Why Tour Paris? Reason No. 6: Get Lost in the Louvre

In my novella, Paris in Clichés, the characters “race from the Winged Victory to Venus de Milo to the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, with barely half a glance at everything in between.” This is the only glimpse they have of the famous Louvre Museum, and it’s very similar to what many tourists see when they visit Paris, especially if they’re in a rush. But do I recommend experiencing the Louvre this way? No, no I do not.

Some guide books recommend caution when visiting the Louvre, describing it as overwhelming. They recommend you ease into it–decide ahead of time what you must see, and planning out your steps. They sometimes recommend just a few hours, rather than a day, in order to feel less deluged by all there is to see.

But I’d recommend you treat it the way I recommend you treat Paris itself–just wander. Have a vague idea of what there is to see and what broad categories are contained within it, but otherwise just treat it as an adventure. Who knows what you’ll stumble across? If you treat it as an enormous background to the Mona Lisa, you will likely find it a bit of a letdown. If you run through its halls just to see her and get out of there, you might not quite catch its atmosphere.

Louvre pyramid

Yes, I spent quite a bit of time staring at hallways of broken Grecian pottery before I realized I did not have enough context about Grecian pottery or the significance of any of the types to get much out of it. So yes, it can be overwhelming. It does contain more than you can likely see in one day. But are any wanderings down an unplanned corridor a waste of time? Or are they part of the experience? Well–how often to you come face-to-face with tableware that someone related to Plato or Aristotle might’ve used?

Aside from the Greek pots, I stumbled across hallways of Egyptian antiquities, standing before the steady stone gazes of people who lived thousands and thousands of years ago–or, at least before their representations in stone. It’s rather startling, to think you might have met someone who looked somewhat like this stone face, if you had lived back then.

I also stumbled across the stone foundations of the original Louvre, which was first a castle and then a palace, and only eventually a famous museum. The building itself could be a museum to its own history, and in some respects it is, even without any other art inside it. The ceilings in many of the rooms are awe-inspiring too–nothing like the stark blank walls of some modern museums. Crumbling marble statues plucked from ancient temples vie for your attention with the ornate decoration of the building itself.

And lastly, yes, the often-mentioned treasures are in these halls as well: the Mona Lisa, the Winged Victory, and Venus de Milo. Most famous of all is the Mona Lisa, and you might as well take a look at her while you’re here. Across from her is a gigantic canvas called The Wedding Feast at Cana, and it is worth looking at while you’re waiting in line to see the Mona Lisa a bit closer (there’s always a line). Apparently there’s an hourglass somewhere in this enormous painting, so you can hunt for that while you wait.

There’s also Winged Victory, which has an ideal location over a grand staircase. The drapes of her robe look more like fabric than marble, and the wings rise up over the tourists below. Another treasure is Venus de Milo, and this armless white figure is the graceful centerpiece of a tour through Greek and Roman statues.

The one thing that you should plan, however, when you go is getting in. As with many other famous museums, the lineup to get in can be loooooooooooong. Look into the best way of getting in before you go–when I went last, the lineup was much shorter at one of the alternate entrances rather than in the main entrance under the glass pyramid. But it’s been a few years, and things always change, so look into what’s recommended before you go! Otherwise your day at the Louvre might be spent more in standing in line in the atrium than in the museum itself.

After that–go ahead, get lost in there!

Want more from me? Enter your email to get my author newsletter–it takes a monthly deep dive into different topics of Christian faith. Or check out a sample issue here.

Posts in this series:

6 Comments

Filed under Paris in Clichés Extras, Randoms & My Life

Why Tour Paris? Reason No. 5: Macarons at Ladurée on the Champs-Elysées

One image that Paris conjures up is definitely a narrow stacked pyramid of puffy, double-decker macarons in a rainbow of pastel shades: rose, lavender, mint green, cream, lemon yellow. Or these very same macarons nestled tightly in silver-embossed boxes. Why are macarons so deeply connected to Paris? You might have guessed it–this version of the macaron was invented in Paris.

Laduree Paris macaron box

The shop they were invented in is named Ladurée, and it was first opened in Paris in 1862. So basically this bakery has existed longer than my home country of Canada. The macaron wasn’t there from the beginning though: in 1930 the grandson of the original owner had the idea of attaching two identical round macarons together with icing. (It’s fair to note other bakers have claimed credit for the idea, and is so often the case, it’s hard to know who invented it first. However, Ladurée certainly helped make it famous!) Macarons are a little more expensive than just any old cookie because they are made from egg whites, ground almonds, sugar and flavourings, and it is a tricky business to create hundreds or thousands of identical rounds that can be stacked together. The egg whites each have to puff up evenly, without cracking or browning. I personally would struggle to create dozens of identical cookies of any kind, but Ladurée produces enough to sell 15 000 every day. There’s a wide array of flavours to try too, and it is fascinating to stand at the wide shop counter and choose which types to try.

