I went for a run around the gardens yesterday, listening to sparrows chirping and pigeons cooing (I like to think of it as doves cooing, but let’s face it—they’re pigeons.) Children were sailing boats in the largest fountain; they seemed to be directing them with bamboo sticks, but the mechnics were mysterious. I found a shaded nook around a smaller fountain that I’d never noticed–the sound of water blocked out even the hint of traffic noise.
When I first started travelling, I had a sense of a to-do list—what attractions I needed to check off. Now it seems like the stuff you see—museums, monuments, churches—are rarely the most satisfying moments of the trip. When I’m visiting a place, I want to try to understand, in some small way, what it feels like to live there, to be a part of it. There’s a pleasure in developing your own rituals in a new city. It’s that process of discovery that I love. When you find your own favorite café, your own spot to read in the gardens, your own running route, you claim those things. You claim a part of the city for yourself. Granted, probably millions of people before you have discovered these same nooks and crannies and secrets, but as long as you made the discovery, it’s like you’re the only one who’s ever done it. Sort of like falling in love.
And, along the same lines, there’s the joy of deciphering the little codes of behavior in a new place. After a few days we’ve mastered the following puzzles: how to open the subway doors (opening and closing doors and figuring out how to operate faucets and soap dispensers and lights are always a big part of the code). Where you fill up your water bottle at the public fountains. That only blind people are supposed to push the button on the crosswalks that makes the traffic light talk to you and tell you when to cross (we’re Americans—we like to push buttons.) You learn how to get around without a map (within a very precise area, at least). You learn some of the (endless) finer points of language: You don’t say “I’d like another” if you’re ordering coffee—you say “The same thing.” Actually, you say “La meme chose” or just “la meme.” All the little stresses of early in the trip—how do you know if you seat yourself (you always do), how do you ask for the bill, how do you ask for tap water, how do you buy subway tickets—fade into a sort of—almost—confidence. As much confidence as you can have when your French is still like a baby’s.
But to throw on running clothes, run down to Luxembourg Gardens—mapless—make a couple of loops around the park, stop at my favorite bakery for croissants, then grab a nectarine and a pear at a fruit stand as I walked home…that’s a fantastic morning in Paris.