On the Road Again: The Exhilaration of Reconnection
PARIS, JULY 24 — I’m sitting at a flower-framed, parasol-shaded café just a few steps from the Seine. Arrayed around me are a basket of buttery, flaky croissants, miniature jars of raspberry and apricot jam, still warm six-inch halves of toasted baguettes, discs of butter glistening on a tiny white plate, and a frothy cappuccino in a white china cup.
It’s the next-to-last day of a life-quickening three months, and I stop and close my eyes, and try to recollect all the riches of the preceding weeks.
My adventures this summer encompassed a cruise through the enchanted world of the Galápagos, a tour exploring Greece’s redolent ruins and mountaintop monasteries, train journeys through the storybook scenery of the Swiss Alps, and an art-filled, garden-graced stay on Italy’s languorous Lake Como. This grand tour ended in Paris, where I spent a time-stopping week that brought me back to my beginnings.
Forty-seven summers ago, after I graduated from Princeton, I went to Paris to work as an intern at Kodak-Pathé for the summer before going to Athens to teach on an Athens College Teaching Scholarship. I arrived in Paris planning to enjoy a footloose one-year fling before returning to graduate school to become a tweedy professor of literature. By the time I left Athens, I had decided to follow my heart and eschew a PhD in literature for a Master’s degree in creative writing.
So my adventures this summer became a celebratory re-entry into the wide world of travel and a re-discovery of the two places that had changed the course of my life.
The highlight of my Greece trip was a few days I added at the end to explore Mykonos and Delos, two islands in the Cyclades. The sacred island of Delos, where travelers are not supposed to stay (there are no hotels or hostels), was where I had spent an unplanned, transformative night 46 years before, and in my mind, my goal was to spend another night on that special place. But in my heart, I really just wanted to have an adventure, the kind of crazy, let’s-throw-caution-to-the-winds-and-see-what-happens adventure that I hadn’t had in years.
The morning after the tour ended, I hustled to the port of Piraeus, boarded the next ferry for Mykonos, and booked a hotel in the Old Port for three nights. The following morning, I hopped on the first ferry to Delos, a spare set of clothes in my backpack, not knowing where I was going to sleep that night.
As we approached, the scene seemed like a dream. This rocky island of ruins, mythological birthplace of Artemis and Apollo and once the center of a Panhellenic empire that had stretched from Italy to the coast of Asia Minor, had been beckoning in my mind for 46 years. And now here it was!
Clutching my tattered journal from that youthful year, I set out for the Sacred Way, the main route through the ruins. As I walked, I read, and realized I was passing exactly what I had described 46 summers before: “columns carved with line after line of intricate symbols with no breaks between the words; sacrificial altars; huge cisterns for storing rainwater and oil; and vast foundations outlining meeting halls and marketplaces by the wharves.”
Over the next hour, I explored the remains of private houses, just as I had 46 summers before, “passing from room to room, trying to imagine where their inhabitants had cooked, eaten, and slept, awakened from my reverie only by an occasional spider web or lizard trail.”
The new me and the old me spent the day this way, wandering through this world of the past together, comparing notes, swapping tales. As the afternoon deepened, the few groups of visitors boarded ferries to Mykonos, until I was once again alone among the ruins. With the setting sun coloring the rocks, I trailed my fingers along ancient walls, studied stubby sculptures, imagined the sounds and scents of a Hellenistic metropolis at dusk.
Then I sat against a fluted column, opened my old journal, and read, “As I walked on and the setting sun cast the halls and walls in an orange-pink light, the ruins seemed to take on a strange life all their own. What had been eerie desolation became an intense timelessness, a sense of communion with other peoples and other eras. My boots crossed rocks other sandals had crossed; my hands touched marble other hands had touched.”
I pressed my fingers into the grainy stone behind me, stretched my soles into the pebbled ground.
One destination remained: I set out for the taverna-cafeteria where the surprised, kindly owner had served me a late meal of grilled fish and fried potatoes 46 years before. The building was closed permanently and roped off to visitors, but I could clearly see the terrace where I had eaten and scribbled in my journal. Then I saw the outside stairway that led to the roof where the owner had let me sleep all those years ago, and an electric jolt sizzled through me: Once again I was walking up those stairs, gazing at the silent ruins and inky Aegean all around, then unfolding my backpack, arranging my towel as a pillow, and gazing up at a universe of stars.
