Sometimes it feels as though my days are made up of running errands. Dashing from one place to another on foot slows the process, which means I get less accomplished in a day. Paradoxically, not having a car makes this daily list of to-do’s less stressful. I don’t have to deal with the anxiety of thoughtless drivers, clueless pedestrians (with their heads down in their phone rather than looking where they’re going). Aggressive delivery motorcycle drivers and wobbly tourists on rental scooters add to the chaos that I blissfully ignore when I’m walking or taking a metro.
I have returned from two weeks away, in Amsterdam and then Paris. I averaged 15 kilometers of walking each day as I was the epitome of le flaneur, exploring neighborhoods, observing city life, and gazing at masterpieces in museums.
My mostly aimless wandering gave me a good feeling for the heartbeat of the cities, particularly Paris. I’ve never been a Francophile, like some of my friends. I usually gravitate toward the antiquity of cities like Rome and Lisbon. While I like Paris, I never really understood the fussy obsession.
The Aesthetics of Everyday Things
After five days of slow travel in the “City of Lights,” stopping at any shop window that drew my curiosity, or popping into a tea salon that had a compelling pastry in the window, I began to recognize the Parisian mystique.
I became captivated by how beautiful it was, nearby and close-up. Yes, the Eiffel Tower is iconic. The Notre Dame, blackened and surrounded by scaffolding, is heartbreaking. The Louvre is impressive.
But what had my attention was the fruit vendor who had carefully arranged the jewel-like citrus in wooden crates.
It was the fishmonger who had lined up the fresh prawns like soldiers in tidy coral-colored rows on crushed ice. It was the shop that sold jams, jellies and preserves. Each jar was topped with a little fabric square tied around the lid. The Chinese food shop proudly displayed a rainbow of dumplings in bamboo steamer baskets.
These lovingly arranged tableaux are only available to the wanderer who is willing to pay attention. We often find ourselves traveling far and wide to see new sites. We charge through new places checking off the ‘must see’ spots, taking the requisite selfies to make our social media networks envious.
The Journey vs. the Destination
Meanwhile, back at home, we go about our days with the same mission-focused ardor. We drive hither and yon, cursing everyone else on the road (remember, “you are the traffic.”). Raise your hand if you have ever driven somewhere but don’t recall actually getting there because your mind was on a million other things.
A day or an afternoon of wandering, with no particular destination, can open new wonders. To simply stroll for its own benefit, not for exercise or to get somewhere, but just to allow a place to unfold before you, may even give you a window to yourself.
“People travel to wonder
at the height of the mountains,
at the huge waves of the seas,
at the long course of the rivers,
at the vast compass of the ocean,
at the circular motion of the stars,
and yet they pass by themselves
without wondering. ”