Some people think you can’t travel anymore once you have a child, and that’s not true. We took Owl to Japan when she was a year old, and to China about six months later. I will write about those trips eventually, but this is a post about traveling by myself.
In January my dear friend Ying asked if I would come to Paris with her this summer. Without our kids or partners. Umm… yes. Yes. I can sign up for that.
Getting ready to go was not so fun. Ying was leaving two young children, including a nursing infant, and Erik and I and a newly potty-trained Owl spent the two weeks before my departure all being extremely ill, one after the other. By the time the trip came around, all I wanted to do was check into a hotel and sleep the week away.
The afternoon of my departure, I was prepared early, and then my flight was delayed, so I had nothing to do for two hours. Every time I got near her, Owl only wanted to be on me or next to me. It made me cry, because I thought how dear and snuggly she is, and I wondered how I could bear to leave her for a full week (even as I was also annoyed and overstimulated by her climbing on me, and wished she would leave me alone; motherhood is full of contradictions). I cried the whole way to the airport; I don’t know what the Lyft driver thought. I still felt ultra-tender while checking in, but Erik sent me photos and a text that Owl had gotten up from the bed after my departure and declared, “Mama go to airport. Owl play with airplane book.”
I was happy to know she was coping well. I wandered the terminal for awhile and thought how glorious it was to only be responsible for myself, and that cheered me up considerably. And then I ran into a friend on my flight and that felt like a good sign too.
I wrote that evening, while eating a brisket sandwich in the airport wine cafe:
I’ve been so anxious and so consumed by circling thoughts, I’m really hoping a week solo will give me a chance to reset that pattern… the mental pacing becomes such a habit that my brain takes it up automatically even when it’s already exhausted all the things I can conceivably worry about, so it starts throwing up random things like ‘remember that TV show from your childhood’ or ‘what became of that person you met in 2010’ or ‘was Dryel a scam’. It’s like my brain learns that that’s the atmosphere I’m supposed to live in, so it manufactures it, even when my actual environment or daily life doesn’t supply it. No wonder I couldn’t bear to buy any magazines in the airport gift shop, FFS; I don’t need the articles giving me more to think about!
A week later, on the flight back from Paris, I started recounting my trip and ended up journaling thirty-three (!) pages over almost five hours.
It’s been a good week of delicious freedom and enjoyable friendship and the charm of Paris, even if it was horribly hot for a couple of days (almost 100ºF) and still pretty warm and muggy on the others, and I could barely sleep from heat, jet lag, and excitement. But even with all that, I had the chance to truly relax and be present and get into the flow of whatever I was doing. I could probably fill pages with all of the freedoms, large and small, I experienced, and maybe I should? Just as a reference? Because I’m sure everything will feel different once I arrive and am quickly thrust back into regular life (by which I mean, the responsibilities of parenting).
This is an edited version of the list I made, with commentary and pictures.
What I could do while vacationing without Owl:
- Go to bed whenever I liked
- Take up the entire bed, in any direction
- Get up whenever I liked
- Nap when I liked
- Deal with only my own jet lag, no one else’s
Funny thing is, I actually didn’t sleep very much on this trip. I desperately wanted to, but (a) I do not sleep well on planes, and (b) I am very sensitive to time changes. So I lost a night of sleep in transit, and then every night I would go to bed sometime between 10 PM and midnight, sleep soundly for an hour, and then — my body apparently having decided I was taking a daytime nap — wake up. I would stay drowsy but unable to properly fall back asleep again until bedtime at home: sometime after dawn in Paris. I would sleep anywhere from three to six hours, and then get up around lunchtime. This pattern was consistent until the last night of my trip, when I went to bed around midnight and woke around seven. Go figure.
At first I was getting really stressed about my lack of sleep, but after a couple of nights of this I gave up and let it go. I would catnap if I could, lie in bed and read if I couldn’t, and not worry too much either way.
sleep-deprived on the airport bus into Paris
It wasn’t pleasant getting so little sleep, but actually, I find parenting so physically, emotionally, and mentally taxing, that for me it was less tiring to be solo on almost no sleep than to be decently-rested but with full responsibility for a toddler. Which is kind of depressing. I was so sleepy I was constantly dizzy, but I only had to do and think about one thing at a time, and that made for a welcome change.
On the other hand, I got home and sleeping has been delightfully easy since then. People always say that jet lag is milder when you go west. I guess I’ve never come home westward from such a distance before; I’m accustomed to adjusting to local time (in Asia) within a few days and then suffering a week or more of horrible jet lag upon return home. So this time I did that in reverse, and I much prefer it this way.
