A Black Womxn's Guide to Traveling Alone Pt. 1
Never in my wildest imagination did I think I would cuss someone out at the top of the Eiffel Tower.
As I ascended the final steps to the top level, I felt someone touch my hair (which says a lot about the aggressiveness of the touch because my hair is VERY thick and I often don’t feel light touches—in fact, one time my very mischievous younger cousin, Khalil, clamped a chip clip to the back of my afro and I rode all the way home with it on BART and didn’t feel it until I lay my head down for bed on my pillow that night -___-).
It was someone who had been walking beside me in the opposite direction on the small staircase. They were descending as I was ascending into my moment of glory on top of the Eiffel Tower. They’d reached out and touched me—a fucking stranger, as I was passing them. To pet my hair.
Before thinking, I reached up and swatted a hand away from my hair. Full stop on the staircase. There were people behind me also ascending. I’d been doing the work of being in my body on this trip and didn’t concern myself with what the people behind me might think. Thankfully I wasn’t worried about their perceptions; otherwise this lasso-hand stranger danger ass white tourist might think it okay to go around violating the personal space of other people all around the world (presumably a trait bequeathed—no shade, it’s history).
So I swatted her hand away and in the Queen’s (Raenette Sanders, my grandmother) English, I said “Don’t you touch my mothafucking hair. This is not a petting zoo. I’m not an animal. You’re a fucking STRAN-GER.” She was shocked. The look on her face was one of touching something hot on the stove when you were confident the stove was not on. The look on her face was one of complete startle-ment. The face of sincerely believing that you had the right to access a lifeless, humanless, rightless thing. It was like going to grab the handle of a door and finding it snatch her hand first. Or better yet, running her fingers along the stone of a gargoyle at the top of Notre Dame to find it’s stonedead head moving in close to her, ready for a snack. She didn’t know that I was alive. She didn’t know that I was precious and that I appreciate my personal space and bite back. She found out on that day.
If anyone was bothered by the interaction they did not direct their comments to me in English or otherwise. I ascended the last steps to the top of the tower when I was done telling her about herself. I walked around slowly, soaking in the sun and the seine on one side, the wind and shade and view of the gardens on the other side. When I was looking out across the river, I felt my entire family there with me. We were all enamored. This was the longest trip I’d taken alone.
I took my long armed selfies and got got at the champagne bar. If I came on this flight all the way around the world and climbed all these stairs to the top of this structure, I was for-surely going to have myself a (too expensive) bubbly adult beverage. I was celebrating. I wanted to call everyone in my phone and tell them that I was calling them from the top of the Eiffel Tower. I wanted all of us to experience it. This place had only existed in my imagination of movies and photos and television shows from my childhood, with slow accordion sounds in the background.
I took my phone off of ‘airplane mode’ and facetimed my friend, Rheema. Girl, I’m on top of the mothafucking Eiffel Tower. I did a panoramic view from where I was. We didn’t talk for long because #straightouttadata.
Before I left, I found a little cove within the deck where people had tagged their names and the dates or years they’d visited. I generally don’t feel no ways about tagging but let’s just say the name of an ancestor is there and it got there with my Sharpie.
Descending from the Eiffel Tower, I felt the buzz of fulfillment. I’d been exhausted and jetlagged before going up—I’d taken a power nap in the grass below the tower with my bag hooked on me in two different places, and when I woke up I was ready to make the journey to the top of the tower. Now, coming down, I was floating with elation. I met two girls from Indonesia on my way down whose elated faces looked like mine. We were over-courteous to each other, ready to strike a conversation on anything. We couldn’t believe we’d made it to the Eiffel Tower. We agreed, having just met each other minutes before to get dinner together. For the next few hours we took mid-air jumping pictures of each other with the tower in the background, ate Chinese food at a restaurant where BEYONCE HERSELF had eaten (unclear whether or not the pictures of her were well photoshopped). Talked about our families and the communities we grew up in. Said pay me back later at least twice. Talked about how real pick-pocketing was—our admiration and fear for the stealth of the skill (one of them had nearly been pickpocketed during their visit. I figured putting my money in an empty carton of cigarettes in my bag would keep anyone from pickpocketing me ‘cause everybody smoked and nobody was going to steal cigarettes. It worked out ‘cause I was right or ‘cause I made it a point to look unfuckwitable on the train while reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X). After dinner we walked the street and waited for the hour to come when the lights would sparkle on the tower. We went into a market and got chocolate snacks and a tiny bottle of cheap wine that I opened with a key (this is top 5 in ‘skills that I am proud of’). We went back and sat on top of the stairs facing the Eiffel Tower, one of my huge hoop earrings fell out and I couldn’t even be mad—it was a reminder that I was me, in Paris in front of the Eiffel Tower, waiting to see it sparkle for me. I cried like the movies when it did. And when it finished, I went and got my earring back.
I remembered how much I love walking around cities at night on that trip. I broke down all of my fears around this. Nearly every place I travel alone gets a dollar of my money for a box cutter so that I can do my practice of walking around alone at night. Paris was no different. Walking with peace is possible when I walk without fear.
On that trip I rode a public bike in the street. I learned to swear in French. I sent my food or coffee back if it was cold or not right (or left the establishment altogether). I recognized racism in several languages I couldn’t understand and chortled thinking of why this didn’t make the list of all the generic universalisms. I bought conditioner and hair grease even though I couldn’t read the ingredients. I cooked for myself. I wore my headwrap and was furious and anxious and not bothered in the end—although I don’t wear hijab, I couldn’t predict the level of extremism(s) that existed for women of color in head coverings and prepared myself for the worst. I ate all kinds of the best bread I’d ever eaten and stayed two doors down from a bakery. I pondered everyday with my tiny cup of coffee and a sizeable croissant why and how the demonization of carbs came to be. One day, on the way to a café for lunch and some writing, I was stopped by a young guy who said in some English, ‘I like your face. Where are you going?’ I said I was going to a café. He said that he had coffee at his house that he could make me and would I like to go there? My head tilted itself to the side in an ‘are you for real?’ way. Creep is creep, even when it sound like hospitality—men are creeps, it’s universal (no shade, it’s history). Before I could say anything, he persisted. I gave a strong Black American ‘nah’ and kept it moving. I learned a lot about how I had a practice of extending politeness to others as I was actively being made uncomfortable—I undid years worth of study in that practice.
Recently, I revisited the journal I kept during that trip, here’s what I wrote on my last day in Paris: “Do you want to grow? Yes. Adjust yourself accordingly, boo. Getting free really is so simple and so damn difficult. Stop holding on to dead shit. If you want to be free for real. Take some of those rocks out of your pockets and let them go. Let it go. Get your teeth from grinding it, holding it tightly in your jowls. Let that dry bone go. In order to have freedom, I can’t hold on to things that keep me dying. Things that aren’t growing, are dead things. And dammit, I’m alive. Let this be a mantra: Free up yourself and let go. Love big and let go. Hurt for a little bit and let go. Get fucking wild and let go.” -9/8/15