Many people have commented to me that they would be too lonely if traveling alone. I guess it might be my personality or the fact that I was a school teacher in my earlier life, but I have always been very sociable with other travelers. This is obviously a skill that needs to be thought out as there are some places where it would not be appropriate to initiate conversation with strangers. I would never initiate conversation with someone I didn’t know in a fine dining establishment or on a subway. However, there are many other occasions where it is perfectly acceptable to do so and even helpful to all involved.
In France, it is a national “must” in manners for the shopper, diner, or visitor to greet the proprietor upon entering the establishment, even if s/he hasn’t said anything yet. Although I abided by the custom, I had not thought much about this until I had made multiple visits to France and I have discovered that this is a really good habit to practice wherever I go.
It felt rather strange the first time I was in Paris to call out a greeting even if I didn’t see anyone there. However, I realized that, not only is this polite, but in a small place where the proprietor might be in a back room, it lets him or her know you are there. I have taken to doing this in any small shop that might have only one person working, even in the states. I have noticed very pleasant looks and responses to this action.
In some shops, the clerks are not interested in visiting. However, I have been in some shops where the workers thoroughly enjoy visiting with the different customers and learning about where they are from. This is a good tool for them, as friendly staff often provoke more purchases. However, being in a store alone all day, this is a way they can make their day more interesting too. I have had long talks with proprietors in Brussels, Paris, and many places in the United States. Europeans often ask where I am from and proceed to ask questions about my particular home, the US in general, politics, etc.
In Paris, there are many very tiny souvenir shops. When I am in Paris for several days, it is not unusual as I am coming back to the hotel toward the end of the day to stop in some of my regulars to just look around and think more about items that had interested me. A few years ago, I found a purse in one of these shops that I really liked. I looked it over on a few visits, but it was rather large for my suitcase. Two days before I left Paris, I stopped again and was admiring it. The clerk who was always there and talked with me finally said, “why don’t you just buy it, you know you want it?” I laughed and said that I indeed wanted it, but had to wait until the next day to see how much room I had left in my luggage. Fortunately, the next day I packed the suitcase, bought the purse, and still had room to go purchase one more pair of shoes. This is what happens when you pack lightly and wisely when heading out for your trip.
At many tourist attractions, I see people (often couples) who look very nervous and are not sure what to do. If I overhear them speaking English and am sitting close, I might ask them where they are from. This is a good introduction to conversation. They are usually surprised that a stranger wants to speak to them, but I look honest and we usually get involved in a long conversation.
In 2011, I was standing in line in under the Eiffel Tower early in the morning and there was a long wait for tickets. Close to me stood a man and wife, and another man with his 5 year old daughter. The four of us adults talked for an hour or so while waiting our turn to go up into this wonderful monument. Once we moved inside, we had to wait for the elevator. The man with the child had to collapse the umbrella stroller and it was very tight spaces with lots of people crushing into a small space. As the elevator arrived, he called out his daughter’s name and said “grab our new friend’s hand and don’t let go until we are off the elevator.” We arrived at the top and took pictures of each other and were off. It was nice to know I could be of help and I’m sure he was glad to have a pic emailed when he got home as he had forgotten to bring a camera to Paris.
Last summer, I had decided to take the Canal St. Martin cruise in Paris. As I sat at the Seine waiting for the boat to load, I saw a couple coming and I scooted over, saying, “let me scoot over so you can get in the shade too.” We started talking and I found out they were from Wisconsin. We talked about this trip and what we would do afterward. I mentioned that I was going to eat lunch in the area were we stop and then decide whether to walk back to my hotel or take the Metro. They were shocked as they thought it was a round trip. I mentioned that the guy who sold me the ticket recommended a particular restaurant where I was planning to go and told me a bus number if I wanted to return that way.
After boarding, we really didn’t see each other again to visit until the trip was almost over. The lady came to me and asked about the restaurant and wondered if they could follow me there. Of course I said yes and then said that I had decided to take the Metro back to the area where I was staying.
They were staying in the same area, but she said that her husband strictly refused to get in a subway and, besides, they didn’t know how to use the Metro. I told them if they were interested, I would go with them every step of the way and teach them how to do it. We all decided to go to lunch together and they decided they would take me up on my offer.
On the way to the Metro station, I started explaining what they would see when they got down there. I remember that being my biggest fear the first time – what was it like? I told them how the signs and directions work and how to decide where you wanted to go and what line you should use.
As we arrived for the first train, I showed them everything I used to figure out what to do. We had to change trains two more times. At the first train change, I asked them what they needed to look for on the Metro map and the signs. I affirmed or corrected as need be. For the last train change, I asked them to make all the decisions for us themselves. The man was amazed that he could actually to this and said he thought he could do this again. They were thrilled they had taken the chance and very appreciative of our time together. We had a lot of fun that afternoon and made new friends in the process.
A few days later, I was walking close to an RER station and an older couple and grandson stopped me to ask where they should be. They showed me where they wanted to go and I explained that they needed to take the RER C. They were afraid to do that so I said I would take them and then go back upstairs afterward for my own train. I had taken the RER a few days before and was so confused that I swore I would not do that again. However, when these folks needed help, I decided that at least I knew more than they did. So I took them in and showed them the screen and how to decide where to go. As they went on their way, another family came up behind me and said, “are you the person who can show us where to go?” I accepted the challenge and ushered them even farther than the first group.
I think in the 22 days I was in Paris I was stopped by at least 6 different groups to ask for directions around different parts of the city. It could be that because I was alone, they thought I was local. I decided that Paris should be giving me free Metro tickets because of my help as a tour guide.
I could ramble forever about visiting with people in hotel lobbies and comparing notes on our trip. We often discuss where each one has been that day and, by doing that, make suggestions for the next day. I love hearing that someone really enjoyed a place I haven’t been yet and know that I need to try it.
Paris cafes are so small that you are sitting just a very few inches from your neighbor. Nearly every meal I had in Paris involved discussions with my neighbors. Some were from the states and some English speakers from other European countries.
Sometimes I initiated the conversation and sometimes the other tourists did so. If you are not afraid to talk to strangers, you will get much more enjoyment out of your travels, especially if traveling alone.
I have found that if I travel somewhere with a friend or family member, most of the time we are focused on discussions with each other. There is not much time to notice or get to know new people. To me, this is another plus of solo travel. I really enjoy getting to know other people.