As much as I fancy myself a contrarian—for a 40-year-old mother of two and recent-ish city expat to suburbia—like many basic women, I dream of Paris. The pull was perhaps never more magnetic than in recent years, when the pandemic grounded me with my two hellions—first, hyper-locally in a New York apartment, and then from travelling anywhere at all. It had been 10 years since my first and only long weekend in the City of Light, for my 30th birthday, when I’d ticked off all the touristy boxes—the Seine boat cruise, the shadow of the clock at Musée d’Orsay, dinner with my then-newly-married husband over the red-checked tablecloths at La Fontaine de Mars—but we ran out of time before we could do what I really wanted to do: wander around the Marais, languish at cafés, poke around for special vintage things and generally pretend to be Parisian.
My wanderlust began to bubble up last spring while reading Alyssa Shelasky’s memoir, This Might Be Too Personal, in which she shares romantic tales of pre-kid globe-trotting: riding a “fondue tram” in Switzerland; spontaneously relocating to Rome and riding on the back of a rakish boyfriend’s motorcycle. I rued throwing myself into work as a writer at a national news network immediately after college graduation, and not seizing that era of freedom and irresponsibility to travel more before proverbially settling down and becoming a wife and mother. It only occurred to me in hindsight (youth is wasted on the young, etc) that perhaps striving for conventional forms of achievement—even moving to New York, the city where I loved living for almost two decades—could wait.
Now, as a parent, impulsively flitting anywhere is an impossibility. Even with an undyingly helpful extended family, long weekends away require meticulous planning and are, thus, rare. I was awash in my midlife crisis-fuelled moment of self-pity, lamenting having missed the boat on a life of far-flung adventure when a text popped up from one of my editors in June: “How would you feel about Paris?”
The niche assignment was covering a professional horse-jumping competition staged, of all places, at the base of the Eiffel Tower. I’d be flown business class (reader, I squeed) and accommodated in a lovely hotel near L’Opera. Is that a touristy part of Paris? Did I care? My answer, unequivocally, was oui.
“Who are you going with?” my mother, something of a nervous traveller, asked. “No one,” I shrugged, in that distinct annoyed-daughter way. Then, wanting to assuage her concern: “There’s a whole group of international journalists going. I won’t be alone.” Still, her question wormed into my consciousness. I’d long been comfortable sitting “alone” at the bar or booking a table for one, but a whole trip abroad? I fired off a flurry of texts to London-based friends to see if, by chance, they might be there the weekend I was coming. We were all ships passing.
In fact, both my mom and I were right. I wasn’t alone—I befriended and dined with editors and publicists; we interviewed Kate Winslet and marvelled at a mystical horse whisperer who communed with the animals to Enya-like melodies as the sun set at the Eiffel—and I was perfectly alone. In my free time, I didn’t seek out more company. I was too busy experiencing something revolutionary: waking up in Paris with no responsibility to another soul—absolutely no one to please; no one to care for or so much as consult. I was free to do exactly, and only, what I wanted to do. It goes without saying that this is a preciously rare state for most mothers, and it was a shock to the system in the best way possible.
Once and forever a ballerina, I sought out the nearest Repetto, where I petted the tutus and bought a pair of ballet pink flats. I ate the French breakfast at the hotel, where the yogurt and bread and butter tasted so much purer. I walked, café au lait in hand, through the Tuileries, marvelling at my luck. A mother! Alone! On a leisurely walk in Paris. Treading once again into basicdom, I wondered if it was possible to have manifested it, as if fresh from reading The Secret.
I chose not to battle the dense crowds and wait in a single museum line. Instead, I headed to the Marais and wandered and wandered: to the Vogue-anointed “babe-tastic” vintage store Nuovo, where I found a perfectly short leather skirt for 40 euros and a camisole with shimmery tangerine paillettes; through the Marché des Enfants Rouge, the red-painted covered market filled with flowers and food stalls; to the drug store, where, like the yogurt and cheese, the lipstick, too, is just better in Paris. Over lunch, I read a time-warping middle-grade novel—When You Reach Me—while eating a seafood tower and fries for one.
Strangely enough, I didn’t eat particularly well in Paris, but I didn’t mind. It wasn’t the food that fuelled me. It was the city itself. Strolling into a pop-up shop on Rue Volta, I met Tania Tuka, a Ukrainian designer and journalist who showed me that the space was filled with Ukrainian brands. We talked about our work, and her family, and how fashion had sustained her as Ukraine was invaded and terrorised. I bought a perfect knit matching set by a brand called Chalety and a blouse with billowing, embroidered purple sleeves (the tag says, in script, Embroidered Gems). We name-gamed and figured out that Tania happened to know my Vogue colleague, Liana Satenstein. I believed Tania when she said that Paris was small, and I felt in meeting her that its magic was real.
That night, my new editor and publicist friends rallied for a post-dinner jaunt out—at midnight—to Lapérouse, a historic, romantic restaurant-cum-lounge filled with nooks and crannies of gilt rooms, the ghosts of Victor Hugo and Gustave Flaubert and a DJ spinning downstairs. I can’t remember the last time I went out at midnight—maybe in Ibiza, during a summer abroad in college? I am typically in bed by 10pm, but with my new friends, in my new leather skirt, I danced to the late-’90s rap of my teenhood til three in the morning, and realised that while I may be a married mother, it doesn’t necessarily mean I have to settle down.
The next day, I was alone again. In the 17 years I lived in New York, I almost never felt alone, because of the thrum, the energy, the people—so many of us alone together. I felt the same in Paris. Meandering more, I bumped into Emily in Paris star Kate Walsh—also alone at an Agua Bendita showroom—and almost asked her to hang out. Instead, I stocked up on pads and double-sided pencils at the charming stationer Papier Tigre, went back to my jewel box hotel room at Pavillon de la Reine, where I posted up for an extra night once work ended, and wrote and wrote. I felt light, unbridled, creative—like I belonged here. On a break, I unhooked the little window in the bathroom, looked down at the street, and nearly cried with joy, my heart bursting at the beauty of it all.
I believe that parents-only trips, and family trips, are special and essential bonding moments. In Paris, I learned that so, too, is travelling by myself. I think back now to a variation of my mom’s question. Who did I go to Paris with? Myself. And I was spectacular company.
This article was first published on British Vogue.