- Eat whenever I wanted
- Not worry about anyone else’s preferences
- Not share my food
- Linger over meals
- Eat without interruptions: no pausing to retrieve, fix, cut, pour, wipe, or admonish!!
- Actually hear my body’s signals regarding hunger and fullness
- End meals when I wanted
- Skip meals if desired, or eat really late
- Clean up after eating, knowing everything would stay clean/tidied until the next meal
- Save treats for later, without argument
- Eat sweets or chocolate without worrying about the effect of sugar or caffeine on a small person
- Not worry about chair suitability, or mess, in restaurants
Of course, food is wonderful in Paris, whether you eat in a restaurant or buy it in a store, market, or specialty shop to consume at home. But I was weirdly un-hungry my entire time there. I don’t know if it was the heat, the jet lag, or shrunken stomach capacity from having been really sick so recently. But I never felt really hungry. I ate extremely small amounts, and then once I was full, my body sent an unignorably strong signal of YOU NEED TO STOP INGESTING THINGS NOW, OR I WILL BE GREATLY DISPLEASED. I also had almost no sweet tooth, which is unheard-of. A couple of times I ordered juice just for a chilled drink, but the juice tasted so sweet to me, I wished I had stuck with water. (My body doesn’t tolerate alcohol at any time, so no wine for me.)
apple juice and a buckwheat galette (savory crêpe) at Little Breizh
It was weird, but not unpleasant. I still got to taste and enjoy whatever I wanted, and since I didn’t want much, I didn’t feel the need to traipse all over the city tracking down every single yummy thing Paris has to offer. In fact — and this was a surprise — I quite enjoyed the feeling of not being hungry. My own needs have taken such a back seat since having Owl, it was wonderful to actually hear what my body was telling me — and so illuminating to see that my regular habits don’t reflect what my body really needs.
That said, we did eat quite a lot of things. We had booked two meals at nice restaurants, the kind with a fixed price and a tasting menu of 7-10 courses, so we tried a lot of very lovely food (I had to leave most of my plates unfinished).
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
We also made several meals at home off baguettes and cheese and ham and eggs and radishes and tomatoes and fruit. I had wanted to visit a marché, which we didn’t get to do (mostly because I never got up early enough), but we did go up and down Rue Montorgueil visiting the various cheesemongers and produce vendors and traiteurs, and there’s great stuff at Monoprix as well.
When we got tired of French food (which really did happen; it is not what we wanted to eat in a heat wave), we ate vegetable couscous and chicken tagine, or ten-zaru-udon and interesting Japanese small dishes. (Karasumi and raw daikon? Really yummy.) Every time I couldn’t finish something, I wished I could feed it to Owl. She would have loved all of it.
Udon Bistro Kunitoraya
And then I came home, where I could sleep and where it has not been hot, and I have made six batches of crêpes and a pavlova and made special shopping trips to buy French cheeses and hams and baguettes. Nothing was as good as in Paris, but it was all right.
a stack of crêpes made with buckwheat flour I bought at Monoprix
pavlova I made for my uncle’s birthday…
…inspired by this pavlova shop (we bought a mini one; it was delicious)
(I had a lovely Uber driver on my return trip to the airport, who grew up outside of Paris and said of French food, “I don’t really like it. The big piece of, how do you say it, viande [meat], and the pommes [potatoes] — the frites [fries] — that’s good, but other than that I don’t like French food. I like Indian, Japanese, Mexican food. But we don’t have so much Mexican food here.” He has two young kids and said he wouldn’t want to live in Paris because “you look out your window, you only see other buildings. No green.”)
- Shower anytime
- NOT carry, or be in close proximity to, a hot body in hot weather
- Know my hair and clothes would be left alone after I got dressed for the day
- Wear jewelry, because no one would grab it
- Wear makeup, because no would muss it
- NOT have to dress someone else
It’s not that I can’t look nice at home. It’s just that it doesn’t seem worth it, when I’m not going “out” and I spend so much of my day cleaning things up or being pawed at, and it’s hard enough to get out the door even doing only the necessities. But in Paris we had a routine: morning shower to rinse off the night sweat, get dressed, apply sunblock, makeup if we wanted, hair product, jewelry; evening shower to get rid of the day’s grime, floss and brush, and often, ten minutes of lying around in Korean sheet masks. It was nicer than I expected, to do all that. I like my usual minimal habits, and I didn’t really deviate that far from them (too hot!), but there was something very affirming about preparing to go out into the city and be looked at. There’s an invisibility to motherhood, I am reminded, and our Paris getting-dressed routine was to the purpose of being visible.
