I am not supposed to be in Paris. I am supposed to be in Vienna. There should be a lullaby-sounding Austrian voice asking me if I would like Grosser Brauner with my breakfast? And another voice discoursing on the superiority of coffee in Europe. Which I would agree with wholeheartedly.
Lufthansa, in a shocking display of disorder and randomness, was quite certain I was going to Vienna via Frankfurt.
“I am going to Paris, trust me, I would know.” In a last-minute flurry of quiet chaos, I boarded.
A French voice prays quietly, the sound echoing in the still, damp air: Notre Père qui es aux cieux, que ton nom soit sanctifié, que ton règne vienne, que ta volonté sit soit faite sur la terre comme au ciel. I find myself going through the old famliar motions even in another language. I know the timing of this prayer by heart. I feel tears coursing their way down my cheeks and I am helpless to stop them. I think the woman beside me knows her fellow pew sitter is not intentionally attending noon mass but since she is a woman of faith assumes there must be a reason nonetheless that I am there and a reason that I am falling apart. She turns away, kneels, and holds her rosary close to her lips.
I joked to my friends that this was my Eat Pray Paris journey but as I leave the church and stop at the first boulangerie I see, I realize it is, in fact, my second croissant of my first day in Paris and that it might be mostly Eat Paris and less Pray Paris. Healing a broken heart via butter is highly underrated.
Each day, I cannot wait to devour the city with a kind of hunger I’d not had for anything in a long time. Unplugging from my digital life allows a tidal wave of emotions to pour in, and it’s as though all of my senses are suddenly freed to focus on being versus tweeting to someone out there or engaging with the digital ether and not the tastes in my mouth, sounds in my ears, or colours before my eyes.
I am besotted with real life. I let my iPhone die and walk past the lobby computer on my way out the door to the waiting street life. Love seems to be everywhere and it comforts me; the sweet expressions exchanged mid-bridge, or on the train, or ambling through the Jardin des Tuileries…I send tiny prayers to each of them for their love to blossom.
Walking becomes my healing mantra. Walking in Paris isn’t like other cities; it is an entirely sensual experience. It requires all of you, and I am happy to give over my self completely. Coming back to Paris as a grown woman, a madame versus a mademoiselle, I see the city with such different eyes. Francis Bacon once wrote that “Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience.” As a solo traveller, I become a kind of voyeur, lost anonymously in the crowds or sitting at a sidewalk cafe, watching Parisians rush by on bicycles, expertly navigating the traffic with a kind of insouciance that says, this is perfectly natural and yes, I can look this fabulous while doing it.
I take the train and bus and often have no idea where I am going or if I am on the right side of the tracks. It doesn’t matter: why I am here is not to get to a physical destination but rather an interior one and a train going one way or another will not determine where I end up.
Since I also happen to be on assignment to write about Paris for a travel website that wants my ‘top ten’, I use this as my only itinerary and I decide to write it from the point-of-view of a female, solo-traveller–what else?–and first on the list is antique jewelry shopping. What I am really doing is searching for a ring. I decided before I came to Paris that I would commit to my own life, in a way I had not before, having allowed my self to be swept up in others’ dreams and desires that left me bereft of my own.
Sometimes rituals are needed to give substance to transformations: Paris is a good place to marry your self.
Luckily, there are amazing shops that have been around for a few hundred years that carry every kind of ring imaginable; some of the stock would cost you the price of your North American house, but if you can afford it, there’s baubles that were around during Madame Bonaparte’s time.
I walk until I can’t walk anymore. My feet are burning, on fire with blisters, and no, it isn’t because I am wearing heels, but rather that each street, and around ever corner, there is another beautiful story I cannot stop myself from experiencing.
It is hard not to eat on every street so I opt for coffee instead of more buttery croissants. I’m not always successful; pain au chocolat winks at me from every window, and every bite is so delicious I succumb to its flaky, sweet, sticky, charm. I can also drink coffee all day and not feel remotely sick as I would from my Canadian coffee. I take a shot of espresso with nothing in it. Voila! Another few miles are left in me after all. When I can walk no further, I stop and have a single glass of wine and take out my notebook and lose myself in writing longhand. My wrist asks the question, what is this thing between my fingers? at the beginning of the week but by the end has remembered the exquisite pleasure of writing on paper.
Reluctantly, I take a tour out to the Champagne region. I say reluctantly because it is difficult to leave the one you love at dawn, crawl out of a warm bed and into a dark, cold van, and I did not feel happy about leaving my beloved Paris even for one day. We pick up a couple a few miles from my hotel who are agreeable enough, but I cringe a little at the thought of several more couplelanders crammed into the small van together for a day but to my delight there are no more stops and we drive out into the country to immerse ourselves in a day of champagne. We go from high to low, field to bottle, and even stop on the Avenue du Champagne for one of the most caloric lunches of my life. I drink Bollinger like it’s an everyday thing and I think: I am distilling this moment to keep in my mind forever.
In my last days in Paris I am aware of the time passing, slipping through my fingers, and I hold onto each moment the way you hold a loved one’s shirt to your face, breathing in all of them to the bottom of your heart. I’ve found a ring and like the way it catches light, refracting the sadness I came here with. I let go and embrace what was asking me to grow; like vines just beginning, I could see the work I needed to do now, and what fields I would leave to grow wild. I will always love the passionate bloom, but had to release the thorns that I’d held so tightly for so long.
If I lived here the rest of my life it would not be enough time to love it as completely as I need and want to. Until next time Paris, mon cheri.