When we travel someplace where a language barrier exists, I often find that the experience of that place is explained to me by my surroundings. We are guided by the bustle of unspeaking commuters, we’re told how a culture emotes by their architecture, and learn what they love by what they promote to prominence.
It’s a language that is often wrought with political overtones. New countries with passionate leaders and a desire to put on a fresh, but altogether sterile face on their countries. Alternatively, we’re met by the unfortunate tale of a country rich with character, but perhaps less privileged with infrastructure, doing its best impression of whatever benefactor government happens to see the geopolitical significance of the terrain it’s subsidizing.
Rarely, I would claim, have we found a place that is what we think it is, but is altogether more. Namibia comes to mind as I think of our most recent adventure. It claimed the world’s most desolate coast line and an interior hardened to even the simple human endeavor of occupation. What it delivered was so much more. We found isolation, we were in quiet like we’ve never seen. What wasn’t promised was an insight to the quirky humanity that made Namibia work and an opportunity to see just what we can learn, see, and hear when we’re really all alone.
Then there is Paris…
I’m not sure where you’ve been living if you haven’t heard a romantic description of the city of love. Somewhere in childhood I think most of us learn the emotional survival tactic of girding ourselves against the disappointment of the realities that follow fantastic tales. I was crushed when I learned that Disney Land was animatronic — woeful that flight simulators were nothing more than screens and a mildly responsive set of hydraulic actuators — and I’ll say nothing about the farce of holiday heroes.
We prepare ourselves for the worst.
Sadly, I came to Paris with a similar skepticism. It was validated in Charles de Gaulle airport, but what followed was far more than I’d imagined, and it left me disappointed that I hadn’t dreamed.
Admittedly, you’ve seen Paris before. You’ve seen grand buildings, you’ve seen grand, open parkways, and you’ve seen quaint side streets. I felt the same when we started walking around, but — just like that first time you get your hand on something you’ve pined for — you realize everything else was facsimile.
When you realize that every note of architecture, of art, of food, or anything else that hints of Paris came after this place, you begin to warm to the place you’re in. You accept it as the original and you explore it. You lean out of its perimeter and you wander into the adjacent. You find Luxembourg, and the country side, and you begin to understand why Monet painted water lilies, why Picasso glazed plates, and why this place has the glint of western tyrants’ eyes.
Paris is itself and it is more — and we never exchanged a word.