The business has grown a lot since its beginning, and now operates many locations–not only in Paris, but also around the world. The original location burnt down in 1871 and was rebuilt, and at that time the ceiling was painted with cherubs dressed as pastry cooks. As more locations opened, they were all richly decorated as well. The location on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées was designed by Jacques Garcia, who mixed 17th and 18th century styles with contemporary influences, using tapestries, black granite, chandeliers and engravings. In other words, the stores themselves emphasize the luxurious nature of the treats they sell.

In my novella, Paris in Clichés, I had my characters visit the Champs-Elysées location, rather than the original location on Rue Royale. Aside from the fact that the Champs-Elysées location is the location I have personally visited (and was blown away by the opulence of the interior), I also chose this particular location so my characters could also visit the Champs-Elysées itself. The Champs-Elysées is known as “the most beautiful avenue in Paris” and it stretches from the Tuileries Garden by the Louvre at one end to the Arc de Triomphe on the other. Of course, this means that many the famous French brands have expensive luxury stores along this avenue–and pretty much every major non-French luxury brand as well. It is definitely a fascinating place to walk down and explore. But you cannot expect the cozy intimate feel of poking into shops in Le Marais or Montmartre along this strip–it is both bustling and glamorous.

Enjoy a tour of Ladurée and the  Champs-Elysées through these pictures! You can see more pictures of the interior of Ladurée at the designer’s website here: https://studio.jacquesgarcia.com/en/project/laduree-paris/

Interiors of several Ladurée locations: https://hadleycourt.com/laduree-interiors/

Ladurée macaron ingredients: https://www.laduree.fr/en/discover-laduree/our-know-how.html.

Buy Paris in Clichés

Entrance to Ladurée – the Champs-Elysées – macarons

Posts in this series:

Want more from me? Enter your email to get my author newsletter–it takes a monthly deep dive into different topics of Christian faith. Or check out a sample issue here.

6 Comments

Filed under Paris in Clichés Extras, Randoms & My Life

Why Tour Paris? Reason No. 4: Don’t Miss the Eiffel Tower

Paris is so closely associated with the Eiffel Tower that when you see the Eiffel Tower you think of Paris, and when you see the word “Paris” you think of the Eiffel Tower. They’ve almost become synonymous with each other! The Eiffel is so well-known that it would be easy to overlook the experience of visiting it. But visiting the Eiffel Tower is not at all the same as fulfilling your obligation of going up the CN Tower or the Space Needle or some other high point when you visit a city with a tower. Obviously you get a nice view of Paris from the top levels. But if going up a tower can have an atmosphere, then going up the Eiffel Tower has an atmosphere about it. It still holds the flavour of 1889. If you are too sophisticated of a tourist to check it out, you are really missing out.

When I was first trying to convince my dad that we should go to Paris, I kept telling him that he’d love to see the Eiffel Tower. He’d done a lot of work in designing intricate steel connections between joists in his job. And he kept replying, “I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower. I’ve seen it a thousand times.” And it is constantly being shown everywhere, in pictures and on TV. But when we got there, he was impressed. “The pictures don’t really show it!” he said, going on and going about the immense size of the iron beams and the number of rivets  that held the whole thing together. And he was right–you can’t wrap your head around the scale from the little cartoon sketches of it on all the brochures. It’s obviously far from the tallest tower in the world, but it manages to convey the achievement that it was for humanity at the time, to raise so many heavy iron beams to the sky. Prior to its construction, no tower had ever reached 300 metres–or even 200 metres.

And yet–it is all enormous iron beams, and yet it’s elegant. It bears no resemblance to a cellphone tower, or an electrical transmission tower. Those are entirely built for function, and while in a sense the Eiffel Tower was purely built for the purpose of standing tall, its designers clearly paid some attention to its visual impact. Its well-known that Parisians initially thought it was ugly. But little details, like its four enormous arches, and the gentle curve of it flowing up to its point, etch it in your memory. It does not feel modern, despite having its internal structure on display in a way that’s now very common in our modern age. It brings forward a bit of the late 1800s into the present–maybe it’s the wrought iron it’s made of, or the lacy design of the arches. Its critics argued against it because they didn’t want a “gigantic black smokestack” overshadowing all the other landmarks of the Parisian skyline, afraid of historic beauty being crushed by utilitarian industry. But it is a testament to the design of the Eiffel Tower that it is not regarded as an industrial smokestack at all today.

