After two weeks in southern Spain I had to say goodbye to my friend, who I had been traveling with. It was my first time in Europe, and, on a whim, I had decided to extend my stay in order to meet a man I barely knew in Norway. This meant staying in Europe on my own for an extra month before heading north. The thought of running around strange city streets in countries where I couldn’t speak the language scared me, and doing it alone seemed almost overwhelming. Even though I was afraid to say goodbye to my friend and brave Europe all alone, the curious, adventure-seeking part of me stepped on that plane and flew to France, for a solo travel in Paris adventure.
I’m still not sure exactly how I managed to make my way from the airport to my Air bnb apartment near the Notre Dame Cathedral, or how I lugged my heavy suitcase up what felt like millions of steps to get to the apartment, or how I reached the woman with the key to let me into the apartment, but I did. I sat there in the most charming little apartment I had ever seen and instantly fell in love with the romantic Parisian lifestyle.
Nothing about my experience in the park was within my comfort zone. I am not the type to sit next to strangers in the park or learn a new instrument with a group of tourists watching, especially not in a foreign country!
I spent the next few days doing what tourists do. I braved the crowds to see all the places I had always heard about: the Eiffel Tower, the cathedrals, the French fountains and bridges and museums. Being on my own, I felt as if I didn’t belong with all the couples, honeymooners and families, and ventured off the beaten path. I walked through the oldest park in Paris and took in the beautiful trees, clearings and paths cut out of hundred-year-old ivy growth.
One afternoon, I heard beautiful music coming from the center of the park and sat down near a man playing an unusual instrument. It was an instrument I’d actually only seen at my yoga studio back home – a drum made out of the top and bottom of on old oil drum and welded together. The tones from the drum spoke to my heart and I sat and listened most of the afternoon. Eventually, the elderly man playing the drum asked me to come and sit beside him and plopped the drum in my lap. I chatted with my new friend and attempted to learn to play his “sky drum.”
Nothing about my experience in the park was within my comfort zone. I am not the type to sit next to strangers in the park or learn a new instrument with a group of tourists watching, especially not in a foreign country! But, because I was traveling alone, what choice did I have but to be lonely or open myself up to a new experience, a new culture, a new friend.
The stranger I sat next to in the park in Paris that day was kind of a hero. I spent the remainder of my days exploring the streets of Paris with Koah as my guide.
The man sitting in the park that day playing his drum was Koah Pham, a successful engineer who grew up in Paris and split his time between his home and his family’s home in Vietnam. He had retired a few years back, divorced his wife and decided to move back to Vietnam for good. He enjoyed the warm weather and laid back culture of Vietnam, but soon developed severe Parkinson’s Disease as a result of agent orange, the chemical that was dumped all over the jungles by the US during the Vietnam War.
Instead of completely giving up hope and becoming bitter, he started a home for other Vietnamese sufferers of Parkinson’s, as a result of the chemical. As he was no longer able to write because of the worsening shaking in his hands, he taught himself how to make drums from oil barrels and sold them for clients all over the world.
The stranger I sat next to in the park in Paris that day was kind of a hero. I spent the remainder of my days exploring the streets of Paris with Koah as my guide. As we walked, he educated me on the history of the streets and architecture, took me to botany book stores and cafes only the locals knew about and suggested a restaurant with the best food and opera singing I had ever heard. We shared our life stories and talked of the ups and downs of love, life and everything in between.
The stranger in the park in Paris became the father figure I needed in my life, and I became like the daughter he never had. Walking the streets of Paris with him reminded me that the world isn’t such a scary place and that it’s OK to open up to connecting with people, even if I was half way around the world and alone. I also learned that there is some sort of fate that draws us together, years for us to get out of our comfort zone and connect on a deeper level than just a passing hello. I learned that everyone has had their share of struggles in life, and that anyone can choose to be a hero rather than a victim.
Walking the streets of Paris with him reminded me that the world isn’t such a scary place and that it’s OK to open up to connecting with people.
On my last day in Paris, Koah met me on the sidewalk outside my apartment, called me a taxi, made sure the driver knew where I was headed and handed me a bag of tiny, sweet oranges to take with me as I headed to my next destination. I cried as he hugged me, overwhelmed that this stranger in Paris cared for me in a way I hadn’t even been cared for by my own father (or any other man, for that matter.)
There is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t have met Koah unless I was traveling alone. There’s no way I would have ventured out of my comfort zone and opened up to a stranger playing a drum in the park. I would have walked right by him on my way to do whatever with whoever was walking beside me. Chances are, I wouldn’t have even ventured into the oldest park in Paris.
Traveling solo allows us to face our fears, learn to depend on ourselves and develop trust and connections with the strangers around us. It allows us to open ourselves to new experiences, friendships and ways of thinking and shows us just how amazing this world of ours truly is. I have stayed in contact with Koah via email over the years, and he is in the process of creating one of his amazing drums for the stranger who sat down beside him that day in the park in Paris.