A lucky friend of mine is taking a history class here on the evolution of Paris; her main coursework consists of taking field trips around the city and directly examining its architecture. A few weeks ago, she recounted a story of her professor standing with them on Île Saint-Louis (a small island in the middle of the Seine River) as he uncharacteristically broke into English, encouraging them to wander around the neighborhood. “I say ‘wandeur’ in zhe truest sense of zhe word – get lost, walk aimlessly and soak in what you come across. Sadly, we ’ave no true French equivalent of zhe word,” he [apparently] explained. Of course, as I listened to the story, I thought it sounded like solid advice, right in line with that romantic idealization we all hold of what it must be like to have Paris and all its riches at your fingertips, with months of time to relish it…
And relish I have. Well, on a few occasions I’ve relished. However, it occurred to me this past week, when I was (perhaps ironically) traveling out of France for winter break, that my Parisian life has been a little lacking in relish (and any other condiment, for that matter), at least compared to what I had originally expected. Lame puns and abstract thinking aside, let me try to explain myself better. There are many moments here when I just want to stop the world for a second and pinch myself, but there are also plenty of moments when I focus so much on embracing my Parisian identity and on trying desperately to not look like a foreigner that I overlook the benefits that come with allowing myself to sport that Hawaiian-print shirt and fanny pack while brandishing a street map like nobody’s business (metaphorically, of course).
Fortunately, I more or less indulged this philosophy while on my trip to Brussels, Bruges and Amsterdam. Once we got on the tram in Brussels, I wasn’t afraid to smile at other passengers (which would normally be a dead giveaway that I’m American in Paris) and when we happened upon the breath-taking municipal buildings at La Grande Place, I wasn’t ashamed to gawk at their architectural detail and then get down on my hands and knees for ten minutes so I could get a decent picture of what I was witnessing. In the tiny, medieval, and charming Bruges, it didn’t bother me that I overpaid for a pot of mussels (a regional specialty) and I didn’t let pouring rain put much of a damper on my spirits; on the contrary, I was of the opinion that it made the canals much more fun to stare at! And by the time we got to Amsterdam, doing the whole wandering-tourist thing became my job: openly laughing at how wonderfully funny Dutch sounded to my ears, scrutinizing souvenir shops until my postcard collection seemed complete, participating in an obnoxiously large, but incredibly fun free walking tour of the city, and taking advantage of cheesy and not-so-cheesy photo ops at every cultural idiosyncrasy I encountered.
What resulted was a week full of pure tourism bliss, largely due to my decision to finally let go (a little bit) of my need to control everything and of my tendency to be so self-aware. Having completed this exercise in “wandering,” I think I have since been able to appreciate Paris once again with that long sought-after, wide-eyed admiration. This week my goals weren’t simply to get from Point A to Point B; instead I focused on the benefits of wandering around like a tourist. I walked down the beautiful Haussmannian boulevards with my neck craned toward all the balconies. I lingered for a few extra hours in the Louvre after my art history class to rediscover the buildings medieval foundations. I didn’t mind staring at a map of metro connections as I used my finger to trace the new route I was about to take. A few times I took a wrong turn on purpose just to see where it would lead me. Wandering may not actually be a French concept, but even so, it appears to work wonders.