Picture the most romantic date you’ve ever been on.
Actually, imagine an ideal dream version of that date—blood red rose petals decorating a perfectly warm bathtub, with an even more gorgeous version of Ryan Gosling handing you a glass of strawberry bubbly and feeding you chocolate cake.
What if that wonderfully decadent daydream could materialize into a place?
That place is what I stepped into when I arrived in La Rochelle, France. The sun beat down on perfectly shiny white marbled streets and molded buildings with dreamy French balconies, which held pink and yellow flowers in planters streaming down its sides. All of this surrounded crystal blue waters and beautiful sailboats as far as the eye could see. I couldn’t picture a more perfect place to spend time with a significant other.
Only, I was alone. And my state of singleness stuck out more obviously than Pinocchio’s nose after a long day of deception.
I mean France really is the country of love. Troubadour songs originated there, which gave way to the concept of courtly love and chivalry. Courtly love basically translates into knights adoring women to the point of becoming their loyal servants, putting their lover’s wants and needs above their own. The elevation of a woman’s status led to the “ennoblement” of these pliable knights.
The French have carried this reputation for quite some time, too. For example, a passionate swapping of spit is a French kiss. French women have some of the lowest sexual abstinence rates, and French women over 50 are far more likely to be in a monogamous relationship than similarly-aged American women.
But there I was, eating multiple meals accompanied only by a very full glass of Chardonnay. I spent nearly a month in Ireland surrounded by friends. But in France, I was truly alone for a few days. No one was there to cover up my state of solo travel.
Not that it bothered me—I actually love eating alone. I can hog all the dinner rolls and not bother sharing dessert. Plus, it forced me to be quiet (for once). But my singleness sure did bother some of the men in France.
I sat down to eat a much-needed dinner on my first night in France. Soon after, a middle-aged man approached who I quickly realized was not my waiter. He didn’t speak any English. I only knew “je suis désolé, je ne parle pas Français” after writing the phrase on my hand and repeating it clumsily throughout the day. So, the strange man stood there at my table, drawing even more attention to my solitude, and eventually handed me his phone.
“I saw you sitting here alone. Girls should not eat alone, so I can join you,” he wrote on his Google Translate app. Since typing back and forth on this man’s iPhone silently sounded far less appealing than enjoying my glorious steak and wine alone, I kindly but sternly declined via translator.
In Paris, upon paying for another solo meal, the barrister also asked me where my boyfriend was. This was followed up by him inquiring where my husband was. Then my family.
Not to mention the onlookers oozing pity from their eyes as I rode the La Rochelle ferris wheel alone—twice.
I think my name might have made this worse. Every time I introduced myself, people would excitedly ask “Oh! Like Bridget Jones?!” Also known as a 30-something “verbally incontinent spinster who smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish and dresses like her mother.”
So, no. Never that.
I could’t help but notice that no barrister or strange solitary man sitting at a bar ever asked another man why he was alone, or if he wanted some company. There was also an obvious scarcity of other women eating without a partner. Single women probably aren’t lacking in numbers, but I can only imagine how tired they are of this love-filled country’s unwanted condolences.
For the first time in my life, I understood why so many people chain-smoke in sidewalk cafes. It’s the perfect way to become an essential part of the background noise, instead of some stand-out muck-up of perceived loneliness.
But this perception was not at all reality. I’ve traveled with partners before, and gone out on many dates and dinners. On many of those occasions, I felt more alone than I ever did sitting by myself eating crème brûlée and chugging espresso without judgment at 11 pm.
France is the ultimate test for feeling comfortable just being you, there alone, with only your own thoughts. Even the most romantic country in the world doesn’t need actual romance to make it fun—just lots of croissants, cheese and wine.
And, no, you don’t have to share a single bite of your decadent French dessert. Bon appétit.