“My tower will be the tallest edifice ever erected by man. Will it not also be grandiose in its way? And why would something admirable in Egypt [in the height of the Pyramids] become hideous and ridiculous in Paris?” said its builder, Gustave Eiffel.

You should go up it if you can, if the line’s not too long. You can even take the stairs (I haven’t tried this). I enjoyed both the highest level, with the farthest view, and the lowest level, from which you can almost converse with the city of Paris from your perch in the clouds. It’s also very fun to catch a view of the Tower at night, because it is always lit up against the sky.

***

  • Original quote from the letter opposing the Eiffel Tower: “Imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years … we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”
  • From time to time, parts of the original staircases of the Eiffel Tower pop up at auctions. If you’ve got enough extra cash lying around, maybe you can snag one for you house.

Posts in this series:

Want more from me? Enter your email to get my author newsletter–it takes a monthly deep dive into different topics of Christian faith. Or check out a sample issue here.

6 Comments

Filed under Prince Charming Extras, Randoms & My Life

Why Tour Paris? Reason No. 3: Bateaux Mouches on the River Seine

Most of the major cities in the world have a river or a waterway nearby, and these can be a big part of what shapes and defines the city. Paris has the Seine, of course. Since Paris began on the Île de la Cité, as we talked about last time, the river actually goes straight through the centre of the city and right past many of the major landmarks. This means a great way to take a tour of Paris is to do it by boat!

bateau mouche
Bateau Mouche by the Louvre, Jebulon, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The boats that run these tours are called bateaus mouches, and they have wide open roofs so tourists can take in the sights on each bank of the river. When I took one of these tours I did it in the evening, and they served us red wine in plastic cups. The landmarks, such as the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower were all lit up against the night sky, and the boat’s loudspeakers announced what each landmark was in several languages as we glided past them. It is thrilling to float under the stone arches of the many, many bridges that arc over the river, each of them with their own history (such as, for example, the Pont Neuf which is not new at all by modern standards–built from 1578-1601). But the booming loudspeaker takes some of the romance out of it, though at least you know what you’re looking at!

If you don’t want to pay for a tour, another way to get a similar view is to walk along the stone quays which line each side of the Seine. Each bank of the Seine is basically lined in a stone wall, with a kind of shoulder right along the water’s edge that you can walk along. These shoulders were very helpful for boats to unload their cargo in the past, which is why they are there. The city of Paris has turned these into beaches in the summer in the past, for its citizens to enjoy, and there’s also been zumba classes and gardens and other things for Parisians to do at different times of the year along the river.

Another thing about Paris is that whether you’re on the “Left Bank” or the “Right Bank” is very important. Each has its own characteristics. The Left Bank (Rive Gauche) is supposedly the Paris of artists, writer and philosophers, while the Right Bank (Rive Droite) is described as more elegant and sophisticated. However, these are just broad generalizations, and both sides of the river have enough to explore!

All in all, the river of Paris is well worth explaining, whether by foot or by boat. You will get a good dose of history and Parisian atmosphere just by meandering along this stretch.

***

When I was a child, I read a book named The Houseboat on the Seine. This was one of the works that fired my imagination about visiting Paris one day. The book is more about fixing up the houseboat itself, and about describing the Seine river, rather than about the rest of Paris–but it was definitely one of my influences for why I wanted to see the city. And when I was in Paris I did visit a houseboat that you can rent on AirBNB, so if this is your dream it is possible to try it out!

You can read more about the quays of Paris here: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24520146

Here is the book, The Houseboat on the Seine.

My novella set in Paris, Paris in Clichés, can be found here.

Posts in this series:

Quay by the river seine with Notre Dame
From my own walk along the quay
River Seine, locks of love
View of the Seine from the bridge that tourists like to attach “locks of love” to

6 Comments

Filed under Paris in Clichés Extras, Randoms & My Life

Why Tour Paris? Reason No. 2: Berthillon, an Astonishing Ice Cream Shop on the Île Saint-Louis

One fun way to start deciding what you’d like to see in a new place is to look at a map. You start to realize the layout of a city you had in your head doesn’t always line up with the layout in reality–Oh, the Notre Dame is actually on an island? Oh, the Eiffel Tower is south of the river Seine, and the Arc de Triomphe is north of it? And so on. As I was zooming in on various streets of Paris, I noticed there was not just one island in the Seine, an island which held the Notre Dame, but rather that there were two islands side-by-side in the river. And immediately I was curious about what was on the second island.

