“In France, we learn to celebrate taking time by ourselves”: how to master solitude like the French

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Editor-at-large of Stylist France, Audrey Diwan reveals the secret to becoming a little more French

Beautiful solitude: the best places in London to be alone 

From the first coffee in the morning to the closing of the bars, if there’s a place that sums up the French way of socialising, it’s the cafe. The whole of France lives in cafes, yet when I was younger I was terrified of finding myself alone in one. If I was waiting for someone, my foot would start tapping on the floor. I’d check my watch 100 times, eyeing the door. I felt people were mocking me, thinking, ‘See that girl, I bet she’s been stood up.’ I wanted to shrivel up and disappear until whoever I was waiting for graced me with their presence. Then, finally, I could raise my head and say, “You’ve all got it wrong. See, I’m not alone!”

Then I met Cécile G. If you asked me to describe the archetypal French woman, I’d summon up the image of Cécile G. I was 20 when I met her. We were working at the same publishing house. From memory, I can still picture her long silhouette, the artfully messy bun on top of her head and the husky voice of a die-hard smoker. It was she who told me once that a person only reaches the age of maturity the day they learn to master their solitude. She whispered, “Audrey, you must not learn how to be alone, you must learn to love being alone. They are the best moments in life.”

Cécile wasn’t antisocial – quite the opposite. She spent her youth in the dive bars of New York listening to underground rock and had too many friends to see them regularly. But she knew one thing: the importance of stolen minutes of solitude.

In Paris, as in London, big cities impose their frenetic pace on the people who settle there. And it’s so rare to experience a moment of calm. Such a moment is fleeting, like a passing angel – to be more French, you must learn how to seize it.

All by myself

It was Cécile who gave me my first black Moleskine notebook – an object that never leaves my bag. When I’m alone at a cafe, I finally have time to talk to me. I write like I talk, noting down my thoughts and verbalising things I never have time to point out otherwise. Maybe the people around me raise an eyebrow at this woman scribbling away alone at her table. No matter, I can make them disappear. I order a glass of wine. If I’m hungry, I’ll order a plate of joyously fatty ham. When you’re French, to have a tête-à-tête with yourself is a celebration.

Now, being alone makes me feel strong. And when my guest finally arrives, they can sometimes read the surprise on my face as I’ve genuinely forgotten about our meeting. I’ve conquered my solitude – I love it, I embrace it, and if you want to be a little bit more French, you should, too. And if you’re walking around Paris, you’ll notice this woman, sitting up straight, proudly, pen in hand, a notebook in front of her. Know that she’s a liberated woman. And certainly don’t approach her – she’s already deep in conversation with herself.