Here’s how to visit a place: Arrive in city, drop luggage off at hostel, wander around, grab regionally-specific food, look inside a religious site, visit cultural landmarks, sample more food, marvel at local architecture, return to hostel, pack, leave and repeat.
Can you boil the act of traveling down to these things alone? Sometimes I think the answer is yes, and traveling is just performing the same activities over and over but with the backdrop of a different landscape each time.
Since arriving in January in Aix-en-Provence, France, to study here for the semester, I’ve had the opportunity to spend weekends traveling to other parts of France and Europe.
In most ways, it’s amazing. In the two hours it takes me to drive from my hometown of Muncie, Indiana, to Bloomington, I can travel to an entirely different country, complete with a different language and culture. On the other hand, after doing this for a few months, I’ve grown suspicious of the authenticity of it all. I wonder if it’s just a song and dance lacking substance.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m harboring a lot of guilt for these doubts. After all, I’m well aware traveling is a privilege, and this awareness comes with an acute sense of duty to enjoy myself, dammit. On a larger cultural level, we seem to hold the idea traveling must be nothing but relentless joy, filled with good eats, cultural discovery and relaxation.
Often in a new place, though, I find myself riddled with anxieties. Am I appreciating what’s before my eyes enough? Is this the experience I should be having?
No place has encapsulated all of these concerns for me like Paris has.
For us Americans, Paris is the epitome of French culture, supposedly capable of sweeping you off your feet thanks to its reputation as a place of romance and style.
It’s also replete with a laundry list of “must-dos”: the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Notre-Dame and Sacré Cœur, just for starters. In this way, Paris maps itself out before you’ve stepped foot on one of its boulevards. It’s built to disappoint.
For me, the city felt more like an obligation than a place to be discovered and relished. When I visited in January, I felt the pressure of that obligation to see all the things, take in all the sight and have a good time.
Don’t get me wrong, all of those storied monuments and priceless pieces of art were cool. But what captivated me most came at a surprising moment.
In the few hours I had left in the city before hopping on my train back to Aix-en-Provence, I decided to stop by the Musée de Cluny, a museum dedicated to medieval art, to check out the “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries. There are six in total, each featuring a noblewoman and a unicorn interacting in some way.
Since it’s slightly off the beaten path, the museum wasn’t crowded when I visited. The exhibition room was dark except for the small lights illuminating the tapestries. Thanks to the sound-absorbing quality of the tapestries’ heavy fabric, the room felt holy, reverential.
I sat on the bench in front of them for a long time, absorbing all their different elements, from the intricate floral backgrounds to the enigmatic relationship between the lady and the unicorn. In the tapestry “Sight,” she helps the unicorn gaze at itself in a mirror, and in “Touch,” the unicorn is dog-like in its devotion to her. They fascinated me, and I loved analyzing them.
In short, it was a quiet, private moment of peace I still think back to months later.
I think this is what we chase while traveling: unexpected encounters with things that feel both familiar and alien, utterly recognizable and totally new. Something we’ve never seen before that feels like we have. And it’s what makes wading through the doubts and worries worthwhile.