The island upon which stands the Notre Dame is called Île de la Cité, and it is actually the place Paris started. Once the city got too crowded for the island, it eventually spread over both banks of the river. And, of course, it also spread onto the island behind it, which is named Île Saint-Louis. What I find fascinating about these Parisian islands is that they’ve been so built up over the years that if they were not natural it would be hard to tell: their banks have been lined in stone, and multiple bridges arc from them to the mainland. Actually, Île Saint-Louis was originally two islands which were made into one new island for more residences in 1614. This island has no major, known-by-everyone landmarks, but it does has one relatively well-known attraction. That is the ice cream shop known as Berthillon.

According to Wikipedia, Berthillon became famous in 1961 when a French restaurant guide wrote about “this astonishing ice cream shop hidden in a bistro on the Ile Saint-Louis.” It is known as the best ice cream in Paris. Well, it is always difficult to pinpoint exactly which kind of anything is “the best” since tastes vary–and I’ve heard other shops recommended as well–but it certainly serves good ice cream made from all natural ingredients. And any ice cream shop that manages to stay in business that long and maintain its reputation for quality is doing something right.

I did try Berthillon ice cream while I was in Paris, but I did not take any pictures! It actually is sold all over the island, and not just in the original bistro, and I’m pretty sure the stand I bought it from was not the original shop. But it was an equally nice spot to buy ice cream and eat it–after crossing the bridge from behind the Notre Dame to the Île Saint-Louis, I stood on the stone pavement, listening to busking musicians, and eating peach sorbet. Would recommend 😀

If you want to know more about the people who run Berthillon, here is a great write-up of the owners:

“We pay 16 to 18 euros for a kilo of strawberries. They’re so rare and expensive that it’s not profitable, but it’s become our specialty, our most popular ice cream. If we stop now, there’ll be riots,” laughs Muriel.

The previous Parisian landmark I wrote about in this series of attractions was Shakespeare and Company.

Posts in this series:

And if you want to know what my characters do after eating ice cream from Berthillon, you will have to read my novella, Paris in Clichés.

Want more from me? Enter your email to get my author newsletter–it takes a monthly deep dive into different topics of Christian faith. Or check out a sample issue here.

 

6 Comments

Filed under Paris in Clichés Extras, Randoms & My Life

Why Tour Paris? Reason No. 1: Shakespeare and Company, A Bookstore as Cozy as You Imagine a Bookstore Would Be

There are two kinds of tourist attractions in Paris: first, the sights everyone knows about, even those who have no interest in Paris (the Mona Lisa and the Eiffel Tower are examples); and second, the sights that everyone who’s looked into what to see in Paris knows about, but outside of that are not necessarily household names. I would place the bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, in the second category. It is internationally famous. But while the name might have a familiar ring to many, I wouldn’t expect absolutely everyone to know what is it without explanation. 

shakespeare-and-company-1701307_1920
Image by Sierra Maciorowski from Pixabay

Shakespeare and Company is an English-language bookstore in Paris. It’s a bit amusing that an English bookstore would be a tourist attraction in French-speaking Paris, but it is—and after all, many English-speaking writers lived in Paris in the interwar years. The original Shakespeare and Company was a gathering place for well-known English-speaking writers in the 1920s, and while that original store closed in 1941, the current version of Shakespeare and Company is an homage to that original store.  

And there’s good reason it is a tourist attraction. It’s not just rows and rows of stark shelves, like your average Chapters chain store—it is the cozy bookstore of novels and movies and your dreams. It has two storeys full of books, with shelves stretching to the ceiling, and ladders to reach all the shelves. It has cozy reading rooms to sit and leaf through the books in, with pianos you can play to switch up the mood. And it has more than just those standard bookstore features: it has a wishing well in the floor where you can insert coins, with a sign that says, “Feed the starving writers.” It has a nook where tourists write little notes on scraps of paper and leave them behind for others to read. It has the words “Be Not Inhospitable to Strangers Lest They Be Angels in Disguise,” painted on the wall. And the bookshop lives up to this inscription by allowing writers to bunk among the bookshelves in exchange for helping out around the shop. More than 30 000 “tumbleweed” writers have actually done this over the years. 

