Photo source: Susie Anderson
When people ask you to tell travel stories you fall into this kind of awful routine. Practised punchlines, guaranteed wow moments. My go-to line telling my travel stories this year is “I went to Paris for one night, because of April in Paris”. Most people I say this to do an appreciative nod in return like we both understand each other. Like on a different level. But I kind of forgot what April in Paris is, whether it’s a movie or a book or a song or whatever. Picturing Frank Sinatra in my mind for some reason.
I went to Paris about ten years ago I guess, with my family, and did all the sightseeing things with them. So when I arrived at my AirBnb in Montmarte after a harrowing, hungover day – missing a Megabus from Brussels to Paris and having to buy my mates 150 euro train tickets back to London – I felt no pressure or desire hit the town immediately. In fact, after ascertaining that the lady whose flat I was staying in had a baby, I scoured the place for some nappy rash cream to put on the tattoo I acquired the previous day in Brussels.
For me travel is an attempt to be lost from yourself. You have minimal possessions. You are mobile. You have to be alert. Because you are present, it is this consistently meditative situation. You bring with you things that seem vital. For me these things were: clothes, notebooks, laptop, one book (1Q84), toiletries, phone and maps. Not Bepanthen.
In addition to simply staring out windows and just looking, for hours on end, I was listening to podcasts every time I took a bus or a train. One that stood out featured Alain de Botton speaking about how atheists and agnostics need to create a system that helps people go into life without despair. Seemed to me like he was saying something like: human lives require structure and guidance, so we can derive hope, morality, contentment and safety, among other things, and suggested that we seek these things in culture. In literature, music, architecture, design, human achievements. Or something.
When you travel anywhere in Europe you inevitably find yourself diminutive beneath a gothic (or some such) cathedral. You wander in to have a gander at some intricate mosaic and often end up sitting amongst hushed crowds, getting stuck as a service takes place on the hour. I sat contentedly in the Sacre Coer, in silence, watching people pray, thinking about what people must be thinking about me. Whisperings of different languages as a soundtrack. Soothing, to let the sounds of foreign tongues keep you company.
Sometimes it’s stressful being in a country where English isn’t spoken widely. Often I felt dumb or rude in shops when people would start prattling away in their native tongue and I didn’t have the guts to say an apologetic “I don’t speak English” phrase auf Deutsch or en Francaise that had been last night’s lullaby. Your brain gets stuck halfway between this world of [foreign language] and English.
I slipped into this world of translation, where the English world is on mute, and your inner monologue is free to careen wherever it wants to. My spoken English became simpler as I let my sentence structure change to the way I heard Europeans speak English. And the lilting tones of foreign languages accompany your thoughts. If you can’t be bothered tuning into the other language, you can be surrounded by a crowd of people and be far, far away.
Walking through streets of Paris was beautiful. The tourist bustle had an eeriness to it with half of the shops closed for the Easter holiday. Mostly I avoided the major tourist destinations. But I did sit for nearly an hour in the Tuileries just reclining, listening to snippets of English, watching people on their way to the Louvre or fulfil their Paris dream and remembering that scene in Paris, je t’aime.
For me the experience of going into an art museum is almost religious. Sometimes it occurred to me – after Alain de Botton – that these places were essentially my version of a church. It was this combination of a lightbulb moment and an ephemeral thought in my mind that I basically thought, went “huh” and moved on from, just like the art I was looking at in the galleries.
When I leave my place in the world I feel minimised by the history and culture I encounter. Along with feeling this small, I really felt the frivolous and almost pointless nature of travel in general. I guess you get some idea of that from my unresearched desire for an April in Paris.
In these silences afforded by churches, ‘churches’ and being a lone traveller you create a mental space for the literary, the philosophical, anything to creep in. Someone recently said to me that their mind is their studio, which seemed the perfect way to phrase it. I mean, in other parts of this same trip I was rushed, I was scared, I was hungover. But the prevailing idea is that essentially I continue to do things just ‘cause.
During this trip I tuned in to these things that felt vital to me. I felt simply that I was by myself and this was such a glorious state to be in. Whenever I felt small, I realised my mind was free to go to new places. The silence informed me.
Susie Anderson wants to get to the bottom of Guy Fieri's hairdo. https://twitter.com/susie_and
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.