2014-10-23 / Sandy Days, Salty Nights

What my new friend taught me about love and travel

Here’s a lonely experience: Boarding a double-decker tour bus before dawn in the pouring rain. By myself.

I’m in Paris now, staying in the city for five weeks, soaking up history and culture while wondering how French women get to be so beautiful. I’ve eaten delicious meals, tasted very bitter coffee and decided that it’s a combination of good grooming and tolerance for uncomfortable shoes.

But Paris, I think, is a city best enjoyed in love. To be here alone is a discomfiting experience.

So last weekend I decided to leave town for the Loire Valley, one-time playground of the French nobility, a bucolic landscape dotted with castles and blessed with fine weather. To see the Loire, I did something I never do: I signed up for an organized tour. What can I say? The logistics were easy and, truthfully, I hoped to meet a friend. But as the bus slowly filled while outside it rained and rained, it occurred to me that I was the only one — or almost the only one — with an empty seat beside her.

At the first castle, I followed the guide through the tiled halls, beneath stone archways and onto balconies that overlooked the river, admiring the sites but knowing that I was missing something crucial. When lunchtime arrived and the guide said we had an hour and a half on our own, I felt the particular panic that comes with knowing I would have to eat by myself.

At just that moment, I saw another woman from the tour bus. She was the only other person, I had noticed earlier, on the tour alone. I am by nature shy, but in that instant I tossed aside my timidity.

“Excuse me,” I said to the woman. “Would you like to have lunch together?”

To my great joy — and relief — she said yes. We shared lunch in a quiet cafe, and when it was time to climb back on the bus she offered me the seat beside her. Suddenly, I had a friend for the trip.

From there, the day grew progressively brighter.

The clouds cleared and a vibrant sun shone down. The afternoon warmed as light poured over the valley and the morning’s gloom vanished. My new friend and I toured the remaining castles together, and we rode beside each other on the three-hour trip back to Paris. At the end of the night, I was sad to see her go.

What struck me as I took the Metro back to my apartment was how much she had enlivened the day. We were able to share the experience, to laugh over the romantic scandals at each castle, to compare those sites with other places we’d visited.

Sometimes, I realized, in our modern quest for independence, in our need to differentiate our lives, to set ourselves apart, we forget that the best and brightest moments come from being with other people. The beauty in this world — in traveling, in seeing, in tasting — rarely rises from the experience itself. It comes from being able to turn to the person next to us and say, “Wasn’t that great?” ¦

— Artis Henderson is the author of “Unremarried Widow” published by Simon and Schuster.

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