In my youth, the last boat to Mykonos had been a fisherman’s caique that departed at 1:30 pm. Now there was an 8 pm ferry, and as dusk darkened, I no longer felt the need to sleep under the stars on Delos.
I boarded the ferry with the museum and gift shop workers who were commuting home, and returned to my Mykonos hotel in time to have a celebratory feast on its terrace restaurant. As I tucked into a grilled fish and fried potatoes and raised a glass of ouzo, lights began to twinkle on the seaside hills and the moon shimmered over the Aegean.
The next reconnection occurred in Paris. On my second day in the city, I made a pilgrimage to 200 rue de Rivoli, the apartment where I had lived that summer of 1975. It was just across from the Jardin des Tuileries, and the Ferris wheel was turning just as it had 47 summers before. I paced outside my doorway for 20 minutes, willing someone to open the door so that I could dart inside. No one did, but gradually, as the workers and tourists streamed around me and I stared at the bright blue door, the moment that changed my life came back to me.
I took out a crumpled copy of the essay I had written years later for National Geographic Traveler, and read these words:
“One morning halfway through my stay, I took my apartment building’s rickety old filigreed elevator as usual from the fifth floor to the hushed shade of the ground-floor entryway, then stepped through the massive wooden doors into the street—and stopped. All around me people were speaking French, wearing French, acting French. Shrugging their shoulders and twirling their scarves and drinking their cafés crèmes, calling out ‘Bonjour, monsieur-dame’ and paying for Le Monde or Le Nouvel Observateur with francs and stepping importantly around me and staring straight into my eyes and subtly smiling in a way that only the French do.
“Until that summer,” I read on, “I had spent most of my life in classrooms, and I was planning after that European detour to spend most of the rest of my life in classrooms. Suddenly it struck me: This was the classroom. . . . This world of wide boulevards and centuries-old buildings and six-table sawdust restaurants and glasses of vin ordinaire and poetry readings in cramped second-floor bookshops and mysterious women smiling at you so that your heart leaped and you walked for hours restless under the plane trees by the Seine. This was the classroom.”
I stood a few steps from my doorway. All around me people were speaking French, wearing French, acting French. I didn’t need to get inside the building, I realized. This was where the seed had been planted; this was where my travel writing career had begun, and now the wondering, wandering path that ensued had me led back to this same street, this same spot: a sacred circle sealed. The classroom of the world.
Over the ensuing days I celebrated on grand boulevards and along winding alleyways, soared to concerts in cathedrals, exulted at art exhibits in hidden galleries, reveled in the elegance, intelligence, and savoir vivre of this city that had enlightened me.
And now I sit at Chez Julien. I spread some butter on the toasted baguette and take a bite–and suddenly I am transported to a July morning 47 summers ago. I am sitting with Marie-Claire de Chevigny, fiancée of my friend Didier Baillet, at her family’s country house in Normandy. Her family often invites me to stay with them for the weekend, and on this particular stay, Marie-Claire has just taught me how to dip my buttered baguette into a big bowl of milky coffee.
We sit at a long wooden dining table, in a room lined with 19th-century paintings and armoires. Delicate plates of confiture and a plump block of butter are set before us. The tall windows are open and their lace curtains dance in the breeze. Classical music fills the air. I dip my baguette and tentatively take a bite. “Ah, Donald!” Marie-Claire laughs, “C’est délicieux, n’est-ce pas? Le monde est plein de possibilités, mon ami!”
The world is full of possibilities.
Back at Chez Julien, I take another bite of baguette, then, with a quick glance at the diners around me, dip it into my cappuccino.
Again I am in the dining room in Normandy, and the world stretches, endless and shining, before me.
“Oui! C’est délicieux!” I hear myself say, looking into Marie-Claire’s sparkling eyes.
In an hour we will walk to the beach and lie on the sand, discussing poetry and philosophy to the swash of the sea.
After six weeks, I’ll journey to Athens. Nine months later, I’ll travel to Africa, and two years after that, I’ll venture to Japan, where my life will change again.
I think of all the adventures since then, all the adventures still to come.
I dip my baguette and smile at Marie-Claire, and at my neighbors on the Seine. “Oui, mon amie,” I say, raising my bread in salute, “le monde est plein de possibilités!”
Yours in abiding wanderlust,
* * * * *
Have you had a transformative travel experience? Where were you and will you travel there again or have you already? Please share your tale in the Comments section below. We’d love to hear it!