The ultimate destination: Really, truly, paying attention to where you are.
On Fridays I run excerpts from The Road to Elsewhere, my coming-of-age-travel-memoir-with-funny-drawings. (You can find the first entry here.) It tells the story of my road through Paris, London, and Zagreb, in search of the ultimate destination: a life worth living.
I AWOKE ON DAY THREE of my adult life with all of Paris to explore: Classes at the Alliance Française wouldn’t start until the next day, so where to?
I was now fully captivated by The Waves, an impressionistic novel of youth and aging, with Virginia Woolf of all people spinning the glass shards in my own wacky kaleidoscope. Perfect reading for a self-obsessed 21-year old, right?
At that time I was all about making lifelong pronouncements and plans (If you want to make God laugh….), and one of them was to read The Waves every year, as I charted my own path from the vivid fears of childhood to the time when, like one hero in Woolf’s book, I’d fall off my horse and terminate the wild ride.
How did Virginia know what I was feeling?
“I am not yet twenty-one,” she wrote on behalf of Rhoda (the female me). I copied out her most poignant lines in my journal. “I am to be broken. I am to be derided all my life. I am to be cast up and down among these men and women, with their twitching faces, with their lying tongues, like a cork on a rough sea. Like a ribbon of weed I am flung far every time the door opens. I am the foam that sweeps and fills the uttermost rims of the rocks with whiteness; I am also a girl, here in this room.”
All true for me, except the “I am a girl” bit, and I was ready to be flung far from my room at the Alliance Française, what with a glimmering French geode to crack open.
One glance at the sunlight on the boulevards convinced me that I should pocket The Waves and hit Versailles, a dozen miles west of Paris. Home of the Sun King!
I made my way down to Boulevard Raspail and turned north toward the Tour Montparnasse, the justly loathed skyscraper. If French people told jokes, they’d tell this one, with contempt curling from their sneering, shapely (or mustachioed) lips: Where is ze best view in Paris? Ze top of the Tour Montparnasse, bien sûr. It eez ze only place you cannot see ze Tour Montparnasse. [Shrug. Moue.]
After it was built, in 1973, the French banned skyscrapers from the city center, preventing further 59-story abominations. It remains an aesthetic sore thumb hit repeatedly by the hammer of French culture. But like its American cousin in urban effacement — Madison Square Garden — it sits on top of a transportation hub, so people can flee it efficiently.
I turned onto the Rue de Rennes, a junior ape — á la 2001: A Space Odyssey — careening toward the black obelisk that would transform him. And at this point in my life, transformation was a relatively light lift, seeing as I was starting from nowhere. If I had walked in downtown Newark, I’m certain my lump of clay would have been pounded and remodeled as well.
That night (2 September 1978) in my journal, I note: “The top of the Eiffel Tower is in the fog, and it has also clipped the Tour Montparnasse, erasing human beings’ tallest achievements. Time rolls backward beneath the obscuring firmament. An invisible web suspends a curled yellow leaf in mid-fall — autumn stalled by a spider.”
I hesitated my way into the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer (SNCF) station in the netherworld under Montparnasse. I waited in line with people who were utterly bored to be there, then spoke my single French word for the day — Versailles — and immediately got into it with the clerk over the issue of one way vs. round trip. But, finally, I mastered “allez et retour” — go and return — and appended it to all future travel requests on the SNCF.
Lessons crowd ‘round when you’ve only just cracked the textbook.