Writing and Photography by Jesse Weber
During my weekend in Paris, I didn’t see the view from atop the Eiffel Tower. I didn’t shop designer stores. I didn’t sample wine or cheese. I didn’t spend the afternoon at a café in the 6th arrondissement. I didn’t eat a single crepe. I didn’t have a romantic stroll in Jardin du Luxembourg. I didn’t fall in love.
What did I do in Paris?
I walked. I walked for miles and explored the city. I peered into store windows and gazed over rooftops. I talked to people. I sat in the grass and watched life go by. I took it all in.
As I sip a beer outside Sacré Coeur, I think about this historic hill, the church on top, and the city sprawled in front. Paris. What is the real attraction of a place like this?
The grassy courtyard is crowded with people speaking nearly every language I can identify, and others I can’t. Sunbathing, drinking beer, conversing, napping. The sun is out over Paris, but why do the world’s travelers congregate here to enjoy the European spring?
From atop this hill, the view over Paris is fantastic. But what is fantastic about Paris? Well, it’s PARIS of course. But what is that? A sprawling metro area of 12 million, clogged with bustling people, pricey cafés, meticulously restored architecture, old paintings and statues kept under high security, carefully groomed hedges, and some iron relic of 19th century tower engineering.
History, cuisine, bohemia, avant-garde, romance—that is why millions flood Paris each year to throw Euros at wine, cheese, and admission prices, right? Or is it because Wikipedia says? Because your parents have a photo from their honeymoon? Because you learned about it in school? Because you traveled, you went there, you took the photo!
So why am I here? Why did I spend valuable time and money to fly to this and other European cities? Couldn’t I give the same pessimistic rant about any of them?
I am in Paris not just to see the sights or check off a list of token activities. I could view these through the window of someone else’s camera lens. By physically being here, I am doing more than just window shopping.
Window shopping in Paris is to stand on the outside and look in, imagining how that wine would taste in my mouth or that watch would look on my wrist. Window shopping in the world is to sit inside and look out, imagining how that touch would feel on your skin, or how that story would alight on your heart.
In Paris, I am a window shopper of wines and watches that I will never buy. But really, I am here to do exactly the opposite of window shop. Instead of viewing Paris through the glass of a television or computer screen, I have opened the door and stepped through, to sample the fine selection of experiences to be afforded here.
As I crack my second beer atop Montmartre, I reflect on this 2-month tour, now in its final phase. A weekend in Paris is my last stop on the mainland before heading back across the Atlantic. I think about all I have seen, who I have met, and what I have accomplished.
I haven’t accomplished anything profound. I haven’t discovered anything about myself that I didn’t already know. I haven’t forged some radically new direction for my life.
What I have done is experienced more of the world. Sure, I can watch Discovery Channel and read Wikipedia to learn facts. But for me, facts can be quickly lost from memory—faded by the abstract expanse of time and distance between my life and the lives of others. When the reality of a different place becomes interwoven with my own, however, the cities, the people, the environment, are suddenly annexed into my own tangible perception of the world.
I have accomplished this in so many ways during my trip.
Walking by a crowded Irish Pub on a Parisian street, I notice shepherd’s pie and Guinness on the menu outside. By traveling to Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day, I did more than just read the menu, I got a real taste of my Irish heritage by celebrating with locals in the mother country.
Perusing the shelves of a bookstand on Quai d’Orsay, I thumb through volumes of texts on language studies. In Spain, hopping in a car full of strangers was like diving into the pages of these books, immersing myself in language by trying to talk rock climbing for an entire day.
Instead of viewing a historical drama at La Comédie-Française, I touched for myself the layers of time and felt the weight of years, running my hand along stone walls in the old Jewish District of Krakow, Poland.
I befriended people who looked me in the eyes and told me about fleeing their hometown in wartime Kosovo as their neighbors were murdered. This sensation is to the soul like a sip of the driest Cabernet Sauvignon to the tongue—robust yet caustic in flavor, which shocks and awakens the taste buds.
No longer can I say “those people in that country with whatever going on,” because “my friends in this place who are experiencing this” carries much more meaning for me.
So that is why I’m in Paris—not to view it through a window, but to step out of my comfort zone and into the real world. I do more than just learn. I imbue my own senses with these new realities, extending my existence to further dimensions.
My pictures are the windows through which I can always look back, but I have better than windows. My own experiences and relationships in Paris are the open doors through which sensations of this city can rush into my own reality.
It is a rare privilege to gain intimate insight on a distant place and culture, and I realize how fortunate I am to have such opportunities. I encourage everyone to do the same, if given the chance. Connect with a new place on a personal level.
Do more than window shop. Open the door. Step into the world. Make it your own.
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