This is such a unique and interesting landmark that I had to incorporate it into a story, which is why it features in Paris in Clichés. But of course I also had to see it for myself when I was in Paris. I actually found myself going back to it more than once—not only because the smell of books and the feel of a bookstore is incredibly enticing. I found that I needed to hear English once in a while after struggling on my own with mangled French for several days in a row. I stayed in Paris for two weeks, and I think I went back at least three times. It was in this bookstore that I read the first several chapters of World War Z—not the first novel you’d associate with Paris, but for me it is intertwined with my memories of the place!  

Here are a few photos which I took (explaining the poor photo quality!), to give you a feel for the place. Enjoy!

See? I did read World War Z there
Nook for leaving notes

And if you want to explore more, do not miss this great illustrated guide of the store, complete with maps! An Illustrated Map Inside Shakespeare and Company:

Posts in this series:

Want more from me? Enter your email to get my author newsletter–it takes a monthly deep dive into different topics of Christian faith. Or check out a sample issue here.

6 Comments

Filed under Paris in Clichés Extras, Randoms & My Life

Why is Reading a Good Story Set in Paris Still a Good Idea in 2020?

“Paris is always a good idea.” This was the title of one of my previous blog posts, a post written after I returned from a trip to Paris. It’s also supposedly a quote from Audrey Hepburn, though no one online seems to be able to trace when she might possibly have said it. Either way, it sums up how a lot of us think about Paris–if asked if we’d like to go, we’d say, yes please! However, this year is 2020, and the question remains–in 2020, is Paris a good idea? In a year of hardship and upheaval, is thinking about a more frivolous subject like Paris worth doing?  

Actually visiting Paris is out of the question for most of us, of course–travel restrictions, and reduced flights, and closed tourist attractions make it unlikely. But the Paris of dreams–the Paris of busy cafes and romantic cobblestone streets and boulevards of glittering, luxurious stores–is this idea of Paris worth thinking about and talking about in a year of upheaval and struggle, where everyone is having a tough go of it? It might feel like affrontive to remind people of a world that seems to have moved out of reach.  

I ask because this year I finally finished my short novella exploring Paris, and released it in print in my online store. It was lovely to retreat from the present moment into a world of memories, into the heads of characters who had different problems than lockdowns and viruses. All the same, maybe it’s a bit silly to talk about Paris right now. Maybe it’s time to be serious. 

But I think there’s different responses to hard times. One is to confront the situation head on and try to make sense of it. Another is to remind us of the warmth and goodness that we do cross come across in this world, the things that give us hope that there could be healing. The second method is sometimes called escapist-rather than facing reality, it’s accused of retreating into rose-tinted times and places. I don’t think it’s always escapist–it can take a lot of courage to hang onto hope. But in case it truly is pure escapism to read only, I will point to another quote I blogged about here long ago:  

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds… Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? 

JRR Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories 

I read that and begin to think it’s important to open the doors of escape, especially if we’re restricted to our homes in this season. And not everyone has the energy to attempt to beckon our fellow men through these doors—I certainly did not during the most unsettled parts of this year—but when we do find the energy, when some of us have it in us to think about something other than our prison walls, then it is worthwhile to bring that to others around us.  

In this spirit, over the next few weeks and months I plan to make a few posts about Paris, and the treasures you can see there. In a sense, I hope these posts will make you feel what it might be like to be there, or remember what it was like to be there–in a similar way to how my novella would make you feel. Even if you do not purchase my novella this season, come along and explore these sights with me here! Of course, if you wish to purchase my novella as well as accompany me on these posts, just shoot me an email at info@amrahpublishinghouse.com or check out my store here

So come along and we’ll peek into Shakespeare and Company, explore the islands in the Seine, and taste the yummy ice cream of Berthillon and the fluffy macarons of Laduree! There’s so many interesting places in the world to see and learn about.

Posts in this series:

6 Comments

Filed under Creativity and Art, Paris in Clichés Extras

Something Wrong

empty parkI stood by a street that was eerily peaceful. Four lanes of asphalt, and not a car in sight. I could jaywalk with impunity, which was good, because no one wanted to push the buttons of the crossing lights nowadays.

In the park, the serene scene continued. Birds chirped loudly. The grass greened up. Everyone and their dog paced the long, multi-use paths. It was an artist’s impression of a perfect spring day, and yet standing in the middle of it, it felt ominous, oppressive, and wrong.

