Don’t dip into that river
One of my cousins sent me a random e-mail out of the blue with a link to this New York Times story, on Friday:
Often, I don’t have the time to read through the links people send me. This particular cousin is an older guy that is one of my grand-aunts’ step sons, so he is really only a cousin, properly speaking, by a long stretch. But I spent many holidays with him around so I do try to keep the lines of communication open with him. He is a NYC native married to an Ohioan. Two progressives in a conservative enclave. He often gets very heated about what is going on politically, and I think I am one of the few people he can write to on intellectual topics, who will not only respond, but follow his train of thought and answer intelligently (I hope).
This time though, it wasn’t so much about politics, but rather about a place that I have always loved and enjoyed visiting: Paris. My cousin had lived there for awhile, so I guess that was the reason for sending me the link. Reading the piece, put me in a somber mood. Not a deep one but still it was somewhat disturbing. I have never heard Paris described quite this way and it is pretty off-putting.
The article is interesting, but what really stayed with me was the recognition that I might not want to return to my favorite places around the globe — maybe ever. Reading about what this writer feels about Paris in 2013 reminded me that I haven’t been there since the 1990s. It is not the same place, apparently. I don’t remember tribal strife, filthy streets, hostile Parisians, dreary weather. My memories of Paris are the opposite, a bright, sparkling ‘sapphire and pearl’ city with fabulous food, beautiful ornate architecture, stunning fashions and chic residents. Cosmopolitan, elegant and exciting. With that beautiful, musical language flowing all around, one that I learned so I can now occasionally read Le Monde to get the world’s perspective on current topics.
This was not Paris for this guy (and the article is not a complete knock on Paris, either – this was just my less than positive takeaway).
What it reminded me of was Heraclitus’s famous saying that you cannot step in the same river twice. Everything is always in flux.
Why did each of my half dozen or so trips to Paris echo one another? Was it my age? Was it the people I went with? Has Paris changed so much that it was more like itself then, than it could possibly be now? There is only one way to find out and it might be an expensive and destructive experiment.
I may already have learned that lesson.
When I was growing up, my mother and I would often travel down to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia right around Christmas time (my dad did not believe in vacations, being a workaholic, so we went on our own). Williamsburg was just a magical place for a child. At the holidays, they completely recaptured the atmosphere of an 1800s Christmas. I won’t go into all the ways that was achieved (and I assume it still does this by and large), but, if you are not familiar with it just briefly. Williamsburg recreates colonial times. The people who work there, are always in character and costume. You can go to the candlemakers, see the candles being made. To the blacksmith to watch him as he shod the horses, to the cobbler to watch him fashion shoes on a last. And of course, there were carolers and musicians, beautifully decorated Christmas trees, horse and buggy rides, food at taverns and period restaurants. It was lovely and I felt as children do when they discover Disneyland or Epcot nowadays. We always stayed at the Williamburg Inn. The whole thing in my memory was perfect.
Years later, I convinced my husband to take a trip down there. He had to be in nearby Reston on business and so we thought we could just take a day and spend it in Williamsburg. First of all, it wasn’t December, it was August. If you live in a humid climate in the south, you can likely imagine what Virginia can be like in August. The day we picked was a particularly hot and sultry one. The air was close and thick and you could feel the atmospheric pressure dropping as the afternoon approached, until it felt like it was sitting right on our chests. We were fairly dripping, within minutes of stepping out of the car. I was familiar with this from having spent time in Florida, South America and even New Jersey and NYC in August. I knew it meant there was a gigantic thunderstorm looming. But it didn’t break most of the day.
During that day, we walked around. Instead of being charmed by authentic recreation of a time past, the whole place looked shabby and tacky. The people seemed surly and disinterested in what they were doing and worst of all, in us, the visitors. The entire village looked like a ghost-town. I was shocked, disappointed, and embarrassed that I convinced my sophisticated partner to waste a day trudging around this dusty place in stifling heat. The restaurants were closed due to budget cuts. Oh, I forgot to mention, it was one of our lovely recessions. So, naturally the Jamestown simulation had taken a huge hit and a lot was either gone or shuttered. We ditched it early and headed to Mount Vernon, instead and of course, the minute we arrived, the skies opened up and we were drenched right to the bone, with hot, grimy rain.
That fiasco made me so irritable that I vowed that I would never go back there.
I had a similar experience in a completely different way. When I was very little, my mother dragged my dad to see a movie in Red Bank at an alternative theater that ran art films. I cannot even remember the film they went to see. But during that movie, my dad fell asleep. Rather than awaken him, we started to watch the midnight movie that came right afterward. It was a cult movie that I have already alluded to: The Devil Girl From Mars. I was too young to really grasp anything but the fact that it involved a beautiful woman from outer space that was at some point going to take the little boy in the movie onto the space ship and show him around. That fascinated me and I watched in great anticipation for that magic moment that was coming, when I would see the inside of the space ship! Oh joy! And, just at that moment, my dad woke up, of course. He was feeling cranky and wanted to leave immediately. My mother (bless her) and I wanted to stay just a bit longer to see the space ship — but nothin’ doin’. We were outta there.
I am telling you that I thought about that movie for the next thirty years, really. I looked for it, watched for it, asked people about it — I had everyone on both sides of the families looking for it. It was as if I imagined it, except my mother and I knew we had been there. Then one day one of my nieces said she had a huge surprise for me. Yes. It was my very own DVD copy of, you guessed it.
Excitement abounded! I called my mother, we got a group together. Brought out the Goldenburg’s Peanut Chews and popcorn, shoved the DVD into the big screen TV and watched in … horror. As the cheesiest, most pedestrian, un-mystifying movie you have ever seen dragged across the tube. Luckily, I was in a great mood and we all had a good laugh.
But it taught me something. Don’t revisit places that you thought were perfect. Don’t complete that unread lost book that seemed about to unlock the mysteries of the universe. Leave unfinished movies to fond and rose-colored memories.
I almost made this mistake again with one of my favorite vacation destinations: Jamaica. I had been there on one fantastic vacation in grad school, with a group of friends. We spent a glorious week in Montego Bay at a hotel with singing waiters and the bar in the pool, rafting in Ocho Rios, travelling into the murky and voodoo legendary Rose Plantation. One night we sat on a rooftop restaurant and saw a shower of falling stars. Every moment of that vacation seemed anointed by the gods. Recently we were asked to come up with a place for a (in-laws) family vacation for the whole extended clan. Seizing the opportunity, I began to make the case for Jamaica and then caught myself just in time. One thing I like to do is learn from my mistakes.
Luckily, I have no desire at all to return to Europe. I cannot think of any country to which I have already travelled that I am longing to return. If I do go abroad again, I will go to places I have never been. Much as I love Paris [why oh why do I… 😉 …], after reading this article, I think I will pass.
Ironically, in looking up that ridiculous film? It gets rave reviews from cult afficionados. Go figure.
Images: travel.nationalgeographic.com, deviantart.com,comicartcollective.com,