The art of spending time alone
I’ve got Paris on the brain at the moment. A looped film reel of rose-tinted memories - of sunshine, bistros and parks, of walking through the metro with friends to a never-ending stream of after work terraces and shabby little basement bars with 5-8 happy hour drinks.
Something I keep thinking about is the times I spent on my own, and how much I actually enjoyed them. Drinking espressos in cafes, walking along museums and through markets, sitting in green spaces dotted about the city. I remember Paris best as a city that taught me to feel comfortable choosing to spend time alone.
Actually, I think the biggest thing I learnt was to actively seek it out. The city and people help you to see that spending time alone isn’t at all a reflection of how many friends you have or how happy you are in your life. Spending time on your own is about self-improvement, it’s about reconnecting and giving yourself the time to see things more clearly, which often helped me to reduce unnecessary stress and feel happier.
Sometimes just ‘being’ instead of talking or doing was an invaluable habit I learnt in that city. It helped me to live in the now, disconnect for a little while, be more patient and feel more confident in myself.
Une Pause Quoi
If you are going to go to Paris, notice the people. Watch them, as they watch you.
The people are comfortable being on their own so they’re also comfortable watching you. I found that they take time to notice each other much more than in other big European cities. As an English person, it took me a really long time to get used to how people look right at you with no social shame, and it took me even longer to ignore the feeling of being watched.
One of the best places to see what I’m talking about is in bistros or cafes with outdoor seating. It’s not a coincidence that the chairs are set the way they are, set to face the street. In Parisian cafes you can sit on your own and watch without any social taboo - It’s actually expected, so people don’t really notice, or at least don’t seem bothered by it.
What I love about French cafes is that they're spaces for people together and for people alone. The point of the cafe is to give someone a break, whether that’s with friends or not. You can watch the world go by with a book, phone or with nothing at all and crucially without feeling awkward.
You can also sit there for an hour without a waiter asking you if you’d like another coffee, you actually often have to flag them down if you want a top up. A lot of visitors think it’s the classic rude Parisian waiter thing (which it can be) but it’s mostly because the ‘pause café’ is a birthright, and nobody messes with such a treasured pass-time, not even to keep their business afloat. In France, you ask to be interrupted, and not the other way round.
– As a side note, one of my favourite French facts is that they don’t have a direct translation for the word ‘awkward’. I’ve debated with many French people about this, who’ve all given me a close word but not the exact one. I also love how adamant French people are when I explain this very fact, for them it has to exist in French – but the concept is alien to the language and its people. I think it perfectly explains a big part of the French or francophone mentality, because why would you spend time feeling awkward when you can just live your life?
When the bell tolls
I also started to write again in Paris. I’d spent a very long time not writing until I almost forgot how much I needed to. It was my first year in the city and I was with someone who was all kinds of wrong except for his insistence for creating art. He was obsessed with finding out which creative field he was good at, so he tried his hand at all of them.
On a particular day in early spring, he started writing a paragraph while I was in his apartment, he asked me to write the next section so it could be a joint piece of work. When I got home, I wrote the next page. When we inevitably split up, I wrote the next 10 chapters.
Something that I didn’t realise at the time was that I wrote those 10 chapters during the times I spent feeling comfortable alone. I wrote in cafes, parks, public transport and in my studio. I wrote all the time. But I was so concentrated on the poetry of heartbreak that I didn’t see the beauty of my situation - I was in a city that encouraged me do things alone, so I chose to write everywhere and at any time.
And I never once felt awkward doing it. I even once wrote on my own while watching a live band. I remember that nobody gave me a pity glance or judgement stare, I was just part of the atmosphere and it felt great. And that's what I'll always miss about my adopted city - being on your own isn't noticed because everyone understands, does it and accepts it as a normal thing to do. In Paris, you don't need to pretend.
Life on shore
When I came back to Manchester, I noticed straight away how little people did it. I naturally started to hang out on my own in quirky cafes but it didn’t feel the same, it felt awkward.
It’s also a social taboo to look at people for too long in England, and I didn’t want to make someone else feel uncomfortable by people watching them or sitting next to them doing nothing. Now I often go to cafes to write for my clients, but I’m busy bashing away on my keyboard instead of just watching life tick along.
With this nice weather we’ve had recently in England, I’ve spent more time just sitting and doing nothing in the sun during breaks and time off. And it made me remember how much I miss my old Parisian habits and how much it’s affecting my creative writing. I've realised I don’t give myself time to think like I did in Paris. I jam music in my ears or put words in front of my eyes so my brain never has time to float and dance around half-baked ideas. I don’t give myself enough space to analyse a situation or even step back from it.
I’ve also been thinking about going to a writing retreat for a really long time. I thought it could potentially be what I need to collect my thoughts and finish my book that I should’ve finished 6 years ago. The same book I wrote non-stop during 1 summer in Paris, the book that I could’ve completed right there and then.
This summer I realised though, that you can find retreats in your daily life, by carving out enough time to just think for a while and see what comes to the surface. So I’m going to try and take time out where I can and finish a book that I should’ve finished at 23, heartbroken but still driven enough to write at every opportunity I got.
After writing the 1st draft of this blog I spoke to quite a few English friends about spending time alone, to see what they thought. One of my friends went on a Spanish yoga retreat and often goes to the cinema on her own, she says both boost her confidence and wellbeing.
When I told a different friend about being alone at the cinema he thought it was a standard thing to do, but would never eat on his own. Another mate pointed out that some places are easier than others, the weekend bar being one of the hardest. I even have a friend who sits on her sofa and just has a good think as a way to relax after work. She told me her husband is utterly perplexed by it and offers to switch on the TV or get a book for her.
I’ve also actively taken time out just to do nothing. I’m listening to music less on public transport, I’m (sort of) bingeing on fewer Netflix shows and putting my phone away 30% more than before. I’m trying my hand at just sitting in cafes again. I even purposely went to a bar two hours before meeting a friend just to think in the sun.
It almost feels like I’m retraining myself to rely less on technology and to be comfortable with potential boredom. Logging off more and not wondering about potential notifications has helped me to re-engage with my surroundings and is letting my brain take a much-needed deep breath.
Since doing all this, I’ve finally cracked the ending for my book. 6 years on and I cracked it.
It might be a coincidence, but it felt like my brain had a bit of space to think so out the ending popped. The idea just floated to the surface in between thoughts. And like so many things in life, the perfect ending was actually the simplest one.
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Article written by: Sara Benaissa