No voices of children called out from the playground. No greetings crossed the wide gaps of space between the people. Dogs were pulled safely to one side by their leashes, away from nonexistent eager petting hands. The basketball court was empty, haunted by the creak of balls swishing through the baskets. And the sounds of nature swirled everywhere—loud rustles, loud bird calls, loud gusts of wind.

This was not the soothing return of nature, the quiet peace one feels on a mountain trail, or in the midst of a majestic forest. It was not the settled comfort of being alone in a place that cares nothing for the tempests of social media, or the rat race of human ambitions, or the bustle of the city. We lamented the disconnection of our culture with our natural world in recent decades, and rejoiced to see small signs of nature returning to our cities during the pandemic—the swans in Venice! the cleaner skies! the returning birds! But standing in the midst of the supposed natural resurgence was not calming, and not peaceful, and did not feel like a return to a lost paradise.

Inside the house, it was the same. The beginning of the pandemic greeted us with nostalgic promises of happy families baking bread together, and learning together, and growing closer together. It promised to reveal the joys of home to a new generation that was too busy to settle down and recognize these joys. It promised long hours of reconnection, and space away from the rat race to learn new skills, and time to remember what makes us human (hint: the answer was not supposed to be our public role in society). But the falsity of that promise for many people unraveled all too soon—no one could stand empty time without work, the home was not enough to fulfill us without a job or a role in society or social connection to those outside the family. The merest hint the lockdown could extend without an end was met with outrage. We could not handle another moment of baking sourdough bread and learning Mandarin on Duolingo and pondering what our lives were truly all about—the answers unnerved us. What made us us seemed to be our ability to go out, to interact with the world and be impacted by it, to share experience with our social networks and contribute to others’ lives. We wanted to try on our different selves in all the different social contexts we had before. And despite the toll of the hustle and bustle and grind of our previous lives, we concluded space to escape that hustle and bustle was not a blessing, but a prison.

What did it mean to be human? The answer did not seem to be found in any experience parallel to being the tiny pioneer family isolated in a log cabin on their own in the midst of the wilderness, doing what circumstances dictated necessary to survive. It turns out only a select few humans can follow along that path. The rest of humanity must swarm, and interconnect, and live in community and society, and never be content to look inward alone and not outward.

And the lack of cars on the road, the lack of voices in the park, the lack of city noises every time we ventured out of our doors did not remind us of a pristine natural state that would be a joy to return to, but it hammered home our losses—it was an eerie reminder of everything that had been interrupted, everything that we did not know would return again. In the mountains, the silence settled us. In the city, it brought unease.

Now much of the world is ready to reopen again, society ready to rush into public spaces and attempt to function with the virus in our midst while controlling its outbreaks, and there’s a sense of relief that is surprising in the face of a situation that has not changed drastically since before the lockdown. The risk is marginally lower than it used to be. But what has also changed is our measurement of the value of public life. It was easy to say before—why is that open? Shut it down! Sidewalk cafes and picnics in the park and kicking around a soccer ball are not worth the risk. But now those simple actions are filled with meaning—the two kids kicking a soccer ball back and forth in the park are two beings forging a connection not mediated by technology, and they fill our environment with the noise of human society. The value of humans acting like humans is more visible to us. It’s hard to say exactly why, to say what intrinsic quality in sitting two meters apart on a sidewalk patio at a local restaurant gives it value, but we know it’s there now.

Humans have built society and community and culture. We’ve often gone overboard, driving people to grind in their careers and miss the natural joys around us. But the other extreme, of retreating into our own little circles and cutting off the public sphere, has been shown to be a false escape as well. We may well have rediscovered some of the joys of the domestic sphere, but the joys of the public have been revealed as well. Perhaps in the end, our awareness of what has value will help us to find a shaky balance as we reopen.

Dear Readers of this blog–I would love for you to join me in my new venture: the {Hmm… Newsletter}. Monthly dives into Christian topics will be sent straight to your inbox! Please enter your email on this page to subscribe. You’ll have to confirm your email, and you’ll be ready to go! The September issue will tackle an exciting topic: Who’s afraid of Proverbs 31?

Leave a comment

Filed under Randoms & My Life

Being Alone

bookshop

Bookshop in Paris

In April of 2014, I traveled to Paris, France, alone. I mostly did it because I had not succeeded in several things in my life at that point, and I wanted to prove I was at least capable of taking care of myself on my own. Plus, who doesn’t love Paris? And I did learn I could carry myself on my own for two weeks, but I also learned how much resilience it takes to be alone.

