It was going to be an Anti-Plan trip– I had booked a roundtrip plane ticket to my destination (in this case, France) but other than that had no real itinerary, hotel rooms, train tickets; nothing, and I liked it that way. Sure, it’s not quite the same as picking up and going with no plan at all. I had the priciest piece, the airfare, secure. I had an end date. But not having any ‘middle’ gave me a zesty sense of spontaneity and opportunity. Who would I meet? Would I be able to wash my hair? Eat foie gras for dinner every night?
The trip started out well enough. After an uneventful eight hour flight where I sat next to a woman whose first words to me were, “thank god you’re little!” the airplane hovered over the Paris airport. Finally we were diverted to Brussels. “Fun!” I thought to myself, “I can take a train from Brussels. How exciting.” We sat on the runway for four hours, waiting out one of Paris’ worst windstorms in over a decade. I’m glad I didn’t know then that this would set the tone of the trip.
Here I have to confess that it was a two part trip. Week one was actually very structured: since I didn’t know a word of French (I had studied Spanish, sort of, in school) I enrolled for language classes in Paris. This meant that for an entire week I went to class from 9 a.m to 5 p.m and took the metro home to a host family’s apartment in the 6eme district. Later that week I left Paris with the phrase, “je suis americaine” (I am American) and the numbers 1-30 (except for the ‘4s’) under my belt. Where to?
The first stop was Avignon. The day before I left Paris I had wandered into the travel agency and booked a train ticket to Avignon, a city in the southern Provencal region of France. Since they booked hotels, I did that there too. Why not? I could find a hip hostel once I got to my destination.
Insert here- a friend who is French warned me before my trip that Provence is not the place to be in early March. In fact, I even knew that Provence often suffers the mistral, a strong wind that comes and goes in the winter. “Go to Lyon instead,” my friend had recommended. But no. I wanted to eat aligot (cheesy mashed potatoes) and drink pastis in sunny Provence, so I set off to Avignon the next day.
After a mostly uneventful train ride (except when a strange man, to whom I hadn’t spoken a word, followed me off the train and handed me a note that said, “merci pour le jolie voyage”), I arrived to Avignon and was greeted by, of course, wind and cold. The temperature had been in the hopeful mid-40s in Paris, but here it was much colder. I put on my hat and mittens. No worries, I thought to myself, I’m from the NorthEast, I can handle this, and I promptly wandered off into a rough looking part of town.
It was beginning to get dark and after a few fading minutes of wandering around with a rolling suitcase, a concerned-looking stranger waved me into a bar. At this moment I realized that I didn’t know how to speak French. After some very emphatic gesturing and broken English, the kind stranger finally led me to a nearby bus stop, said something and pointed to a map. I nodded and smiled as he walked away.
As I stood there dumbly it occurred to me that I still didn’t know how to get to the hotel, so I slowly backtracked to the train station and fell breathlessly into a taxi. Ten minutes later I was checked in at a comfortable 3-star hotel. Okay, so I wasn’t roughing it like I had vaguely hoped. I was barely fumbling by.
The next day I began exploring Avignon, freezing through a monument or two until it began to snow. How cute. Then it began to snow heavily. Really, I thought, this can’t be normal. But that’s fine, I figured I’d find a cafe and work on some writing. As I walked from street to narrow street it dawned on me that every store and restaurant was solidly closed. Apparently it was Sunday and the off season and no one was around: the streets and the city were unapologetically empty. Beaten, the wind blowing through my coat, gloves, hat and boots, I returned to the hotel room. Okay, I could spend one lazy day reading. It was a vacation, after all.
The snow piled up and I decided to book another night at the hotel. It was out of my budget but I had to be flexible. I spent my newly free time searching for fun things to do in Provence– visiting L’Occitane, Grasse, a few bed and breakfasts I had read about. Unfortunately, I was to learn, all of these required renting a car, which was also out of my budget. So I checked out the other warm cities that were accessible by high speed train, my back up plan: Nice, Cannes, Monaco– all of these were suffering heavy wind and unseasonably cold weather. I sloshed through the snow to a kebab stand that night and ate my dinner while sitting on my bed.