I also bought some new clothes, because it turns out late July in Paris is an amazing time for sales. I bought a striped linen shirt for something like 75% off. I got two incredibly flattering dresses half-off. I bought two high-quality bras in fun colors, at prices that would never happen at home. And I bought a linen dress, and a wax-print skirt, that were rather expensive and not on sale whatsoever. It was fun to go shopping. It’s hard to do, with a toddler in tow. It’s hard to care, too, when you do so much laundry every week and your clothes are always in danger of being peed on or stroked with somebody’s oily lunch hands. I wore the new linen dress for the flight home, it was that comfortable.
it hassss pocketsssssss
I’m mostly back to my usual routine now, but I’ve been applying the hair product more regularly (I got two compliments my first day back), and wearing my Paris clothes at every opportunity, and remembering that looking my best is a form of taking up more space in the world (as opposed to retreating).
Move around freely
- Walk at any pace I liked
- Shop for fun or errands without distraction
- Not carry anyone else’s stuff
- Cross the street without worrying about the safety of somebody too little to be seen by cars, who doesn’t understand traffic rules
- Walk longish distances
- Hop easily on and off transit, or run for the bus
- Dig out transit passes, keys, phone, or wallet without also having to keep a hand holding someone else’s, or an eye out for safety
- Carry as much as I needed to, in both hands, without keeping a hand free to grab a small person
- Leave any place immediately upon wanting to, without cajoling or herding
- NOT have small hands on me, or a bowling-ball head clunking into mine, or an energetic and uncareful person climbing on me, at any given moment
- NOT be constantly negotiating with someone about whether to pick them up (and not be constantly negotiating, period!)
- NOT have to maintain constant vigilance for dirt, misbehavior, danger, creeps, or inattentive/clumsy strangers (besides the standard vigilance of women in a big city)
- NOT worry about losing somebody vulnerable in a crowd
- Deal with unwieldy things like suitcases, spiral staircases, or cramped spaces without also having to navigate a second body alongside
- Stay out, or go out, after about 7-8 PM
- Endure my own fatigue, thirst, hunger, etc, as desired, without the potentially dramatic and draining consequences of a young child having to do the same
- Get caught in the rain without much of an issue
- Really play things by ear, without having to make multiple contingency plans
- Be on time, with minimal effort
- NOT worry about anyone else’s needs as far as: sun protection, clothing, shoe comfort, thirst, hunger, pottying, baths, naps, bedtime, entertainment, explanation, education, or reassurance
- Ignore anything that I wasn’t personally interested in, no matter how appealing or confusing to a very young person
One of my very favorite things to do, anywhere, is just walk around and explore. I do plenty of that with Owl — but it’s on her terms and at her speed. That has its own charms, but it’s been a long time since I could do it my own way, and never for days (or even hours) on end. Ying and I would have 1-2 “quests” per day (something we had to find, like an electric fan, or something we had to do, like take photos for our transit cards) and everything else was elective, but Paris is one of the great cities of the world for simply wandering.
a lesson from this trip: if I wear pink/red on a hot day in a city with almost nonexistent A/C, my face will soon match my clothes
end of Rue Montorgueil
Hôtel de Ville all set up for the Tour de France
graffiti scrawl, “read Proust”
We stayed in a fifth-floor apartment on Rue de l’Université, with courtyard, concierge, minuscule elevator and everything. It’s a small street but close to many interesting things, and quite appealing in its own right. Julia and Paul Child lived at 81 Rue de l’Université, three blocks from where we were staying (why was it three blocks from us when ours was #86? Who knows!), and in the other direction there was some sort of Taiwanese cultural center (official, like a consulate? Or unofficial, like a community center? No idea! It looked very official but unobtrusive), a perfume shop that was never open, Joséphine Bakery (I appreciated the play on words) which was also apparently fermé pour les vacances, and other intriguing spots.
apartment living room
outside the Childs’ building; a current resident looked at us with amusement
near the Childs’ apartment
We walked, took transit, talked to people in French and English or a mix of both (“pardon, avez-vous un electric fan? Pour le chaud” which is apparently a hilariously wrong way to say that, although effective), and accumulated shopping bags. At one store, they ran out of all the bags except the largest size, so Ying brought home an elegant and sturdy paper bag almost large enough for her to fit into. It was bigger than my suitcase, and too stiff to fold smoothly, or I would have brought it home.
sitting in the Square Boucicaut, surrounded by shopping bags
I said before I left that I would have been happy to do nothing at all. Indeed, we didn’t do much, compared to many tourists (we stayed one block from the Musée d’Orsay and across the Seine from the Louvre and never set a foot inside either), but I was extremely happy with everything we did, because I could do it with my full brain and my full body and my full autonomy. More than seven days of that! Even walking around the airport deciding what to eat was a pleasure, because I did it ALL BY MYSELF.