Before I left, I dreamed of wandering down romantic streets and drinking coffee in cafes, and getting lost in museums. What I did not dream of was the effort it would take each time to leave the door of my AirBnB. My AirBnB was incredibly boring compared to the beautiful streets of Paris–a tiny room crushed under the eaves of a building in Montmartre. But however romantic the streets were, I had not counted on how it would feel to venture out in crowds of faceless strangers who cared nothing for your existence. I had to find the nerve to brave every frowning waiter guarding the entrance to the cafes. I had to find the confidence each metro train would not deposit me in a place I’d be lost in forever. I had to brave the dangers of wending through crowds as a naive tourist, all alone.

To be alone is to be vulnerable. You know that the instant you are alone, completely cut off from your familiarity, even if your new context is as safe as anywhere can be. You quickly tire of braving the irritation and disdain of strangers, of risking a smile and getting blankness in return.You tire of knowing if you do not care about what you do, there’s no one else who cares either. And you realize how vague and unreal what you see becomes when there’s no one by your side to exclaim over them with you–you are excited, but is it truly real if no one sees your excitement?

So I did learn about what it took to be alone, and I was surprised by what I learned. It was more than just learning to be content with your own company–because I have always been content with myself, I didn’t expect that part to be hard. But to be alone, more is needed. You have to also be content with vulnerability. You have to have an enormous reserve of strength to continue risking and risking and risking leaving your own door. You have to face an unfriendly world with very little in the way of defenses.

This weekend, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I lost the bravery to leave my own bedroom. Not because I was afraid of the virus, like it was lurking somewhere in the house. But I had no resilience within myself to face the complexities of living–the multiple steps of making a sandwich and getting myself coffee were just too overwhelming. It was like I was transported to an unfamiliar country where I did not know the language, and I had been tasked to navigate it by myself–transported to a brave new world where nothing familiar could be counted on. And I couldn’t do it. Whatever resilience I had found within myself in Paris to keep going out to see the Louvre, to see the Eiffel tower, to see the Luxembourg Gardens, had dried up.

To cope with my fragility, I made my world smaller.

In some sense, we’re always alone. Even now, when we’re still tenuously connected to each other through the internet, just as I was still connected to those back home while I was in Paris–connected, and yet each step taken is my own responsibility. No one else can share what we experience. No one else can care about what happens to us in the same, intense way that we care. It feels important to be able to hold on in the storm when all we’ve got is ourselves, and yet too often this is the hardest thing to do. We can’t face the storm, we can only retreat into our caves.

Perhaps this is not such a strange reaction for me. After going through a hip surgery last year, I was forced to minimize my world. I couldn’t guarantee I could succeed in making myself a cup of coffee. I couldn’t guarantee walking out the door wouldn’t trigger a wave of pain that would keep me lying on my back for a weekend. This may’ve built this reaction into me–when I cannot manage, I just don’t. I limit my world to what I can cope with. And I do not know how to find a stronger, healthier reaction.

Exposure therapy is one strategy to manage your irrational fears. My irrational fear when I went to Paris was that I was dysfunctional in a way that could not survive in the regular world, and that I would always be dependent on others to carry me. And while I did go to Paris and return, I am not sure that fear has been proven wrong. I am still lacking the resilience needed to keep risking all the steps necessary to survive in life. I keep realizing I am fragile and vulnerable and that the world does crush me.

However, life has a way of moving on, somehow. As messy as it is, I do find myself getting to the next day, and the next day, and the next. I do not know when this pandemic will end. I do not know if I will ever learn to be resilient enough to go out into the world and achieve things I want to achieve. I do not know how much I’ll have to carry by myself, or how often I’ll find others out there to walk through the next steps with. But maybe it’s hopeful enough to see I do get through it.

 

Take it one step at a time.

 

Dear Readers of this blog–I would love for you to join me in my new venture: the {Hmm… Newsletter}. Monthly dives into Christian topics will be sent straight to your inbox! Please enter your email on this page to subscribe. You’ll have to confirm your email, and you’ll be ready to go! The September issue will tackle an exciting topic: Who’s afraid of Proverbs 31?

1 Comment

Filed under Randoms & My Life

Compelled to Speak–My Solution When I Feel the Urge to Talk

woman who screams shouts in fear or angerIt is an interesting experience, walking around in the world with thoughts exploding inside your head. They flit by as flashes of insight into what passes before your eyes, or sudden connections between what you hear and what you know, or knee-jerk opinions to what’s happening. Thoughts can float up unpredictably, and seem profound and awe-inspiring. And when this happens, of course you want to speak them.

