Amiens 19/07/14. The friendly city…

 

Amiens is within an hour and a half reach of Paris by train, and about 2 hours by car from Dieppe, avoiding the toll roads (if you’re English, driving at a slower speed on the wrong side of the road etc). It has a beautiful olde world bohemian area behind the Cathedral, down by the river which is well worth a visit (or in my case, several). It is not overpriced and serves local delicacies as well as more traditional tourist fare. For a local lunchtime meal try http://www.restaurant-tantejeanne.com/. Very friendly (English speaking) staff who welcomed my request for a solo table by putting me in a wonderfully shady little nook where I had a fine view of everyone in the restaurant and could indulge my favourite pastime of people watching behind sunglasses. I wasn’t even seated near a toilet! Luxury indeed!

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Tante Jeanne – worth a visit
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Ficelle Picarde – pancakes stuffed with ham, cheese and mushrooms. Tres delicieux
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Enjoying lunch in a shady nook, overlooked by the impressive Amiens Cathedral

Locals and students alike gather down by the canal, where the old town of Amiens – Ste Leu is situated. The solo traveller will feel at home here, wandering through the old streets, listening to snatches of conversation as each open window is strolled past, and finding a quiet step to rest on whilst watching swallows diving in and out of the guttering in which their nests are carefully hidden. The solo traveller notices so many things that can be missed when in the company of others.

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Amiens was all but destroyed during the Second World War. Luckily the Cathedral survived, and for me is more impressive than Notre Dame in Paris.

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Amiens Cathedral

Maybe I feel this because I had the privilege of wandering around its glorious gothic interior more or less by myself. It was 35 degrees outside, and humid. The relief of finding sanctuary within its cool walls was palpable. Amiens Cathedral was built to house the supposed head of St John the Baptist (which was served up on a platter to the wife of King Solomon). The head that is in the church (which I didn’t photograph out of respect) was very small and withered (I guess it happens to us all) and there’s no documentary proof of it actually being that of St John, however it is someone’s head and for me, that fact alone meant that a candle should be lit. After all, presumably there’s a body lying around somewhere, wondering (if headless bodies can wonder…) where the rest of it is….

The first thing that struck me about Amiens (especially as it was the first stop on my tour de France) was its friendliness. The city has a large student and migratory population, and is very welcoming to those new in town. I was made to feel at home here and enjoyed 3 nights in the city’s company. 

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My first  night was a fantastic introduction to Friday night entertainment, French style. A lively band playing electric and acoustic guitars, all 3 of them achingly beautiful, including the female singer/tambourinist. The songs were classic British and American (pleased to say most of them British – The Beatles, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Oasis). I indulged in a “Janvier” cocktail – my birth month and a nifty way to entice tourists to pay 6E for a cocktail that they wouldn’t ordinarily bother with. This was followed by several glasses of local beer and some delightful garlicky canapés which helped my stomach to cope with the rather large amount of cigarettes and alcohol that I was consuming, such was my enjoyment of the evening.

Cigarette intake for me is a kind of barometer of emotional bouyancy. No smoking whatsoever usually means either 1. I’m not at work or 2. I’m not drinking or 3. I’m not either high or low. Just mooching about in the middle. However, if I’m as high as a kite, or in the pits of despair, you’ll find me chuffing for England, on some seedy little menthol number. Or 20. Yes I know it’s bad for my health. But so is banging my head on the wall, which is the alternative if I don’t have a smoke when I’m on a downer…

So much did I enjoy the entertainment that I awoke at 9 the following morning with somewhat of a headache. Still, it was worth it to be a part of the “scene”. Everyone was friendly and warm – although in these parts, not a lot of English is spoken and I appear to have forgotten every French word that I ever learnt.

 

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Veni, vidi, vici…

So Florence it was. I visited in May, 6 months after Mr T died; when it’s not too hot to walk around but lots of sunshine in between the showers. Kind of what I was looking for in life, really.

