As Nancy and have been riding the bus to this trip’s destinations, we have recognized cafes, streets, churches where we have enjoyed moments of previous stays in Paris. We’re building a relationship with Paris, little by little — bus ride by bus ride, meal by meal, concert by concert, shop by shop. Yesterday, coming back from the American Cathedral, an Anglican beauty on the right bank, amid 5 star hotels and renowned fashion houses, we recognized the Place Bourbon, where in May we had found ourselves a bit lost, in search of a late lunch, and where we had stopped for a very decent bite to eat at a café right across from this historic building, in a section of Paris we had not previously discovered. There is no reason to go back to that street — nothing it presented to fascinate or mystify us. But it now carries a little heart throb of recognition and remembrance.
I also have a relationship with Paris that dates from before I visited here. Perhaps these are memories about places in Paris that I learned about when I was in school. But sometimes my memory of a place or street name is much sharper and more personal than I would expect from academic studies. It’s almost as if I’m recognizing a place I’ve been before my first visit to Paris in this lifetime.
On the same bus ride during which we passed the Place Bourbon, we also rode down Rue du Vieux Colombier (Street of the Old Dovecote) – one of those street names inexplicably burned into my memory that I know is important for some reason that I can’t remember—a remnant of some earlier experience. The majority of these street names that I learned early on but don’t remember why — like Rue Jacob, Rue de Vaugirard, Rue du Bac — have turned out to be on the Left Bank.
But a few are close to the right Bank splendor of the Champs Elysees. Besides the Champs Elysees itself, the address of the American Cathedral, Avenue George V, is one of those familiar names that I feel I learned about long before I visited Paris, at least in this lifetime. I suspect that the Right Bank addresses have something to do with my first visit to Paris as a Fulbright student. The Elysees area of the Right Bank is the familiar neighborhood of diplomats and of plutocrats like the Rockefellers. But I don’t know why I know the Left Bank streets named above, where I have never actually hung out. I sometimes have an eerie sense that I must have known Paris in another life as well as this one. Who knows?
Today, Nancy and I attended a program on one of the Right Bank streets, at the American Cathedral, where we met another retired American couple who, like us, has been visiting Paris for a month or two each year for the past five years. It was fun to learn how similar our experiences have been. We learned that our friends have a sense of building a life here, in sequential segments, and that now, when they return, they pick up that life where they had left it off on the preceding trip. That struck me as a good way to express what is going on. My own way of perceiving the effect of coming back to Paris repeatedly has been that we are building a relationship with Paris. But really, on reflection, I think we’re all building expanded versions of ourselves.
As a human, I fall easily into habits – ways in which I can act unconsciously, to avoid being challenged. When I follow well-established habits, I feel at ease; I then have the time to enjoy my illusory sense of competence. Putting myself into a different habitat, as it were, forces me to reinvent each response as I go along. I try, I fail, then I retry in a slightly different way, until I find new success, and remember what I did right, to start establishing a new habit, a new short cut to living the present moment. But the better job I can do staying aware, the more I am able to grow in depth of experience. By coming back to Paris, I am creating new habits of being. In so doing, I also create tension between my two inner sets of habits, one American and the other French. In this way, i repeatedly force myself into “Beginner’s Mind” – where I have to pay attention to the details in each moment – I can’t simply fall back on the comfort of old habits!
The process of deepening my awareness by returning to the same situation for different experiences and, in the process, building a life or a self, or a relationship is one philosophy of travel, one that emphasizes ongoing growth and challenge. Another approach to travel is to enjoy the constant stimulation of always visiting new places. It feels to me as if doing this would allow me to experience the world from a stable relationship with myself, without challenging or changing my perceptual habits. This could also be enjoyable, from a different point of view. These contrasting travel philosophies target different personal objectives. I’m enjoying the challenges and gratifications of the path that I’ve chosen. I’m loving the process of building, reinforcing, and living from a French side of myself.