It is, perhaps, a little bit sad how excited I get about this.
Do “adult” things
- Freely sketch
- Attend a concert
- Enjoy fine dining
- Try on clothes
- Browse shops containing delicate or enticing items
- NOT listen to children’s music or videos
- NOT go to any playgrounds or kid activities
- NOT read or sing to anyone else; or, do so only on my own terms! (In fact, I did both sing and read aloud to Ying at various points during the week)
- NOT do one-stop shopping; do things that are inconvenient; take a lot of time and be inefficient
- Converse without interruptions
- People-watch (instead of person-watch!)
- Live only with someone who: picks up after herself, expresses her needs clearly, is flexible about her desires and timing, and can be left alone without danger
I never wanted to be the kind of parent who only does kid things and takes our kid only to “family” activities and feeds her kiddie food. And, in fact, we aren’t really; Owl is as happy eating a thousand-year egg as Goldfish crackers (this was quite a discovery), and we limit kid stuff just to keep ourselves from getting overstimulated. Even so, some restrictions on adult activity and environment are simply inevitable. A food-loving toddler in a gourmet shop with shelves at her eye level = not a fun shopping experience. Trying to decide about new clothes while keeping half an eye on a wandering kiddo = not a recipe for clear thinking. There are a lot of things I can technically do while watching Owl, but a lot of the pleasure is gone, because I can’t fully enter into the flow of the moment, either as her companion, or as myself trying to do a thing.
wall of fancy bottled waters at La Grande Epicerie: a display to strike terror into the hearts of parents of toddlers
So, while I would have been happy doing absolutely nothing in Paris, or simply walking around, I fortunately had the chance to do more than that as well. We had meals that lasted three hours. (No two-year-old is sitting still for that, unless sedated!) We sat at cafes.
cold pea soup at Bouillon Racine
dessert course at Passage 53
sketch on a business card while at Cafe Poushkine
My friend from my last Paris trip, Dov, was also in town again and we met up by the Medici fountain in the Jardin du Luxembourg for a very happy afternoon of sketching and an impromptu concert; the sketching spilled over before and after this activity, too, as I spent the morning buying new drawing supplies, and some of the next day sketching in a different garden.
my sketches at the fountain
collaborative sketches with Dov (a fun exercise!)
post-sketch cafe time
And the night before my departure, I decided to attend a piano recital in one of the oldest churches in Paris, because I’d seen a flyer for it that morning and I had nothing else to do after dinner. It was one of the loveliest concerts I’ve ever been to and the pianist, Herbert du Plessis, has completely turned around my dislike of Chopin. I was entirely rapt. Not to mention, how often does one spend 23€ (about $26 US) to sit in an ancient church, third row from the pianist, and get to meet him afterward?!
the flyer was so generic, I had zero expectations
photo taken from my seat, before people arrived to the reserved seats in rows 1-2
the seats filled up a bit more than this, but not that much more
the English-speaking guy next to me had pulled up scores on his phone: clearly a passionate listener
so, so happy afterward.
If walking through the airport attending only to myself was already a gift, imagine how much greater my bliss at engrossing myself in a single activity for two or three hours at a time.
browsing crêpe pans and whisks at E. Déhillerin, Julia Child’s favorite kitchenware store
photo taken by Dov’s lovely partner, Bella. I treasure photos taken of me while sketching, as I don’t have that many!
- without my attention shattered by having to keep an eye on another person
- in one go, without interruptions
- with breaks whenever I needed one (and without the cost of that break being the so-called “bad” screen time)
- for only as long as I wanted, with the possibility of escaping any situation BEFORE I hit my limit!
- Actually follow my train of thought
- THINK, because I wasn’t being constantly distracted and interrupted
- FEEL, both physically and emotionally, because I didn’t need to tamp down my own needs and reactions in order to take care of another
- NOT modify my language
- NOT have to be a good role model
- Tell other people something once, and have that be enough
- NOT manage someone else’s social interactions
Just before I left, I attempted to read Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s famous book, Flow. It was not, I am sorry to say, a flowing read, and was, to be honest, kind of a weird book. But I’m still glad I tried. Csíkszentmihályi describes the state of flow as having these six qualities: (1) An intense, focused concentration on the present moment, (2) A merging of awareness and actions, (3) A loss of self-consciousness, (4) A feeling of agency, (5) An altered experience of the passage of time, and (6) A sense of the activity as intrinsically meaningful. The flow state can be entered into by pro surfers, concert musicians, chess masters, etc, but can also be experienced in meditation, folding laundry, gardening, what have you; in other words, it’s not limited to the kind of epic, highly trained pursuit depicted in movies with beatific shots of great men getting lost in their passion.
