In Primary 5 I was booked wanted to partake in a residential trip to Disneyland Paris, however in short I was a nervous flyer back then, I pulled out of a previous trip, as a result my sisters went but I never got. I can’t blame my mother really and who have thought I’d have clocked up so many air miles since! Anyhow, in my first year of university I was presented another opportunity and this time I would grab it with both hands.
Leaving late on Friday evening, we travelled via coach to Dover. I hadn’t long left home and this was my first foreign trip alone. I clutched my pillow tight and gazed out into the ink black night. In time, we eventually reached the ferry. So little had I travelled previous, that the simple idea of handing my first ever passport over at the customs desk enthralled me. Though I was later disheartened when I found out they no longer gave stamps within the European Union.
I forced myself to stay awake for the majority of the crossing and only began to nod off after passing through Calais. As the tantalising dawn light rose through the glass, I drifted intermittently in sleep. By midday, we began to curve through the urban sprawl of Paris, not immediately the image I had expected of ivory apartments, al-fresco dining on boulevards and quaint delicatessens… In reality my initial view was of stripped back mottled greys, power lines, graffiti and convenience stores.
Our coach parked close to the station at Gare du Nord, where our hotel for the weekend awaited us. I was out of my depth as we gathered in the lobby, met with strange faces of older students I didn’t know. Everyone already appeared to disintegrate into friendship groups, so I teamed with a pair of girls who talked of visiting the Sacre Coeur. I didn’t dare wander into the city alone, I would get lost for sure and I fancied their initial plan so went with it. The trek wasn’t too bad, though I had no idea how they were navigating the unfamiliar space.
On arrival, there was a Victorian carousel at the foot of the climb, with various street vendors trying to flog their wares, I had been warned of these and made no eye contact, climbing up the tree-lined steps to reach the glorious structure that stood on top of the grassy mound. The view from above was quite something, the December sky shaded baby blue, with a piercing white track of sunlight. It proved a pivotal moment, both for me personally and on the trip.
Our trio wandered inside and soaked up the almost sacred atmosphere of the religious cathedral. At the time I was going through quite a lot emotionally and the impromptu visit helped me spiritually. I walked away a little lighter and with a penny souvenir. Outside a busker was playing ‘My Heart Will Go On’ from the Titanic soundtrack and I could feel tears welling in my eye. Nevertheless, with a breathe of the brisk winter air we departed.
Sadly, I soon fell into a slump for the remainder of the afternoon. I had been keen to venture further, but the girls wanted to head back to the hostel for a late lunch. Gazing regrettably at the few market stalls that lined the entrance to the Sacre Coeur I meekly agreed. Later I learnt that the iconic district of Montmartre was mere meters from where we had previously stood, a place I had deemed essential to visit and so my sorrow doubled ten-fold. With little expenditure and a heavy heart, I sat with my soft drink in the café and sat forlorn in my dormitory after as the others went down for a rest. In the passing hours, I overthought the idea of going it alone many times, but never quite mustered the courage.
Thankfully, my mood lifted slightly as others in my dorm later suggested I join them for dinner in town. Most grateful I accepted the invitation and so we dined together in small French bistro, just meters from our hostel. Not feeling especially adventurous that night, I played it safe with a vegetable blend soup, which was alright, but when the waiter messed up my dessert and was rude at my mention that he had, I began to feel downcast again.
The majority of the group went drank in the bar that night, a few venturing into town. Secretly I longed to join them, but tired, wound up and struck for cash slowly sent myself to sleep instead. On the plus side, I managed to secure an invitation to join a few others on a trip to Disneyland the following day, this cheered me up and it was good that I was mingling with various people right?
Can you recall your first solo experience abroad, how did you find it? Maybe you too had doubts or worries, or maybe you just went for it and stopped to think later? I would love to hear you early travel stories too. For more on my Parisian adventure, keep an eye out for Part 2 on the blog…