Survivor of violence: how solo travel save her life
Patricia, a 61 years old French woman, agreed to testify about her past as a victim of violence.
She lived for three years with an aggressive husband, menacing for her and their son, Arnaud.
Today, Patricia has been able to rebuild herself and found a stable and happy home: she has even become a grandmother, "The best job in the world" according to her own words.
Courageous, strong and inspiring, her testimony deeply moved me.
Fanny: Can you tell me what you've been through?
Patricia: "I met my husband in Nice, with whom I stayed for three years. He was very charming at first; but he was also a true mythomaniac. He told me a lot of things that turned out to be false... He said he was a site foreman when he wasn't even working, he lied to me. He used to leave home in the morning to pretend he was going to work… Then we moved to Strasbourg and we settled together. That's where the violence began, about a year after we started dating.
He was a bit bipolar: he could be adorable for three weeks and then suddenly turn completely out of control. In Strasbourg he got a real job, he finished at 5pm whereas I used to leave work at 7pm. We had a friend who had a bar: so from 5pm to 7pm he played cards and drank, then came home completely drunk. He wanted me to "honour my role as a wife"; when I refused, it always ended in rape. Sometimes I tried to finish work at 5 pm to meet him straight after to avoid things going wrong... But it was too difficult, I couldn't manage both my job and him.
He's a man who has had a lot of wounds in his life, but he hasn't overcome anything. He was really an angel and a devil at the same time. He could be lovely, funny... Everybody loved him. When I said he hit me, people didn't believe me."
F: They never believed you?
P: "They did, in the end, when they saw the look on my face. Because at a certain point I went to the hospital. He was tall. 1m90 (6ft2), 90kg and he had such fists... (silence). He was a former boxer."
F: And when you went to the hospital, did you still come back to him?
P: "Yes, because... When you get beaten up like that, you're afraid. And you manage the situation better when you're inside."
F: When I asked you what could have been done to help you get out of his grip, you told me you didn't know...
P: "Yes, it's complicated. It's true that there are structures - now there are more of them, there are associations, phone lines, all that - and back then I went to see family planning. But they are not with you 24 hours a day. They tell you, "Yes, you have to leave." But when I left him, it was even worse than when I was with him. (...) So I went back with him because at least I could manage him. And then, a social worker, what do you want her to do? She gives you an hour of... (silence). But after, when you come home, when you find yourself alone, it's... (silence).
I don't see what the solution is, what we could provide. I've always asked myself these questions. Of course, you go to a judge who tells you "We'll put you under protection, we'll ask for a divorce". Yes, but my husband, when he got the divorce petition, he hit me so hard, because I had just dared to ask for a divorce... Do you see what I mean? What are you supposed to do? You can't keep running to your lawyer, to your judge, to your social worker."
F: You said you filed a complaint against him. It never came to anything?
P: "I filed a complaint, but I withdrew it because he told me that if I filed a complaint against him, he would kill me. And that he would go after my son.
I remember one evening... My son was less than a year old and my husband came home. You have to know that when he came home and he had been drinking, he would grill a steak at any time; it could be 4 in the morning and it smelled like steak all over the house. Then he would put "Midnight Express" on full blast and he would sing. So one day my son woke up and he started crying. He was what, six months old? My husband took him: he shook him and threw him into bed to shut him up. I got up and he slapped me. He said, "You go to bed, here I am the king." After that I made him his steak every time he came home. That way he could listen to Midnight Express while I took my baby. I stayed in the room with him and calmed him down so he wouldn't cry. How many times did I put my hand over his mouth so he wouldn't cry?”
F: And you told me that it was your son who made you realise you had to leave.
P: "Yes, yes. One evening, my husband was beating me; I was in the hallway at the entrance. He was beating me and my little boy woke up and saw us. It was the first time he saw me being beaten up. He said "Daddy bad, want Grandma." He took the keys that were in a little cup - the car keys - and he gave them to me. My husband came back to his senses. He locked himself in the bathroom to take a cold shower and I took my baby under my arm and we left.
That's when I actually realised I had to leave. I told myself that if my son is able to react at his age whereas I don't, then there's a problem.... For my son, I had to move.
In fact, I wasn't even thinking about saving myself anymore. For me my life was... (silence)."
F: You associated that with love?
P: "Yes, because I loved him very much. Afterwards I said to him, "You know, love is a draughts game. You have your pawns, I have mine, but now you have no more: I don't know where to find charitable excuses. Now we've played our game and we have to stop." But he didn't want to.
In fact, I was brought up by my parents who breathed love. They were truly the perfect loving couple. We were always bathed in love, and I used to think, "I didn't live so much love to get beaten up now." I wanted my son to be bathed in love too and that's another reason why I left. It was more for my son than for me, actually.
F: The following months must have been quite difficult. Did you live with your parents again?
