four days in paris

It was not a mid-life crisis. I felt very comfortable with my career and my family. I felt completely at peace with who I was – who I am – as a mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, physician, and human.

It was that I felt unlinked. Disconnected from myself. In being so many things to so many others, I needed to rejoin all of these elements of myself and remember who I was – who I am – at the core.

To do this, I needed to be alone.

In early January, shortly after the new year, I traveled to Paris for a solo vacation. I was only in Paris for four full days, but those days were fulfilling in a way I had never imagined possible.

I began contemplating the idea of a solo vacation about a year before. I do a fair amount of travel for work – committee meetings and medical conferences, mostly – and I’m typically alone for these. However, my work trips are not vacations, and any free time is typically filled with networking or catching up with friends. My days are structured, with committee meetings and working lunches or dinners, or with conference sessions in chilly meeting halls, one after another. Often, by the end of the day, I’m ready to order room service for dinner and not leave my hotel room until the next morning.

With the encouragement of my husband, I booked airline tickets to Paris. He didn’t really understand my desire to travel by myself, but he knows that, unlike him, I am an introvert and that I cherish being alone.

I arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport at 6 am on a Thursday morning. It was still dark as my driver navigated the highway and then the streets of Paris on the way to my hotel on Rue Saint-Sulpice in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. We spoke about the workers’ strikes that had been going on for weeks and the difficulty getting around the city since they began. In one neighborhood, vehicles were forced to drive slowly through a group of protesters soliciting donations from the drivers of the cars attempting to pass. My driver rolled his window down and passed some bills to a man with a megaphone. This elicited cheers and we were allowed to pass.

Like that first drive into the city, so many moments from my time in Paris are ingrained in my memory of those four days.

There was the impromptu trip to the Louvre after spending the morning on a walking tour learning about the Nazi occupation of Paris. I only spent a couple of hours in the museum, but I ended up in the queue to see the Mona Lisa again, even though I planned to avoid it. I’d seen the Mona Lisa in 2016 when we traveled to Paris with the kids, and I didn’t feel like I needed to see the Louvre again. But I did, and apparently, I also needed to see the Mona Lisa again. She was lovely, despite the crowds.

That evening, I had a memorable two-hour dining experience at Verjus. The tasting menu was the only option, and it was a delightful option. I eavesdropped on an American couple beside me as they critiqued each dish and each glass of wine, and as he pointed out how right he was about most things. She seemed annoyed, but the more wine she drank, the more she tolerated him. They stole glances at me throughout their meal, obviously wondering why I was alone for such a fine dining experience. My meal started with several dishes, including a poached egg with cream and grated gingerbread that was both light and decadent simultaneously. I can still recall the taste and texture of the rich roasted celeriac with mushroom stuffing and black truffle. Among the main course dishes was a crepe filled with duck pâté that was savory and sweet, and I wanted to wrap it up and take home with me.

And more memories: Savoring a buckwheat crepe with cured ham, comté cheese, and a fried egg at Breizh Café. Wandering the Musée de l’Orangerie and Musée d’Orsay at my own pace and finally being kicked out of the latter at 5 o’clock due to the early closing time related to the strikes. Walking 4.2 km to Montmartre from Saint-Germain, not realizing it would be uphill most of the way. A meal of mussels steamed in white wine, pommes frites with mayonnaise for dipping, and a glass of chilled Sancerre at La Mère Catherine in Montmartre. Wandering in L’église Saint-Eustache in the 1st arrondissement and discovering an organist performing on what I later learned was the largest pipe organ in France. Seeing Notre-Dame lit at night, the back half of the massive cathedral covered with scaffolding, but still as imposing and magnificent as I remembered from my prior trip in 2016.

The day before I was to return home, I left my hotel shortly before sunrise, bundled up in my coat and the scarf I finished knitting days before I left for Paris. I stopped at a nearby bakery and bought a pain au chocolat and took it with me as I walked toward Montmartre. As I crossed the River Seine on the Pont des Arts, I realized that I had timed my walk perfectly. It was sunrise, and there were few people out yet on that Sunday morning. I sat on a bench on the bridge and ate my chocolate croissant, warm and cozy despite the cold and the wind that would have my hair in tangles by the end of the day. In one direction, the nearly full moon was still high in the lightening sky, while the whispy clouds below it turned shades of pink and orange. In the other direction, toward Notre-Dame, the clouds were more reddish-orange, and their color was reflected on the Seine. Gulls flew overhead, dipping and gliding in the sky.

I sat on that bench and watched the colors of the sky change as the sun ascended, and I breathed deeply, smiling to myself. This was why I had come to Paris. This exact moment.

It seems unusual when I write these words here, but I felt comforted and loved during those days with myself. When I gave myself this gift of solo travel, I thought the gift was the city of Paris, a lovely hotel room with a view, decadent food, and beautiful art. I was wrong.

The gift, the true gift, was spending those four days in Paris with myself, remembering who I am.

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8 Responses to “four days in paris”

  1. 1
    Sophie Riggsby — February 9, 2020 @ 4:01 pm

    This was truly lovely to read. I’ve been soul searching a lot this year, too. Sometimes, the answer we need to find is within ourselves. Thank you for the reminder.

  2. 2
    Lana — February 9, 2020 @ 6:26 pm

    What a beautiful piece of writing. I, too, am an introvert so completely understand your need for time alone. I’d never have the courage to travel abroad alone and admire your bravery in doing so. So happy you gave yourself this wonderful gift.

  3. 3
    Mardi Michels — February 10, 2020 @ 6:34 am

    Absolutely beautiful MJ. I loved following along on IG and seeing Paris through your eyes. You hit some great spots!

  4. 4
    Rima Kleiner — February 10, 2020 @ 10:55 am

    Sounds like a lovely way to reconnect with yourself, MJ. And, revisiting Paris would be my first choice, too! 🙂

  5. 5
    Liren — February 10, 2020 @ 11:19 am

    What an absolute treat and gift to yourself, MJ. Just have a few days to yourself to pace the moments at your leisure is worth as much as the magical destination. I’m so glad you had this time to yourself!

  6. 6
    Gail — February 10, 2020 @ 11:53 am

    What a gift!

    No, I’m not talking about the gift you gave yourself, but the lesson you’re teaching here: don’t be afraid, take the opportunity to spend time getting to know yourself.

  7. 7
    Wendi — February 18, 2020 @ 2:07 pm

    I can’t tell you how much I love this post and you choosing to make yourself a priority. I did a solo vacation in December and I’m still amazed/proud that I navigated that experience completely by myself.

  8. 8
    LuLu — December 27, 2020 @ 1:56 pm

    I came for a recipe you posted in 2010! followed your link to narrative medicine, and find it encouraging and inspiring that you are still posting. Also that time alone in a big city still nourishes you. Hoping you and your family here at the end of 2020. The orange ricotta tart is delicious, btw. Thank you.

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