Well, at long last, I’m back in France!
“I’ll come back to you someday, soon you will see..”
A year and a half ago, I sat on the steps of the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre and listened to these words sung by Fleet Foxes, making a promise to myself that I would come back to the city I fell in love with. Someday, somehow. It was probably the only way I could bring myself to leave, really. I couldn’t bear to go thinking I wouldn’t be coming back. I have tried to explain my connection, love, obsession, whatever you want to call it, with Paris and have never quite succeeded in doing so. I’m not sure I entirely understand it myself. “There’s just something about it” never seems to suffice as an explanation for something that goes much deeper and much more profound that simply enjoying crepes and seeing the Eiffel Tower. While discussing this with my friend Emily, we talked about the importance of place. (In fact, she’s currently doing a great project that revolves around this idea that you can check out here.) We often dismiss place as being of less value when in reality it’s a vital part of our memories and experiences. One of the reasons I feel such a deep love for Paris is completely intertwined with the experiences and the growth that occurred while I was there, as well as all of the small things about where I spent my time in Paris that made it home.
For example, during my few days in Paris I made a point of going to visit the Eiffel Tower. However, for me, because of the time that I spent there, the Eiffel Tower isn’t just a tourist destination or somewhere to take a picture to show that you were there. For me, the Eiffel Tower is where I would go to eat lunch in between classes. I would to to the little side street boulangerie where the sandwiches were cheap but still good, and I’d order the same thing, a sandwich and a Coke, and sometimes a couple chouquettes. I would walk to the Champ de Mars and find an empty bench to sit on where I could see both the Eiffel Tower and the men in the dusty fields below playing pétanque. I would sit there and enjoy my lunch, listen to some music, and watch the world around me, perfectly content. That is the Eiffel Tower that I know and love.
Many of you know the story of my arrival in Paris last time, and if you don’t, suffice it to say that it was challenging and taught me a lot in that 7 hours alone that it took me to get from Charles de Gaulle airport to my homestay in the city. Five months later, after returning to Paris after a two week excursion through Italy and Greece, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief as I walked off the plane into that same airport. It was just the same this time around that I arrived into Paris, as if I was picking up my life in Paris where I left off. There’s even something about the air that’s different, which is probably some sort of pollution combined with various other less than pleasant smells, but nonetheless is singular to Paris and I noticed it the second I stepped out the doors to get a cab from CDG into the city. (Yes, I learned from last time, everyone. Travel math: one 48lb suitcase + one 46lb suitcase + one carry on + one purse = taking a cab from the airport into the city.)
I arrived to the house of my host mom, Francoise, in a fraction of the time it took me a year and a half earlier, to open arms and une bise on both cheeks. Probably have the time I spent in Paris was spent in her little kitchen over a delicious meal or a hot cup of tea, just talking about anything and everything. As a few pilgrim friends of mine discovered this summer, staying with Francoise is the perfect place to start a journey, and this visit was the start of my adventure this time around. How else did I spend my time in Paris? Walking, of course. As much as several very wonderful art museums have a special place in my heart, my favorite part of Paris is the city itself. I just wanted to walk around a few favorite areas of mine and meander through the streets that were my home for 5 months.
More specifically speaking, in addition to the area around the Eiffel Tower, I wandered around the area by Notre Dame, past the little green bouquinistes where I simply had to stop and thumb through several boxes of old postcards, in Shakespeare and Co, and sit for awhile on my favorite bridge, the Pont des Arts (aka the “lock bridge”). One of the things I loved about wandering Paris was that so many small things were exactly the same. There were little parts of buildings or storefronts in the quarter where I lived that were still just so. The little balcony where my dog friend would say hi to me on my way home still had its shutters open for him to come out. One thing that was different, although pleasantly so, was the Pont des Arts, in that it is now covered in locks! Considering each of those locks represents a bit of love in the world, I think I’m okay with that change.
I also returned to the site of the previously mentioned promise, to visit the Sacré Coeur and wander around Montmartre a bit. Everywhere I went was just so familiar, where getting off the metro to get to the bottom of the butte Montmartre felt practically like greeting an old friend. I stopped at the little storefront at the Place du Tertre, where all of the artists sell paintings, and got myself a crepe au nutella and walked around the whole area, ending up taking a few last glances at the Moulin Rouge before heading back into the squeaky, busy metro line 2 to head back home. One of the phrases French people use to say that a place is crowded is, “Il y a du monde ici” which sort of breaks down into translating as “there is some of the world in here!”which is always how I felt as I crammed myself in with a fraction of the world onto the metro line 2 in that area.
One lazy afternoon this past spring at Blackbird Cafe in Valpo, my friend Emily and I talked about what we would do if we could teleport to Paris for just one 24-hour day. Granted, I had three, but still, that is exactly how I had hoped to spend my time.
The timing of my last journey to Paris came at a crucial time and couldn’t have been planned better. In the preceding months before my trip there, certain events occured in my life that had broken the way I previously understood and viewed the world around me. At the time it seemed like cruel and unusual punishment, but in looking back I see that in order to have grown into who I am and the way I see things now, that growth needed a catalyst. In order to be open to what my experiences abroad and afterwards had to offer, there had to be some sort of break, to create a hole that needed filling, a question that needed answering. I think it is because I felt so displaced and frustrated before I left that I was able to eventually feel so filled, and so invigorated with, well, the ‘joie de vivre.’
I am thoroughly convinced that the five months I spent in Paris (and elsewhere in Europe) were five of the most important months of my life. Saying I became more comfortable in my own skin is a grave understatement; instead, I’d rather say I was taking leaps into a new skin that I had found to be more my own skin that I had ever known before.
As many of you already know, during my travels last time, I was fortunate enough to meet many random people in my adventures. Eventually I started realizing the significance of these encounters, and in reflecting on them realize that so many of those experiences taught me something, so often revealing some little bit of truth. After this realization, I started trying to look at my encounters with those around me as potential lessons in each of those interactions. I honestly believe that the wonderful communities I found myself in both my senior year of college at Valpo as well as at this wonderful camp in Northern Wisconsin this summer, each taught me so much more than I could articulate in a concluding paragraph to a blog post. For all of the lessons I carry with me from those people, from many long discussions and conversations whether over coffee at the tall tables in the Library or a campfire in the woods, I am eternally grateful. The many things I learned from them have served as the basis in which I view my time here in La Rochelle. (I discuss this in the About page as well.) I plan on soaking up every bit of experience I can while I am here, taking everything as a lesson in some way. I want to take time to explore, to marvel, to enjoy certain passions, whether that be a great French meal, a walk with my camera, or a good book from a list of recommendations from some pretty great sources. Knowing my lack of direction, my penchant for misadventures, and some strange gravitation I have towards meaningful encounters with strangers, I am certain my blog will not be wanting when it comes to material for posts. I look very much forward to keeping you all posted to the adventures that await.