When I arrive in a city, town, or village for the first time, or re-visit an old haunt I haven’t been to in a while, I have an immediate and visceral response to the “character” of the place. Being lucky enough to have spent most of this July traveling in three countries to places new and familiar, dividing my time among large capital cities, renowned university towns, small tourist stops, and quiet, ancient villages, has left me pondering this phenomenon.
Moving from one spot to another, not spending more than a few days at a time anywhere, it’s hard to get an in-depth sense of anyplace. But still, an impression is made, and in the end, since there are only a small handful of places that each of us gets to live in for any length of time, that fleeting impression is what sticks most of the time.
On this trip, I was, by turns, charmed, nostalgic, disappointed, curious, elated, wished I could stay longer, had planned just the right amount of time somewhere, or couldn’t wait to leave. And as I spent time in various locations, alone and with diverse people – husband, sister, friends, relatives – I became acutely aware that each of us has our own, often wildly disparate response to the same place.
There are so many factors that make up the character of a place—the geography, the architecture, the history, the culture, the food, the contemporary ambiance, and, of course, the energy of the people who call it home. But there is something more. Why does a cluster of tiny café tables with rickety chairs on a busy sidewalk annoy me in New York, and comfort me in Paris? Why does a tea shop in the UK that closes at what I think of as tea time aggravate me no end (!), while a tea shop in New York, regardless of the hours it stays open, delights me?
And there, of course, is the key factor—our expectations. We bring expectations to every place we go, even if subconsciously. Those expectations are born of our experiences in a place, or our myths of the place, or our needs leaving another place. A fast 36-hour trip to Provence that might drive someone else crazy for being so short had me ecstatic to bask in the incomparable light there and savor the clean, sharp smell of the Provençal air even for that brief time: Because that is what I expect there, and I am not disappointed.
So it’s no surprise that ending my trip with only two days in Paris, a place where I lived for four of my formative adult years, felt crazier than 36 hours out of the way in Provence. Because in a way, Paris will always be home for me, and two days was simply not enough time to make myself at home.
Each of us, it seems, brings our expectations and our yearnings, and finds what we love in different places. It is one of the joys and the sorrows of traveling in our small, modern, rapid-paced world.
I love traveling and immersing myself in another language and culture, and I’m still excited to visit places new and old. But I’ve left another little piece of my heart, chez moi, in Paris. A très bientôt, j’éspère.
Photos by Lucille Rivin. Music courtesy of buskers recorded live in Ireland and France by Lucille Rivin and E330.