My book club has just reached the part of Gabrielle Hamilton’s descriptive and edgy chef memoir, ‘Blood, Bones and Butter‘ where she looks back on a jaunt across Europe after a few particularly grueling years at school. Because she’s so exhausted and beaten down, Gabby spends much of her time in Amsterdam and Bruges hiding under the warm sheets and in the cozy lounge of her hostel. She runs back and forth to the market, fills a bag with supplies, and then subsequently retreats back into her cocoon, a little red leather notebook her best companion.
My reading group, a very intelligent mixture of food editors, lit majors and social media directors of major news websites, scoffed at this chapter.
“Who travels just to shut themselves away in a room?”
They look at me with sly smiles, expecting me to join in, poking a little extra fun at this completely unbelievable concept. I smile and nod, keeping their travel theory wishes fully in-tact, and instead keep a quiet dialogue in my head of one particular trip I’ll never tear myself away from.
I just couldn’t finish out my junior year. College, a series of tragic family deaths, personal failures and ailing health, had crippled me. I sat cradling my dog, tears tumbling down my face at a rapid speed, wondering what I would do next, when I stumbled upon a really great deal to a little city called Paris. It was a ticket out of town and away from misery. It was a ticket to somewhere I would hide from my problems and it was beautiful. I packed a large weekender duffel bag, made arrangements for my dog with remote family and booked the trip before I even understood what I was doing. I didn’t finish out that school year – I was out of town before finals.
After a long flight, bundled under a heap of cheap, itchy Air France blankets, I landed at CDG, pulling a wheelie bag behind me. I ventured through a haphazard train ride into the city and arrived, in the freezing winter rain, at my tiny Latin Quartier hotel. Though the staff greeted me with open arms, grabbed my bag in exchange for a real skeleton key, and helped me up the wide carpeted spiral stairs with lots of concern and love, the minute the door closed in my closet-sized room, tears spilled out of my eyes – and didn’t stop for my entire trip.
Over and over again, when I travel, and during my job when I interview people who are on the road 364 days a year, all I compile are lists and tips on how to make the most of your vacation. Tricks on commuting from the airport faster, Metrocards and city passes that make lines shorter, calendars to ease the time and pain of scheduling. But none of that matters when you’re on the brink of a breakdown. Tickets and timing don’t mean anything when you can’t see beyond your own pain and out into the new city around you. But Paris was good to me.
I spent my first time in France rolled up into a miniature bed with the curtains drawn on the oversized windows leading out into my child-sized balcony. I ventured out to a supermarche’ for a cloth bag full of breads and crackers and cheeses and cheap wines. I blasted the television as loud as the tiny square set would go and called down to the front desk for extra blankets that, because I never left and never needed the housekeeping service, never left my bed or my body the entire first week of my trip.
I did manage to pull myself out of the room for my final day, taking in the major sites, a museum or two and a few historical landmarks. I ended the night sitting on steps across the street from the Eiffel Tower, watching it glow and sparkle and shine through watery eyes covered in melting snowflakes. It was nice, but it wasn’t necessary to my trip, and I hobbled back to my room, shivering and wet, rolling back under the covers after refilling my suitcase and turning back on a television news channel I couldn’t understand.
I spent my entire time in Paris under a cloud full of anger and pain and suffocating in self hatred. But somewhere between the crusty loaves of bread dipped into Nutella, the French comedies on that teeny tiny television set, and the rain dripping through my oversized windows and pooling onto my wooden floor just inches from my bed, I shed the bulk of the pain. By the time I returned to the US I was ready to take on the very emotions that had dropped me off in the middle of Western Europe in anguish. Maneuvering alone in a strange city can do that to you, make you self reliant; make you feel invincible.
I’ll never criticize Gabrielle Hamilton’s travel choices, or her honesty in writing about her trip across Europe. Unless you’ve brought your heavy heart on a vacation with you, you might not fully understand what it means to crumble abroad – and come out on the other side intact.