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On another solo vacation on Block Island, I signed up for a biking tour. I'm not much of a cyclist, I learned, as I trailed behind the group and huffed and puffed up the hills. But the bicycle was also a good prop, forcing me to venture out and see the island, not just loll around on the beach.

As I continued to travel, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends, I began to believe there was nothing a good adventure couldn't cure. The job from hell, a broken heart, nightmare holidays, the blahs, the blues, what Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's calls the mean reds, could all be fixed by a bowl of noodles in a café in Shanghai or a drive through Baja in a convertible.

Then I got sick for real. One day I was fine; the next day I was having hernia surgery. Two months later I was suffering from complications that baffled even the best doctors. The hernia surgeon sent me to a gynecologist who sent me to a bone specialist who sent me back to the hernia surgeon. Just when I was on the verge of recovery, I got a nasty strain of mono. My tonsils swelled, my ears ached, and my throat was so raw I couldn't drink or swallow. My asthma flared up and I had to make periodic visits to the hospital to be ventilated—that is, when I wasn't visiting the hospital to be fed through an IV because I couldn't eat. I was a freelance writer, and now there was no income. In four months I went through my savings. By 3 P.M. every day I was exhausted. I begged my doctor to tell me when I could expect to get better. "I haven't worked in ages," I pleaded. "What am I going to do?" My doctor just shook his head. "Rest," he said. "You are very, very sick." So I rested and I cried and I wondered what I had done to deserve this.

By the time I recovered, I had been ill for almost six months. It was spring, which seemed like a good sign. My friend Shandana called and invited me to spend a week with her in southern Spain: Andalusia, a region as lovely as its name. That week I received two freelance checks that I'd thought would never come. I had enough money to cover two months' rent and buy a plane ticket. Everything else, I reasoned, could go on my credit card.

I quickly decided I needed more than a week away. Tooling around online travel sites, I booked three additional weeks of solo travel—to Barcelona, Madrid, and Paris. The week in Andalusia with Shandana was lovely, partly because I knew it was only the beginning of my journey. I saw Shandana and her friend Greg off at the airport, then flew to Barcelona. There I adopted Gaudí and Picasso as my travel buddies; I visited all of Gaudí's tripped-out architecture and Picasso's early paintings. Sitting at an outdoor café one afternoon, I ran into my friend Joanne from New York. We became dinner companions for the remainder of the week, meeting each evening to compare notes and stroll along Las Ramblas, a mile-long strip of cafés, bars, and street performers. On the next leg of my trip, Madrid, I dove into the world of Diego Velázquez, enraptured by an encounter with my favorite painting in the whole world, Las Meninas ("The Maids-in-Waiting"). I was content to eat breakfast and lunch alone, but I found solo dinners intimidating. I would eat early, so as not to feel conspicuous in a crowded restaurant, or in my hotel room.

Next: Discovering paris alone

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