P: "Yes, I was living with my parents. I went back to my flat three or four times, because I left with nothing, so I had to get some clothes for my son and me. But when I got to the flat it was devastated. He was partying with his friends, the neighbours told me it was non-stop: partying, partying... In my son’s room, when I went back one day, there was a guy sleeping on the floor. He had no respect for anything, so I said to myself that if he didn't make an effort for his kid, there was no point for me to come back.
In the end I went back to him, because... I don't even know why. But it lasted a month and I left him. I left him for good. He had played cards again and he had bet my car... But he lost. Except that in the car there was also the pram, it had everything in it. (...) In the end I got a fault divorce. He was forbidden to go near me and the child. I was 28 years old."
F: You told me you went on a solo trip... How long after that?
P: "So... I went back to live with my parents for two or three months. But I had to find a job. I trained as an import/export secretary, where I was terribly bored. One afternoon I saw an ad in a magazine for Greece... And I took a flight that very afternoon. I left four months after the divorce."
F: On a whim?
P: "There you go, all alone. With my backpack. I wanted to travel with my son but my mother said "No no no" (laughs). She was already terrified that I was going alone... But I needed it. I couldn't find my place, I didn't know what I was worth, I felt guilty. I told myself that I missed my marriage, that I was no good, that maybe it was my fault... I didn't know what I was capable of anymore. Plus, I didn't like the training and all the girls thought it was great... I thought I had a problem! So I left.
In fact, it was to clean up. I left the kid with my parents and I went away for 10 days."
F: And you obviously have very good memories of it!
P: "Oh yes! That's my strength. It's really my strength, because I did things I had to surpass myself. It's not easy to travel alone, you don't know where you're going... I've never done it before. Alone like that with my backpack... I found myself on the plane and there I thought "Wow!" (laughs). But anyway, on the plane I already met a girl who was travelling alone, too. Then it was 10 days of a dream, really. Without any problem. 10 days of happiness and laughter...
I remember one day we wanted to sleep in a cave with two girls I had met. They were two Alsatian girls with whom I spoke for two hours with my school-level English, before I realised that we came from the same place! (laughs). So we went to Matala, the road of the hippies, there were caves and we put our sleeping bags on before nightfall. Then we bathed all day long... There were workers planting tomatoes and they all had bells on their ankles. I thought it was nice this tradition of walking with music. In the evening they invited us to eat and we told them that the bells were cool. Then they said "It's because of the snakes, there are snakes in the caves!" (laughs). So with the girls, we drew straws to get the sleeping bags and we finally slept on the beach! (...)
Just short stories like that... It was really great." (laughs)
F: What do you think this trip brought you?
P: "A strength... Now, when I face a difficult situation where I could easily give up, I tell myself that I went to Greece alone, at the time, when I didn't have much money... And that if I managed to do that, then I can also say no to someone. (...) In fact, it taught me how to position myself. When I don't succeed, when I'm a bit lost, I go back to that journey and it gives me the strength to say no. If I've done that, then I can position myself."
F: Did you travel alone again afterwards?
P: "I traveled alone again, yes, to Morocco. It was less pleasant because it was a bit stressful. (...) The place of women over there, we know what it's like. But afterwards I met a bunch of boys and I travelled with them, it was better.
Since then, of course, I've developed a taste for travelling. With Damien, my current boyfriend, we always go backpacking and we sleep at the locals'."
F : Is that what you prefer, nights with the locals?
P: "Yes! We like talking with the locals, discovering their culture... We never go as tourists, i.e. just for our pleasure. We really want to meet others. For example, we went to Myanmar and we worked in the fields. I always bring toys for the kids: puzzles, books, pencils... We go to schools and ask if we can spend an hour with them. That's rich.
I find that we meet more and more solo female travellers who also have this kind of attitude. The last time I was in Thailand, I met a woman who spent 10 days in the elephant park to take care of them. (...) There are really extraordinary girls."
F: Do you have any advice for those who haven't dared yet to take the plunge?
P: "First of all, you have to overcome your fear and not show it to others. I had a Taekwondo teacher who told me "When you walk in the street, you have to have straight shoulders and a determined step." When people notice you're afraid, you become a target.
Then, really, when you go alone... You are never alone. So of course, if you go to a hotel where everything is organised, you are sure to find yourself alone because there are only couples. When you go backpacking, you're never alone."
Many thanks again to Patricia for sharing her story with us. She has since forged a life full of beautiful adventures that she always tells with enthusiasm, with a lively and happy tone.
Travelling solo has helped her to rebuild herself and to be stronger than ever. Myanmar, Thailand, Laos: every year she sets off to meet the world. For my part, I am glad to have been able to meet her, this independant and inspiring globetrotter
La Voyageuse offers passes to women victims of violence to give them a way out of a daily life that is too dark to live.
You can also help them becoming a solidary host, to welcome them during their journey. A helping hand to fly away and find in their turn "The strength to say no".
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