Perhaps it is those tiny tables in bars and bistros that make traveling solo in France such a congenial experience. The drinking and dining spots are so crowded it is almost impossible to know who is with whom. I noticed this one day while lunching in Paris at the excellent Brasserie Balzar (49 rue des Écoles, 5th Arrond). Here singles were just as much a part of the déjeuner party as anyone sharing a table with a friend.
Coffee seems expensive at US$4 or US$5 (C$6 or C$7), but what you are paying for, along with the coffee itself, is the table, which is yours for as long as you want. As a single you don't even have to consider anyone else's needs. You may sit with a coffee for an hour – or two, as you please. In Paris, it's a pleasure just sitting and watching stylish Parisians parade by or eavesdropping on fellow café society debating politics or literature.
Another key to happy solo traveling is finding friendly places to stay. One of the best organizations for meeting new friends I know of is SERVAS, an international organization founded in Denmark in 1948 to promote global harmony.
Recently I spent two delightful weeks in France, eight of thirteen nights in the homes and flats of SERVAS members. I could not have been treated better. In a couple of cases, SERVAS members could not offer me accommodation, but they met me for une bière in a bistro or even invited me for dinner at their flats.
SERVAS hosts sometimes offered useful tips that helped me out with future travel plans, and I even had the good luck to meet some people who not only made me a part of their family but also pointed me in directions that were helpful for research I was keen on doing during my trip.
Giving myself an opportunity to indulge my special interests is something else I like about traveling solo. I keep busy doing things I enjoy, and I can devote all of my attention to the subject without worrying that my partner might be bored. On this trip I was researching two things: a Canadian artist and two Canadian soldiers who had fought in the First World War. At one SERVAS flat in Paris, I met an archivist with the national archives, and with his direction my research time was much better spent.
A good guest reciprocates the hospitality by doing something meaningful for hosts. I gave copies of my books, and local honey, or crafts. Once, in Amiens, I took a member of the household out for dinner. At another home I bought the ingredients for a meal that the hostess then prepared. Wine is usually welcome.
If you are a good guest the rewards are limitless and include, I am sure, return visits by hosts. In the thank-you letters I sent back to my hosts in France, I have encouraged them to come to Canada.
Finding hosts was not always easy because many of them were busy with other commitments.
Sometimes I had to rely on hotels, but in Paris, finding single-friendly hotels was no problem when I was there in late October and early November. I just checked my guidebook, then phoned.
As I can live without a private bathroom, I asked for a room sans douche et toilette. I found, on average, that theses rooms were about half the price of those with full bath facilities – the equivalent of about C$60 per night. Designed for singles, the rooms were small, but they at least had un lavebo, a sink for shaving and brushing teeth. The toilet is usually just down the hall, and the shower not much further.
I can recommend the St-Jacques. Almost everything was spotlessly clean, although I thought that the grand stairway might have used a good once-over with the vacuum. On the other hand, I may have been the only guest who walked the several floors down to the lobby and breakfast room, rather than taking the elevator.
Paris, and France as a whole, is a welcoming place for singles, much more so, I think, than most North American cities. Thanks to those tiny, crowded tables jammed into small spaces where I whiled away many pleasant hours watching, reading or writing over a cappuccino or un verre de vin rouge, I returned home slightly more lyrical than I had been before leaving home.
Locate the representative in your area at the website Servas International.
You are interviewed and you must provide letters from two sponsors. Membership fees vary but in Canada the cost to join is C$50.