Friday, May 2, 2008

Getting Lost in Paris


On my third day in Paris, I got lost. I didn’t mean to; it just happened.

I’d started early and joined the morning crowd at the Musée d’Orsay. After a breathtaking journey through the visions of French Impressionists, I ventured by bus to the Champ du Mars and climbed the Eiffel Tower to see Paris from the perspective of the Gods: a wheeled mosaic of art, magic and scene. Then I decided to walk home from there. I thought my adventure was over; in truth, it had just begun…

As I wound my way down a tree-lined street, the flower blossoms rained down with the fragrant breeze, painting the cobblestones in pale shades of diaphanous pink. A young couple sat wrapped around each other on a bench, kissing.

It suddenly struck me that I was in Paris in the springtime; and I was alone.
 It was just an observation. It didn’t make me sad or uncomfortable; I’ve traveled a great deal on my own and have enjoyed the edgy play on my mind and soul that solitude in a strange place brings.

Philosopher Mark Kingwell wrote, “travel is a drug, and not just because it can be addictive. More because it alters consciousness, dilates the mind and maybe even rewires the cerebral cortex…going somewhere different from home [is] the best way to challenge your habitual ways of thinking.”

I’d come to Paris to research the current book I was writing—ironically about a young girl who can alter history. Why ironically? Because, somehow, I firmly believe that my experience in this beautiful and evocatively artistic city has altered my “history”. Certainly my perspective. Paris, with its Neo-Classical architecture, quaint cobble streets, and stylish Parisians, lends itself to a wandering eye and finally to introspection. For Kingwell, “somewhere beyond the contrived, comfortable cityscapes, we’ll encounter a potentially more profound version of ourselves.” Paris, like the Parisians, is a seductive dance. It is so attractive to view. But ultimately one must participate to fully experience it.

I don’t know when I finally noticed that I had no idea where I was. It just happened. Along one of Paris’s charming narrow cobble streets as the Hausmann-style buildings blushed in the sunset, I found myself utterly lost.

The sky’s light shades of peach gave way to a deeper shade of ochre as I walked on, feeling more and more a stranger and more and more self-conscious that I was. I wasn’t dressed fashionably. Oh, I had the obligatory scarf and stylish leather jacket; but I lacked the finesse of these Parisians who glided confidently along the darkening streets that were familiar to them. The sounds, sights and smells of this foreign city heightened in a frisson of increasing tension. I refused to let the darkness take me, though, and let my feet lead me on, confident that I would find something. This was Paris, after all…

“Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal,” wrote Walter Benjamin. “It requires ignorance—nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city—as one loses oneself in a forest—that calls for quite a different schooling.” A school for questions, not answers, says Kingwell. I’d come to Paris with questions, many questions; some of which I would not answer. Perhaps the most important ones. I’d come with the hubristic ambition of defining Paris. But I humbly discovered that to define Paris is to define life…and oneself.

Paris unfolds like an impressionist canvas, to be interpreted through experience. She is an aria, both exquisite and haunting, like the lingering aftertaste in the back of my throat of a complex bitter-sweet Bordeaux. I lost myself willingly to her mystery. “Real travel,” says Kingwell, “means we must surrender expectations and submit to chance, to challenge our desires, not merely satisfy existing ones…Leaving home ought to be, above all…that plunge into otherness. Becoming strange to ourselves is the gateway to seeing how dependent on strangers we are for our identities…Getting lost to yourself might be the best way to find out who you are.”

Mark Kingwell’s latest book is Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City.




Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.

8 comments:

Jean-Luc Picard said...

I've seen the Impressionists at the Musee D'Orsay. They were wonderful.

sfgirl said...

Awesome, Jean-luc! You've been everywhere! I should have guessed! :)

writtenwyrdd said...

I spent a week alone in Paris during Feb of 2004. Had a blast. Your pictures brought back memories. Have fun.

Footsteps said...

Traveling with a "familiar stranger" (one's self) should be a mandatory life experience. It's like doing the first day of school thing as a grown-up and can be incredibly satisfying. We get to test the wisdom and confidence we've scraped up over the years in tangible ways.
Looking forward to your next post (and this next book!!) Nina...

sfgirl said...

I did have fun, Writtenwyrdd. Thanks! And well said, Heather. I so agree. Traveling alone is so much more condusive to extra-sensory experience. Everything is sensed with so much more intensity. I traveled much of England on my own and it was wonderful. Met so many more people because I was alone: "HEY, luv! You lost then? Come along, ducky, we'll give you a lift to town!"

sfgirl said...

Oh, by the way, I DID find my way home that evening (a friend asked me) and I was never terribly lost--how can you be in Paris?. As for Paris: "I never rebel so much against France as not to regard Paris with a friendly eye; she has had my heart since my childhood.... I love her tenderly, even to her warts and her spots. I am French only by this great city: the glory of France, and one of the noblest ornaments of the world."-Michel de Montaigne

Kurt said...

My girlfriend and I just went to Paris a month ago. It was my first trip abroad, and absolutely wonderful. Thanks for your take on your trip :)

flickr

sfgirl said...

Thanks, Kurt. Glad you had a great time there. I so miss Paris! (Want to live there eventually...) You might be interested to read my other post on Paris, at this link: http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.com/2008/05/falling-for-paris.html
All the best,
Nina