The first thing to think about when solo travelling,  is how to keep yourself occupied. We spend so little time alone that, after the first half an hour of amusing ourselves by playing “spot the nationality” of other tourists (baseball cap, shorts, socks, trainers – American. Unless he’s Japanese…never was much good at stereotyping), the solitude can become wearing, not to mention the uncomfortable feeling that everyone thinks you’re a loser because you’re sitting alone. So I tried a little experiment in Florence.

After balling my eyes out at the first sight of the stupendous green and white marbling of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore and the Baptistry where Dante was baptised – both because of their beauty and because Mr T wasn’t with me to share the magic – I stood in a shop doorway, blew my nose, checked the face for mascara runs and sat down opposite the cathedral for my first Italian beer. Actually, it was German but that’s not really relevant. I was in a fine spot to do some people watching. I decided to count how many people were, just like me, alone.

 

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Florence Bapistery

 

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Florence Cathedral – as beautiful at night as during the day

 

By alone, I don’t mean they’d left their significant other whilst they went off to the ATM machine, or to pick up cigarettes, or to find out where the nearest public toilets were. I mean actually alone. Carrying a map or a guide book, staring at the architecture, taking photographs, soaking up the atmosphere, minding their own business (which wasn’t what I was doing). Then I watched how many people were sitting outside cafes, having drinks or meals, chilling, watching me watching them (and probably wondering what Alice Cooper was doing in town). There were loads of people. I can’t say hundreds, but there must have been around 30-40 people, just minding their own business, doing their own thing and not worrying in the least about being alone.

 

I again looked around and realised that I was the only person who seemed to be the slightest bit interested in looking at people alone with their thoughts, or their iphones, or their books/laptops/coffees. In other words, no one cared that I was sitting alone. So why should I? The waiters didn’t avoid my table “Oh God, watch out, lone woman at table 28. Look, she has no friends, obviously a loser”. No one even batted an eyelid. And no one has ever batted an eyelid since. Unless I’m attempting my “mysterious lady” impression with my sunglasses, sun hat and book about existentialism which has never been opened but looks cool. So go on. Just do it. Quick. Whilst no one’s watching.

The following day I joined a tour of the Uffizzi Gallery and the Academia, had a good nosey around Michelangelo’s David and all in all felt extremely cultured. Florence is full of solo travellers, just mooching about. I spotted a couple trying to take a selfie on the Ponte Vecchio and, having just sampled a limoncello so feeling a little brave, I mimed the offer of taking their photo in return for them taking one of me. Bingo!  First proper photo with me in the picture!

 

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A selfie at the Boboli Gardens

 

 

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Proper photos are so much better than selfies!
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Getting the hang of asking strangers to take photos!

 

 

All by myself… or not.

 

My first night in Florence was a bit surreal. During the day I had been busy, booking into my hotel, crying and smiling intermittently at the beauty of everything and the sorrow of my broken soul. I had drunk some beer and eaten a salad. I can handle solitude during daylight hours, when the world is up and about, and there are hundreds of us solo travellers milling about. Night times are a different matter however. The night belongs to groups of friends with good food and wine. Or lovers. I was in neither camp.

By the evening of my first day, I was a little tipsy and tired. I wanted to be where other people were. I wanted to be laughing with friends. I was too scared to  move out of my room. I was feeling very sorry for myself. So I went to bed.

The following night, after a day of museums, art galleries and people watching, I went back to  my hotel room. I dressed for dinner, had dinner, sat on my bed and wondered what next. Then I gave myself a telling off. I was in Florence for only 4 days. What the hell was I worried about? I wasn’t going to find any life in my room alone. I’d find some tourists to chat to, and pass the evening in pleasant company, over a glass or two. So I headed for the hotel bar.

Perched at the bar (where I feel safe as a solo traveller), in my 5 star hotel, I felt eyes on me. There was a group of tourists (American I think, or maybe Canadian. I haven’t got the hang of the different accents yet) probably in their 60’s. Husbands and wives by the way they were talking.  I felt furtive glances yet no attempt to acknowledge me. Sitting on a stool in my black dress, black heeled boots, red lipstick (Mr T’s favourite), I looked around the hotel bar. Everyone was in couples. No one saw this sad, lonely widow, desperate for some interaction.  Who knows what they saw? A confident business woman? Someone waiting for their significant other to join them in the bar? Maybe they thought I was a whore. Women do not sit alone, at the bar, dressed up. This was an exclusively “couples only” club and I was no longer eligible to belong.  “Sod this”, I thought, and sauntered out.