It occurred to me while reading, and again while I was in Paris, that it’s very likely that much of my daily tension comes from not having enough opportunities to enter a flow state (in any activity). No matter what I’m doing, I’m either constantly interrupted, or distracted by the acute awareness that I only have x minutes until I will be interrupted (because, say, the sitter is only here until four). Not to mention the life of a parent (some would say, with ample evidence, that this applies only to mothers) means always holding dozens of thoughts and calculations in one’s head at any given time: the child’s state of health and mood, what’s for dinner, how long until we need to do laundry again, who we have to call about which things, how much time it takes to get to and from appointments in whatever traffic is happening at that moment, into infinity. In other words, mothering is the very opposite of flow: (1) Our concentration is always being called away to either the past or future moments, (2) We are rarely able to execute any actions with our full awareness because we’re multitasking, (3) We are always worried about how we’re measuring up to others and/or our own ideals, (4) We are always feeling swept along by someone else’s demands, or the demands of time, (5) (Well, maybe we do have an altered consciousness of time, but here it’s unwelcome), (6) Constant feelings of whatever we’re doing (cleaning vomit, wiping floors, reminding for the fourth time) as intrinsically deeply UNmeaningful. Not always, of course. Quality time spent with one’s child definitely qualifies as a flow state. But the drudgery tends to pile up in a way that erodes a good mood. And flow-worthy time spent with ourselves? Let alone with our partners? I might as well try to be a pro surfer or a chess master.
I didn’t read Flow carefully enough to remember what he says happens to people who rarely get to experience flow, but just going from my own life since becoming a mother, I can tell you what happens to me: exactly what was happening right before I left for Paris. Which is that my thoughts all seemed to be going in circles all the time, and I never felt able to relax, or even to understand how to start to relax. Little things got out of proportion, and priorities seemed unclear. I felt always exhausted, mentally more than physically, though I didn’t seem to have any physical energy either. This drained state does not preclude a useful and productive life, but neither does it have much in common with contentment, intellectual exploration, emotional engagement, or sustained experiences of delight and joy.
I was talking to another mother in one of our playgroups, and she said, when she had the chance to take two weeks off by herself, she could finally FEEL things again. It sounds dramatic, but I could describe my trip that way too. People talk a lot about how parenthood makes you feel more alive, which is true, but it can also be deadening, dulling. You don’t get to feel the full range of anything, because you always have to repress or get over it fast and move on, because you’re responsible for another person and there’s just no time or space to deal with your own emotions. After awhile you get into this grim state of just coping, shoulders tight and lid shut firmly on whatever it is that you, the person, might be feeling. It’s regrettable because I am trying very hard to teach my kid emotional literacy and full expression of her feelings, and yet, in order to give her that, I often have to deny it to myself. I don’t know if every mother feels this so intensely; some people seem more equable, or less inclined to closely examine their internal state at any time. But it hits me quite hard.
Anyway, in Paris I was tired and overheated all the time, but I had the space to actually be those things. I could be as excited or miserable or curious or uncomfortable as I wanted, for as long as I wanted. I even had, because I couldn’t sleep, many many consecutive hours to just lie there and think, and one of those nights I had an epiphany about my central creative motivations. I wasn’t even consciously thinking about that, but that’s the beauty of hours of mental wandering; you never know what insights you might find. Best of all, after a week of being apart from Owl, I was very eager to get back to her; I had had, for the first time in more than two years, a chance to miss her and all the wonderful things she brings to my life and my world. I replenished my reserves, I experienced flow states and freedom and pleasure and autonomy, and I came home happier and more patient and more present.
I’ve been home for almost three weeks now, and although I’ve held on to a lot of those good feelings and insights from the trip, I can feel my habitual reactions creeping back in. The difference is, now I remember what I want to feel like, and I can see the contrast between that and my usual state. It’s like housecleaning: it’s easy to live in a shambles for years and years, but spend a few months in an utterly tidy and clean home, and it becomes that much harder to live with the clutter. (At least, that’s how it feels for me.) Ying said, one night while we were relaxing in the apartment, “Let’s do this every year, or every other year at least.” Yes. I think we must do that. It’s good for everybody.