Dangers of traveling while female

Saturday, December 6, 2014

When I was younger, I wanted to travel like Patrick Leigh Fermor, who famously spent 1934 walking from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul. I envisioned myself sporting leather satchels and lace-up boots, doffing Panama hats, spouting demotic Greek. I fantasized about riding horses through the Caucasus and letting falcons loose upon the Black Sea, about “living up in the mountains, dressed as a shepherd,” as Fermor had done. It was a fantasy cobbled together from all the books of all the travel writers I loved — the great writer-scholars of a certain generation, who saw the whole world as raw material: shifting, uncertain geography for them to shape and create anew in their words.

Then I turned 15, and traveled alone for the first time to Paris, a city I had once lived in, and which I knew well. I laid out maps. I made plans. I would bolt down every alleyway. I would say yes to every invitation. I would lay lilies at Oscar Wilde’s grave. I would sit at cafes in Montmartre until some itinerant, velvet-trousered poets came to scoop me up out of my innocence; they would take me with them to secret courtyards, up the stairs to hidden salons, and there we would drink absinthe and I would scribble down my experiences and then, at last, I would know what it meant to have an adventure.

I never had an adventure.

I was skittish, awkward, hardly capable of forming words to boys my own age, let alone 40-something men well-practiced in the art of knocking gawkish girls out of their comfort zone. I spent my week in Paris squirming out of conversations, stuttering out fake phone numbers, learning all too quickly to avoid those places where I might be considered a target. Cafe terraces, park benches, crosswalks of city streets. My desire for experience, for openness, for adventure, had been overpowered by a stronger imperative, one I had internalized without realizing it: Don’t get yourself raped.

* * *

Even today, my male friends look at me with confusion when I try to explain how powerful, how completely prevalent is don’t-get-yourself-raped in my everyday life. It’s the reason I get my keys out a good 10 minutes before I reach my apartment, keeping them between my fingers in case I need to use them as a weapon against an assailant. It’s the reason I take taxis instead of walking home alone late at night. It’s the reason I always walk in the middle of the road, steering well clear of alleyways or obscured corners.

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