 

alone in florence

 

It was a  damp evening. It rains on and off in Florence during May. It’s warm but an umbrella is needed. I walked up and down the glistening streets. There were very few people around and even fewer in the restaurants. I stopped in a nearby church and listened to an organ recital for  a while. This just made me feel more sad, so after a while I got up and moved on. I was restless and lonely.

I walked down an unprepossessing street. Minding my own business, with my umbrella up as it was drizzling, I suddenly heard a voice. “Madam, would you like some food?” I peered around my umbrella and saw a chef. I knew this because he was wearing chef’s whites. With a chef’s hat perched jauntily on his head. He was smoking a cigarette outside a trattoria. “No thank you, I’ve eaten” I said, and carried on walking. “How about a glass of wine?”. The guy was the first person I’d spoken to all day, and the two glasses of red gave me a devil may care attitude. Sod it, I’ll have a bloody drink. I also liked the fact that he was smoking. I badly wanted a cigarette and a glass of wine. And a conversation.

I crossed the road and immediately he set about getting a bistro table and a couple of chairs set up. Amused, I sat down. Il Italiano disappeared and then reappeared moments later with a glass of Prosecco, and no whites. He had changed into a t shirt and jeans. He was friendly and well trained in the art of chatting up tourists. But his conversation wasn’t the cheesy kind that makes you want to run. He was good at genuinely appearing interested in who I was and what I was doing, alone in Florence, on a drizzly Monday night.  Aware of my situation as a lone woman, I had prepared my story in advance. My husband had gone off somewhere and I was planning to meet him later. I thought of this story as the Prosecco went down and the truth came out.

Florence in the rain

 

Il Italiano asked me if I would like to go inside and watch the rest of a football match that was on the TV.  Napoli (Naples) was beating another Italian team in the Serie A.  Il Italiano, and in fact many Italians in Florence come from Naples, which is considered the fag end of Italy, so people leave to do low paid jobs in Northern Italy, which turns its nose up at them whilst being happy to hire them for the jobs that no one else wants. I  decided to watch the match. It was in a public place and I felt safe. I enjoyed a brilliant game. Il Italiano’s team won and in typical Italian fashion, he tore around the trattoria, shouting my name (which incidentally is Victoria – appropriate for the Napoli victory) only stopping to refill my glass.

The rest of the restaurant staff  were also celebrating and thought nothing of including this English lady, all in black, with not a word of Italian to her name. There were no diners in that evening but everyone was chatting and gesticulating excitedly, the way that only Italians can do. They made me laugh and smile. When Il Italiano asked me if I would like to go somewhere else for a drink, it seemed the most natural thing in the world. So I did.

We visited bars, restaurants, and finally a nightclub. Everyone knew il Italiano. And I felt, for the first time in 6 months, alive. We laughed at anything and everything. Mostly at our complete inability to understand each other, so that we had to do silly mimes to try to get our messages across.  He was a breath of fresh air in my suffocating existence. So when he asked if I wanted to be walked back to my hotel room, or if I would like to go to his apartment (right next to the Cathedral), I knew what I wanted. I didn’t want to be alone. Not that night…

He shared an apartment with the General Manager of the Uffizi Gallery. Conveniently, he was asleep. We crept in, giggling like a couple of teenagers. We spent all night making me feel new again. Forget bereavement counselling. This was the kind of therapy that I needed. To be held, and kissed and made to forget all the pain and the fear that had haunted me since November. It went against all my norms and values, yet it felt so right. It could have been so wrong. But it wasn’t.

When il italiano finally did walk me to my hotel the following morning, the group of tourists from the night before were waiting outside. They stared at me. The red lipstick had long since been kissed away, leaving only a huge smile on my face. And a triumphant look in my eye. I had found my own entertainment for the evening.