The next day I packed my bags and took a train to Lyon. I booked the only hotel I could find in such short notice, a 4 star hotel. C’est la vie. The following night I would have to find a hostel, or at least a cheaper hotel.
Lyon was beautiful. The second I arrived it felt happily different than Avignon– there were people, a metro, an old but young-feeling city. I walked miles from the main train station to my hotel, happily admiring everything about it, but mostly happy to see people.
Just as I began to feel settled, I felt a sharp pain: not the kind that you ignore. Ever practical, I called my doctors, two of them, at home, and asked if I should get it checked out. Yes, yes, right away, both of them had said. Like any good hypochondriac, I had a paper in my pocket with oodles of travel insurance info, and I took the unique opportunity to call an emergency travel center based out of Maryland in search of a doctor who was covered by my insurance. I googled the address of a medical center 30 minutes away and began walking. I watched the nice neighborhoods slip away and eventually found myself in a crowded reception area.
“Parlez-vous anglais?” I asked hopefully to one of the receptionists.
Her response? “Non,” then she turned angrily to another receptionist, “elle ne parle pas français!” and, I swear, eyed all of the good tax-paying French citizens waiting in line. I smiled even more hopefully and handed her a piece of paper where I had written out my malady in French with the help of a translation app on my phone. Her eyebrows raised high and archly and she said, “fourth floor.”
As I walked up the four floors I eyed the seeming ill-repair of the building and wondered if I should turn around. Instead I paid 22 euro and waited for an hour to see a doctor. Finally, a young doctor in his forties sat me down in his office and we talked.
“You have, how do you say, cramps?” I had made a 40 minute international call to an emergency service in Maryland for muscle cramps?
“Do you want me to take a look?” he asked. A blush was creeping over his face. I had never seen a doctor blush before.
“No, thanks.” I said.
The next day I was going to find a hostel, see the sights, and do some proper research of fun stuff in the city, right after I dropped my bags off in Lyon hotel #2. The hotel concierge of Lyon hotel #1 had booked it for me since they were full that night, promising that it was nearby. I began walking with my suitcase in tow, walking through the beautiful city streets, braving the chilly wind. I passed a park. Walked over a highway. Walked and walked. It was cold, and the city center slipped away until finally I found myself in a prefab industrial park, replete with a casino and two or three hotels, including mine. The hotel, once I found it, was a generic place geared toward business travelers that could have been any hotel in Chicago or New Jersey. It was pricey and boring but at least had free wifi.
After checking in I turned on my computer and rubbed my hands. The laptop clicked, hummed, then died. I had travelled over 3,000 miles to have adventures and work on a writing project and my computer died.
I considered crying. Drinking. Watching TV, but I wouldn’t understand it. I put my headphones on instead. Sat still. Stood up to take in the forgettable hotel room, the blank computer screen. Then the unexpected happened: a good song came on and I began dancing like an idiot, the kind of Elaine-from-Seinfield dancing you hope never makes it to youtube.
I later wrote a friend, “comedy follows me,” and to some extent I had it coming. There are some things, like cramps or inclement weather, that you can’t plan. But there is some basic research that would have been helpful to have before I set off, like the price and feasibility of car rentals and an honest appraisal of what kind of hotels I was okay staying in. On the flip side, traveling without a set itinerary allowed me to be flexible and leave places I didn’t enjoy and stay in the ones I did. I had one of my favorite meals in the hotel-I-couldn’t-afford in Lyon, and was able to catch a cheap flight to London to visit friends.
Ironically, the structured portion of my trip, attending class in Paris, was the most enjoyable. I made friends from all over the world (China, Korea, Switzerland, Kentucky) and saved a ton of money by staying with a host family. Perhaps the moral is that a certain level of research, if not planning, is always a good thing.