Transformative Travel

Parisian Perspective

Photo via Matthew Steele

This winter, my partner Andrea and I went to Paris for one transformative week. We went in January, which is usually the time of year that we combat seasonal mood dips with a trip to see my father in Florida, but an email last spring alerting us to special off-season rates ($480 each, round trip from Chicago to Paris!) persuaded us to switch it up a bit.

Between work and keeping up with our somewhat far-flung family, Andrea and I are lucky enough to travel a fair amount. But this trip to Paris was immediately special for a few reasons: We had no reason to go, I’d never been, and it’s Andrea’s favorite city on Earth.

We started practicing our French when we got on I-88, headed to O’Hare.

“Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Good day,” “Good night.”

We got to the phrase, “How is it going?” and discovered that the negative answer, “It’s not going well,” (“Ça ne va pas”) sounded like “suh-nuh-vuh-pah,” a delightful improvement on the English phrase with a similar meaning. We were just getting started but we already had a useful phrase for the next time one of us stubbed our toe, or got a papercut — and we had our trip’s first inside joke.

We were feeling pretty great — a young couple in love, on their way to Paris — but we also needed the jokes. When we bought the tickets last spring, we couldn’t have predicted that everything we stand for — environmental protection, support for public schools, progress toward universal health care, cultural pluralism, rule of law (Andrea’s an attorney), freedom of the press (I publish Little Village, an independent newspaper based in Iowa City) — would soon go up for referendum… and we would lose.

Similar events such as Brexit might have indicated that a toxic blend of economic anxiety and cruel rhetoric against refugees was also emboldening ethno-nationalist factions in Europe, but we still worried how we would be perceived as U.S. citizens following the November election of a president who ran on a promise to literally build a wall around our country.

In January, the streets of Paris are quiet. With few tourists around and most of the city on vacation, we shared quiet nights in restaurants exchanging views with Parisians across the political spectrum. We gave to the homeless, most of whom seemed to be refugees, and saw signs of resistance scrawled on the walls throughout the city. We absorbed a sense that “American Exceptionalism,” had come to an end, and saw the U.S. for what, perhaps, it always was: just one front in a complicated, international and intersectional struggle for a just future.

Amid all of our uncertainty, Paris gave us heaping spoonfuls of perspective and space on its quiet wintry sidewalks to think and feel the age of its cobblestones, all the city had been through.

Linguistic limitations aside, we had some very heartfelt interactions. For example, the elderly security guard who held the door for Andrea as we entered San Chappelle Cathedral.

“Bonjour!” he greeted us and we responded in kind, using our best accents.

“Where are you from?” He leaned in to ask in English; Andrea answered bravely.

With a twinkle in his eye and a devious smile, he went straight to the hot topic: “Donald Trump?” And Andrea’s quick, unexpected reply drew a laugh from him so rich and warm that, for a moment, it mended all of our souls:

“Ça ne va pas!”

Most Memorable Moment

The fairy tale ending: I asked Andrea to marry me while we were there. I had just finished grad school in December, so having survived that, I knew we were meant to be. I also knew she was a saint, and I was going to need a lot of luck. I took the chance at Chez Papa, an old jazz club in St. Germaine, while the band played “Unforgettable” at my special request. She said “yes,” there was a champagne toast, and we are now living happily ever after.

My Recommendation

If you go to Paris in January, expect a lot of rain. Make your way to Chez Papa. You might have a bucket on your table catching raindrops, but it will be worth it — you’ll feel the authenticity of this space (in an alley, off an alley, off an alley) that feels like it’s been a performance venue since the mud walls were first put in place.

This article was originally published in the YogaIowa’s Spring 2017 issue.


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