There are times in my life where I feel like I’m going through the world while holding back a torrent of opinions springing to mind. But of course I could never speak them all. In the first place, everyone knows the thoughts that look most profound when they pass through your head tend to be the most trite and overworn phrases when brought out into the light of day. (Think, for example, about the “funny jokes” anyone who’s been a cashier has had to hear a thousand times a day.) Things that seem original often are not original after all, or they are inaccurate, or they don’t make sense to anyone else.

Second, you need someone to say your thoughts to.

The art of conversation can be quite divorced from the way a person’s mind works. Conversation does not necessarily work best if you burst forth with whatever crosses through your head. Whatever crosses through your head tends to be quite self-centered, and not at all calculated to capture the interest of what the other person cares about. And a good conversation includes both parties, so an endless rant on what your brain is involved with never does pass the conversational ball back to your conversation partner.

However, at times, with the right people, you can get into a conversational flow that does parallel the workings of your brain. You find yourself letting out the stream of thoughts, and they interject, and your brain reacts and reformulates and brings out new ideas in response. Nothing seems boring to either one of you, and the conversation winds deeper and deeper into the outworkings of ideas until you end feeling like you’ve gained something valuable and immeasurable from the time spent. These are precious moments, and friends you have these conversations with are precious people. But if these moments are not guaranteed to come up as frequently as your thoughts threaten to spill from your head, what do you do?

This is where writing comes in. I wonder how much of writing is driven by an urge to work out all of one’s thoughts on a subject–an urge to grab the conversational ball and just rant for awhile without caring if anyone else is listening. An article’s worth of words would be quite a lot to say at once, but in written form you have the opportunity to actually say what you think. And if you write well, and edit what you’ve written enough, you may eventually get to the point where your thoughts mean something to other people, and other people will not be bored or confused by reading them.

I sometimes wonder how much of my own writing is driven by this uncontrollable urge.

There’s a couple of advantages to writing instead of talking. In the first place, the biggest thing I’ve noticed after deliberately spending periods of time alone is how much you need to voice your own thoughts to make your thoughts feel real and concrete. You can stand in front of the Mona Lisa by yourself, and if you don’t have someone with you to say even a dull thing like, “Looks small, doesn’t she?” then your brain struggles to process that the experience really happened. Somehow talking about something put that thing in the space between you and another person, and it is no longer an ephemeral experience slipping through your brain without a trace. But, like I said, you can’t always voice your thoughts and share your experience–but the next best thing is writing them down. Writing them down makes them feel more solid and concrete.

The second advantage is similar to another advantage of speaking your thoughts–when you voice your ideas you allow others to work them out and find the flaws in them. A really good discussion will hash out exactly what a person means when he says such-and-such, and can really clarify whether the ideas are worth considering or should be discarded. Writing can have a similar advantage. If your writing can be put out into a space where it can be evaluated, you may get comments and feedback that improve it. This is what most scholarly, academic publishing is about, but it can also be achieved through digital discussions, or through course evaluation if it is submitted through school.

And lastly, if you write and do not publish it too rashly, you can always delete or burn your words if what you said was wrong, or not beneficial to anyone, or something you realize you should not have said.

There’s a couple disadvantages though.

First, if you constantly allow yourself to retreat into written thought, you may never improve your verbal ability. Speaking is not the same as writing, and grabbing attention with your voice is a skill in itself. It can especially be the subtle rules of conversation that allow you to relate to others better than can be difficult to learn without practice.

Second, there is a torrent of written information in the world already, and everyone thinks they can be a writer. If you just add to this torrent, you are not necessarily making the world a better place, and there is also a high likelihood that no one will ever read what you wrote.

These disadvantages are certainly things I should personally keep in mind.

However, when you take into account that you can dive into your interests without boring anyone, while still giving them the option to read your thoughts if they do actually care–and the benefit of having the time to phrase your thoughts correctly–and the permanence that the written word has that a verbal word can never achieve–I believe there’s still a lot to be said for learning to write your opinions instead of merely spewing them. There may yet be many appropriate times and places to spew your opinions, but hopefully you won’t feel compelled to spew them in less ideal circumstances!

So if you find yourself ranting endlessly, and boring your friends, try writing down your thoughts instead!

If you want to keep on top of all my posts in various places, as well as any future publications, subscribe to my mailing list here: Yes, I want all the updates!

Leave a comment

Filed under On Writing