What I Learned in Paris
Describing big changes in our lives is always difficult. We're trying to describe what's been an intense emotional and unique experience using intellectual 'tools'. You may remember that 6 months ago I launched Dance with a Muse, my more personal mission to share inspiration. I began in that blog post by describing how I built a new life for myself in 2014. My experience of Paris wasn't just a much needed holiday, but proof to myself as much as anything of how much I've evolved even since then.
Yes, the primary reason to go was to have a holiday, to get away from it all for a few days. Midsummer was the perfect time. Not only did I have a window to get away, being in a new city for the longest days of the year sounded perfect. So it proved. Being away from everything, away from your capability to pick up the demands of your day to day life, is the only way to really have a real holiday. So what did I do? Where did I go? Me being me, museums were definitely on the cards. Musee d'Orsay was a great first day visit. Recommended by a friend, it's a fantastic museum of impressionist art. It's not just paintings though, there's furniture too, and it was interesting to see the two in the same museum.
The Louvre was a very different experience. It had so much in there that the only way to give my visit focus was to limit what I went to see, otherwise it would have been far too much. I spent my time in the Mesopotamian and classical Greek exhibitions. With the Defining Beauty exhibition, dedicated to how the Greeks portrayed the human body, at the British Museum coming to an end, I wanted to see what the Louvre had to offer. There was so much on offer that I didn't know which way to turn. I studied classical Athens, so it was a real highlight.
The Musee de Montmartre was the highlight of my last day. For a while now I've had an interest in the art of the Montmartre period, but I've never delved into it in any way. This wasn't a delving, more a complete submersion. Though the area of Montmartre is starting to develop a bit of tourist servicing, complete with people selling crepes, something of the original spirit of the area survives in the museum. There's so much art there that's so evocative of the period, of completely freewheeling creativity and living, that if you have any appreciation of art, you're likely to be amazed.
The small museum in Notre Dame Cathedral is also worth a look. Though it's small, entry is only 5 Euros, and it's still interesting to see the robes worn at the christening or baptism of Napoleon, Prince Imperial.
Unsurprisingly for Paris, food was also a big factor, beginning with the pastries, fresh apple, and coffee my landlady prepared for me each morning. She was such a wonderful host, kind, and thoughtful. She also refreshed my taste for apple and for blue cheese. My first night in Paris I was looking for somewhere to eat south of the Seine. I had no trouble finding places, but I couldn't find anywhere I felt good about. Finally, I found a place that I liked the look of called Fish La Boissonnerie. The English speaking waiter said they didn't have any seats, but offered me a space at the bar. Behind it was the maître d' who turned out to be from Dundee! While there I heard voices from England, France, America, and Australia. Somehow, I'd selected one restaurant in Paris where people from every country go, which is always a good sign. The fact that the food was delicious was also a good sign. The artichoke meal was delicious! To top it off, as I was finishing off my wine, I got chatting with someone and it turns out he needs help with some website work!
The next evening I ate at a nice place by the Seine. The food wasn't as good in quality as the previous evening, but was still a pretty solid meal. Besides, somehow, sitting there in a place with open frontage right by the road along the Seine, I experienced a rare perfect moment. If you've ever experienced a period of time in which you're not chewing over what you did yesterday or worrying about tomorrow, just living in the moment with no worries or barely any thought of any kind, you'll know what I mean.
Music Day was a completely unexpected experience, one of many. With music events going on all over the country, you can only imagine what it was like in Paris. Though a couple of events over in the Champs-Elysees area proved to be a bust, my landlady in Paris kindly guided me to another event where a whole sequence of acts where performing. This was a lot more fun with the final act I saw, which my landlady is involved with, performing a long set, a lot of it in English. There was music all over the city though, with the area south of Pont des Arts and Pont Neuf a real hot spot.
The obvious thing to say about travel is that it broadens the mind and this is true. You see different cultures, you see different ideas and approaches. For example, as anyone who visits or lives in central London knows, it's really hectic. The pace is high and nobody has any time. There's a corresponding lack of civility too. I've experienced people In London look right at me, able to see that I can't make any more room for them and their friends on the pavement, and still walk into me. This is something that I never experienced in Paris. Granted I wasn't there for long, but there apologies for bumping in me were the norm not the exception. Shops that in London would be open all day would close for 1 - 1.5 hours for lunch in Paris and close an hour earlier in the evening. I found two bookshops that specialise in maritime books no more than 5 minutes walk from each other. In London seeing one shop like that would be exceptional and having 2 so close together 'competing' with each other would be disastrous for both. Whether or not you view any of these aspects as better than London is going to depend upon your perspective. Personally, I found a less pressured pace of life to be not just relaxing, but also a valuable reminder that there's more to life than work.
I also began to notice an interesting connection between art and language in Paris. The way the Musee d'Orsay presents the reactions against art nouveau is that there was a feeling that it was too experimental and lost touch with traditional forms of art. Specifically, it was felt that the French art of decoration had been lost. The next day at breakfast I was chatting with my landlady, a singer and musician, who said that she felt that music should have a little flourish to it, neither thumping a note out nor holding it for too long. I began to hear that sentiment in the French language, those little flourishes that sound beautiful to the ear. Returning to England, English sounded wrong. It sounded really thick and clumsy to the ear.
The most important things though were what I learned about myself. Being thrust into unfamiliar situations and places is challenging. Being outside of my comfort zone when I was on holiday, wanting to make the most of my time, there was no choice but to engage with the world around me. It was interesting being able to remember little bits of French, enough that I became comfortable ordering from a menu, always a vital thing to be able to do! I did the best I could, but enough people in service oriented jobs speak English that it's not do or die. They seem to appreciate people making an effort though, so I stuck with it.
One of the most powerful experiences was getting lost. I walked everywhere, so I started to develop a sense of what was where. That came in vital when on the 20th I got lost twice. The first time my phone's battery had run out and I'd forgotten a map. I found my way back though as I started not far from the restaurant I'd eaten at the previous night. That night though I was in completely unfamiliar territory near Notre Dame Cathedral. I'd packed a map in my backpack, but forgotten my backpack! Again, my phone's battery ran out, so this time I had to find my way back from an area I didn't know at all in the dark. Doing so was a real kick for me, a fantastic sense of achievement. To go into a completely new city and be able to find my way back, on foot for 1.5 miles, with no directions or help of any kind, on just my second day made me feel great. It was only going somewhere new that enabled me to learn that I'm more capable than I'd given myself credit for. I found that I'm capable of drawing upon deep strengths and what I thought was long lost knowledge.
In short, the journey wasn't just fun, but a revelation. I peeled back a few layers of myself and loved what I found. It's great to put yourself in unfamiliar positions and emerge from them feeling that you've triumphed. If you've ever been told on some level that you're not capable, then finding that you are is an amazing experience.
What I also found in Paris is another home. I'd love to visit again and may do so later this year. It's not hard to imagine living there at some point too. I'm wary of anything that makes the special ordinary though and I wouldn't want Paris to become mundane. Whatever Paris is to me in the future though, that does nothing to alter just how incredible this experience was for me.
If you have the opportunity to go somewhere new, especially if English isn't the first language there, then why not take it? As I said at the end of my unveiling of Dance with a Muse, nothing makes me more capable than you. I found that I was more capable than I thought for, and I wouldn't be surprised if you find you're more capable than you think too!
If you've ever thrown yourself into the unknown and triumphed, I'd love to hear about it. You can share the experience with me in the comments.