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 –