The French have this word: flanerie. (Pretend there’s a little carat over the a.) It means something along the lines of “wandering the streets in search of something new.”
I spent the first ten days of May doing things that, for me, only used to exist in movies and dreams. I visited Europe for the first time in my life.
Embracing my inner cheeseball, I tried to do it all, albeit as unobtrusively as possible. I walked across Abbey Road, marveled up at the Eiffel Tower, took high tea at Kensington Palace (well, in its yard, anyway), got lost in Le Marais, ate dinner in a crypt, stood face to face with the Rosetta Stone, climbed down the towers of Gaudi’s most famed cathedral, ate half my weight in tapas, drank twice my weight in wine, and wandered around Rodin’s backyard, rubbing my right eye like a madwoman.*
In short: with boyfriend, camera and insatiable sense of wanderlust in tow, I tried desperately to pack the highlights of London, Paris and Barcelona into a ten-day trip and pull it off like a traveler instead of a tourist. Strictly speaking, I think that’s probably impossible to do. By definition, if you go to a city that’s foreign to you and make a point of seeing, say, at least five of the ten things on any given “top ten things to do” list, you’re a goddamn tourist whether you like it or not. It doesn’t matter if you left your bright white sneakers, dark socks and flip-up sunglasses at home; it doesn’t matter if you try to be discreet with your map and speak the language as best you can while apologizing for your lack of eloquence; it doesn’t matter if you try to take up as little space on the metro as possible and not stop like a jerk in the middle of the sidewalk every time you see something interesting, causing a logjam behind you full of locals just trying to get home from their jobs. If you think it matters that you make a point of going off the beaten path and experiencing the local culture as best you can, just listening and observing and absorbing like a sponge instead of hopping on a tour bus and snap, snap, snapping away, you’re wrong. Well, strike that – you’re right, and all that stuff matters a lot. Regardless, you’re probably a tourist. Still, I tried like hell not to be one while I flanerie‘d my butt off.
It helped a lot, I admit, that B speaks a little French and I speak a bit of Spanish. Neither of us speaks Catalan, though, so visiting Barcelona was a lot like touring another planet. A picturesque, internally energized planet full of the most brilliant food ever concocted, that is. Nonetheless, despite the facts that our spines and legs were burning at the end of each day, that every city threw us some sort of “you stupid American”-style setback we had to smack ourselves for and gingerly step around with a nod and a terse-lipped “duly noted for next time,” and (*)that a godforsaken sty (a STY!!!) blurred my vision from the moment we set foot in Rodin’s garden until we woke up on a sleeper train in Spain the next morning, I’ll never remember this trip as anything less than magical. Something about the push and pull of a new experience — especially one as overstimulating as this — is a lot like getting a new eyeglasses prescription; you thought you were seeing things pretty clearly before, but actually you were way more myopic than you knew, and now everything’s in much sharper focus.
Every time I see a person without a home begging for money or just looking defeated on the side of the road, whether it’s in Austin or anywhere else, my heart breaks for them in probably much the same way a five-year-old’s does. Particularly in Paris, we encountered a lot of them, and every time we did, I felt even more sheepish about the stupid things I’d gotten irritated over earlier in the day (damn this stupid lens cap, why the hell is it raining, OMG the Louvre is closed today) and guilty for being so ungrateful for all the luxuries I enjoy.
I think that guilt informs a lot of what I write. I think the fact that I grew up in a family that didn’t really travel makes me feel compelled to go as many places as I can, but it also makes me emphatically aware that not everybody gets to just hop on a plane when they want to. I’ll admit I’ve got a few things going for me: a) the fact that I have no kids, b) the fact that I don’t own a home and kind of don’t care about signing a mortgage on anything, ever, and c) the fact that my first long, lean year of freelancing seems to be turning into something self-sustaining and not so scary after all. To say I’m thankful for all these things would be an understatement. To say I’m both inspired and a little paralyzed by this trip would be another.
On Tuesday, we spent some time wandering around the Musee Rodin — easily the coolest museum I’ve ever seen, mainly because it’s set in the man’s old house, with an amazing array of sculptures arranged carefully throughout a labyrinth of gardens in what was once essentially his backyard. I don’t know a lot about Rodin, but from what I could gather from the afternoon, he was quite the egomaniac, and a total , *total* player. But aside from all of that, he was also ridiculously talented. So were the folks who designed the Eiffel Tower, even though lots of their contemporaries thought it was the ugliest piece of crap they’d ever seen. So was Jim Morrison, whose grave we didn’t get a chance to visit but who rests in Paris all the same… and Picasso, and the Beatles, and Proust, and on and on. The same can be said for every artist, musician and writer, both noted and unsung, who ever called those places home: they were all ridiculously talented, and they all contributed something interesting — even transformative — to the world. Smacked in the face with all of their accomplishments, one after another after another in the span of just over a week, my thoughts started interrupting one another like crossed telephone lines. As badly as I wanted to just stop in the middle of the Rue du Saint-Germain and start creating something, too, in the back of my mind I kept thinking, “But what in the world am I supposed to be saying? What kind of a mark could I ever leave with my life?” Because those of us who write don’t always know what the hell we’re writing, or even really why; sometimes we just sit down behind the wheel and the car ends up driving itself. We write because we have to. The words are a little like sweat, cooling us off from whatever’s generating all that heat inside.
We’re crazy people just trying to breathe.
That’s what I’ve been doing lately… sweating my ass off and seeing where this car can go. I haven’t written much here in the past few months, mainly because I’ve been transitioning my small writing projects into larger ones, taking on meatier work with clients, and diving back into the book I started almost four years ago — now, finally, with a plan to get it published. Paying the rent as a writer is more than I ever could have imagined back in high school, college, or even (make that *especially*) in those drab, endless days when I was trying to fit myself into the box of a 9-to-6 life. But now that I think I’ve found some footing, I’m taking more risks and living more life. I think it’ll pay off in the end… because I’m starting to realize something. The contribution I want to make to the world through the things that I write is this: a message that anyone can do anything they set their mind to with a little patience, a smidgen of luck, a dedication to their craft and a hell of a lot of hard work. I won’t have sculptures in a garden that people pay money to see, but I’ll leave behind words that, god willing, might help people believe in their voice.
My story’s not that sexy. I’m not a rabble-rousing womanizer with a warehouse full of marble or a mop-topped songwriter from Liverpool, but I’ve still got something to tell you. It may take a little while before I can whisper it all in one go, but rest assured I’m making sure I use all the right words when I do.