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A Pact with Solitude
Two months in France researching for Let's Go
by Sara Houghteling '99
I have never thought of loneliness as a gift or a reward. But it is a chance to prove to yourself that you can be your own best company. Last summer, I spent 52 days alone in the south of France, writing for Harvard's student-run travel series Let's Go. Four days after I finished my last exam, I boarded a 7 a.m. flight, transferred in London, Paris, Marseilles, and landed, finally, 48 hours later in Calvi, a city on the northwest corner of Corsica--not surprisingly, sans luggage.
For a week, I moved clockwise through the terrain of France's tumultuous adopted island, ending up in Ajaccio, birthplace of local obsession Napoleon Bonaparte. A short plane ride brought me to Nice, the unofficial capital of the Riviera, and home to Matisse, bouillabaisse, rocky beaches, and more loitering men than I would have liked. Cannes, Monaco, and Saint-Tropez followed suit. All cluster relatively close together, though their grand names sound as if they should be in separate corners of the nation. Marseilles marked the end of my 30-day stint on the Riviera, and my first brush with World Cup fever and fans: Norwegians sporting red Speedo bathing suits and Viking horns, sambaing Brazilians, and lots of badly behaved Brits. Traveling west I entered Provence, and successively loved Aix-en-Provence, Arles, and Avignon, with its bridge and displaced papal palace. For my last 10 days I moved northward up the Rhone Valley, through Orange (infamous for its unabashed support of the National Front party), Montélimar (the self-proclaimed "nougat capital of the world"), and finally to Valence, an urban eyesore I wanted to cut from the book. I visited the office of tourism in every town, youth hostels ranging from a marquis's old mansion to a converted squash club that featured Astroturf carpeting, hotels that rented by the hour and more respectable family establishments, cathedrals, crypts and cloisters, vineyards, museums, bars and bibliothèques, cafés, châteaux, and restaurants.
I was lonely and uncomfortably isolated in Corsica. My French was halting at best--"I [sexually need] my luggage," I told the baggage clerk in Calvi. Few students were traveling in late May. My dorm mates in hostels were the empty bunk beds. Hotels were not conducive to socializing, and the few people I met had not heard of Let's Go. So I created false company. I watched hours of bike racing and sumo wrestling on the EuroSport channel because the commentary was in English. When I realized that an undubbed version of Friends would be on at 2 a.m., I jumped up and down on my bed with glee and took a picture of my smiling face in the mirror because no one else was there to document it. In one particularly unwelcoming hotel, I heard the men next door stumble in late at night, and drunkenly try to open the door of my room with their key. Frightened, I started talking to myself. "Oh, Biff, you silly thing," I said, laughing loudly. "You know I can't marry you, even if you do play futbol americaine and weigh 140 kilos." The next morning, I saw two short, elderly men in business suits walk meekly down the hall and struggle with their suitcases on the narrow stairs.
But when I left Corsica and arrived on the Riviera, I began to see Let's Go adorn every bunk bed and grace every backpacker's paw. My job as a critic suddenly seemed more real and important. I reveled in my role as the ultimate tourist. My loneliness in Corsica changed to a surprising mini-celebrity status on the mainland. Some hotel owners found out which hostel I was sleeping in and sent over big-bowed gifts of perfume or sweet-smelling soaps. One hotel owner in Nice tried to set me up with a recently divorced, Cabriolet-driving businessman who was my father's age and an unnatural blond.
I sought a balance between aloneness and peripheral involvement, in the way that E.B. White once described New York City as blending "the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation." I did not want a 50-something lover or crowd of handrubbing flatterers. Nor did I want to be Forster's Miss Bartlett, clucking her tongue at a culture she would not be part of. I preferred to blend in with the tourist, or better yet, the "local" crowd, rather than be treated with a strange obsequiousness or awe because I was a Harvard student and Let's Go writer. I tried to disguise myself as a Frenchwoman by wearing the thin stretchy metal bracelets that are so très à la mode, tall shoes, dark glasses, and a practiced sneer to silence the most leering of men. Even so, I had to tell hotel owners that I worked for Let's Go; otherwise they regarded suspiciously my requests to sit on the beds, check out the toilets and showers, or examine the balcony view. But I stopped telling other backpackers that I worked for Let's Go. One of my favorite days off was spent losing myself in the crowd at a local youth soccer tournament. I sat for hours in the cement stands, sipping Coca-Cola Light and cheering for the underdogs.
Despite the infectious "excitement of participation" in France's southern spectacle, whispers of isolation filled the air. Promenades were defended by legions of poodle-walking women and the casinos guarded by the army of luxury cars parked out front. The topless bathers stared blankly, hidden behind sunglasses, and the 13-franc fee for a thimbleful of espresso covered the cost of seeing and being seen in any café. We were all part of a greater public play, though each actor was a one-person show, performing her own soliloquy. People might stare at each other in cafés, on the train, or at the beach, but because the prevalent culture is so intensely public, the individual beside whom I sat in a café for three hours, or the person with whom--in tandem--I paced around a museum, left me my own private space.
Only once, on a train, did another person enter the realm of my private reveries. A sweet-faced gypsy boy pumped the sides and keys of a shiny red accordian as he paced the aisles, his great instrument wheezing out a polka. He made eye contact with me as I stood by the train door, waiting for my stop. I was wearing two backpacks--one on my back and the other in front. He stood in front of me expectantly and we smiled at each other--his round, smooth cheeks reminded me of my little cousin Philip. I was so taken with him that I didn't realize until too late that he was smiling at me because he wanted money. As the train slowed and the doors opened, I fumbled furiously in my backpack for my wallet, but couldn't find it, and had to rush off the train without giving the boy a coin. The doors closed behind me, and I saw his smile vanish as the train sped down the tracks.
My editors back in Cambridge advised me to write my Let's Go prose as if I were keeping a lonely backpacker company. Starting at around 10 o'clock each night, when it was unsafe to be out alone, but too early to go to bed, my writing became my primary company. The promise and "excitement of participation" were always there in the chic nightlife of Saint-Tropez or the student bars of Aix-en-Provence, but I usually opted for private time with my own opinions and prose. Loneliness implies that somewhere out there is a group that you do not want to be separate from. But privacy is the desire to stand at a distance and hold part of yourself back for yourself. Maybe it is a brand of selfishness. For me it was not based in any dislike--quite the opposite--of the French culture or the wonderful, quirky people I met in youth hostels, trains, concerts, supermarkets, and bullfights. Being alone led to a slow appreciation of the fact that while I could try my hand at judging France, in the end, my time in France would test my resolve, teach me, and impose on me a lesson of self-inspection.
That I had fun being by myself--and found ways to amuse myself, and to protect and care for myself--may seem no great revelation. But before France, I saw my lonely times at Harvard only as black holes or quicksand, not as fertile soil for private growth. Now I realize that I had simply not yet learned to appreciate my privacy. If I were to be scholarly about this discovery, I might even find support in Rilke, who says, "Embrace your solitude and love it...your pact with aloneness will be your support and solace even in the midst of unfamiliar situations. It is through this aloneness that you will find all your paths."
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