile peace, and he can no longer find solace in fleeting affairs or alcohol. The anger, the drinking, and the recklessness are building to a crescendo—and they’re about to take down John’s family and his career. What happens next will send John on a long, strange journey—at once tragic and inevitable.

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I’m currently reading The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells. The novel follows three estranged siblings who lost their parents as children, finding their way through life and hoping not to do it alone. Wells is a German writer living in Berlin. In 2016 he won the European Prize for Literature for this bestselling book. As much as I enjoy reading new books, I must admit that I never tire from re-reading my old favorites (Donna Tartt, Joan Didion, Alan Hollinghurst, Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, Emily St. John Mandel, Louise Erdrich, Rachel Kushner, Teju Cole, Raymond Chandler … etc. etc.) 

So many books, so little free time!