Travel notes from the real France. Carnet de Voyage is a weekly personal travel story in France sent in by readers. If you’d like to write a story for Carnet de Voyage, head here for details on how to submit.
In June this year, I arrived in Paris after an absence of 7 years. This trip, I had got it into my head to walk the 20 arrondissements in 14 days, following my own original walks. I am not sure how it all came about, other than what I realise was my deep-seated need to plan!
I needed structure in my holidays in the same way that I needed structure in my life. I am not a person who typically enjoys surprises. In my walking, as in my life, I needed a path to follow and a destination to aim for.
There was something about Paris that has always resonated with that side of me. In part, I can trace this to Baron von Haussmann, who reordered and restructured the streets of Paris. My attention was also captured by the layout of the arrondissements or districts of Paris, each with a personality of its own. So, like a person possessed, I mapped out all the major attractions for each arrondissement and tried to develop a walking map that connected as many dots as possible!
Having designed and documented my walks on my blog, the next stage was to test them. What I discovered was what I should have already known, the gulf between theory and practice! While I thoroughly enjoyed my walks, I realised that Paris was not something I could simply pin down. What was most enjoyable were those things not on the maps!
For instance, the unexpected encounter with a street festival in the 12th arrondissement and a posse of drummers whose drumbeat drew me ever closer. The hidden gardens not written about, the atmosphere and buzz of a beautiful long summer’s evening by the Seine. A sudden thunderstorm by Notre-Dame, as the crowds ran for cover. The maze of little alleyways and the enticing open doors to hidden courtyards.
One thing I have read about Paris (I think from Walter Benjamin’s The Arcade Project) is the concept that it is like a series of rooms, in which Parisians live, like a public space made private (or outside made inside), where people go about their life as if no one else was there. Each person, each family group or gathering of friends are a distinct bubble to themselves. That’s why as an outsider, you feel like a voyeur of sorts, gazing into the lives of others who are largely oblivious to your existence!
The beauty of Paris is that there is so much to gaze on, both past and present. For instance, one day, I wandered into the (free) Maison de Balzac Museum, in his modest house in the 16th arrondissement. What I walked out with, which I could not have planned for, was the desire to read some of his writing, such as his famous La Comédie Humaine, a collection of stories about French Society in the period of 1815 to 1848. Balzac was particularly good at describing characters. He was regarded as ‘a genius for observation’ and a flaneur, who was known to roam the streets of Paris, observing its people and their habits.
Balzac described flânerie as ‘the gastronomy of the eye’. Yet for me, it was Marcel Proust, another famous Parisian, and coincidentally another former resident of the 16th arrondissement, who gave me my greatest lesson, encapsulated in the quote commonly attributed to him.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”.
This is my challenge: To observe better and notice what is around me, whether I am at home or abroad. It is harder to do this at home because what we are used to, we tend not to notice. It is the differences and contrasts that we notice most. However, it is possible, as having ‘new eyes’ is really about a person’s state of mind and attitude. It is about being open to the world, not attempting so much to control it, but to observe it and to find the beauty in the unexpected.
So, in the end, I did not do all of the walks I intended, nor was I able to definitively identify the personality of each of the arrondissements. However, I did end up walking over 180 km in 14 days in my quest to ‘know’ Paris and to package it in my bundle of walks.
Thus, it is ironic that what I come away with, is the realisation of the futility of my quest! Instead, what Paris reminded me of was the joy of discovery, observation, and curiosity and of the very thing I was seeking to avoid, the unexpected!
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Dianne McHugh lives in Sydney, Australia. A former accountant of over 20 years with the NSW government, she made the decision to return to university to study a Bachelor of Arts majoring in history and philosophy at Western Sydney University. She completed the degree with distinction in 2020 and was awarded the Dean’s Medal. Her love of travel has taken across the world and five times to Paris over a 30-year period, her most recent visit dating back to June 2023.
Lead photo credit : Walking along the Seine in Paris © Dianne McHugh
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