I've just finished packing my things to leave Frankfurt. Tomorrow morning I'll get on the train to Paris, and my month-long sojourn there will begin. The last few days have been exciting, eventful, and a bit stressful, but they were just an opportunistic prelude. Tomorrow is the beginning of the real thing.
Few people have asked me why I'm going to Paris for a month, and the one who have done so have not asked it in a positive way. It's obvious that there are many good reasons: a vacation, a change of scenery, a palate-cleaner. The art, the history, the atmosphere, the food. The question of why I am going to Paris is almost ridiculous.
But the question of why I am going to Paris is not. Perhaps it's partly because in my daily life I am exactly the sort of person you wouldn't think of as going to Paris. I'm a homebody, easily entertained by simple pleasures, tending to stinginess, risk-aversion, fearfulness. This is not so much the way I want to be as a rut it is easy to fall into and easier to stay in; I am usually plenty stimulated without going out of my comfort zone. I push myself to do things, go to things, take chances on events or activities I wouldn't normally do - but these things are exceptions. The rule is I go to work, come home, surf the web, watch TV, read a book, go to bed. I see the same friends in the same places, I go to the gym, I take in a ballet or a play. It is not a bad life, but it's nice to shake things up.
However, I don't need to cross oceans to do that. I live in New York City; there's plenty of shaking going on there. So I ask myself, what do I want to get out of this trip? I know that I want to see monuments and museums, take day trips, walk the streets and sit in cafes - but I also know that's not all I want to do. Just doing those things won't make this trip a success. But what will?
One answer to that is that I want to write, perhaps a lot, perhaps varied things, but I don't think that's the only answer. And I don't think I can know the answer. If I knew what I wanted to do in Paris other than see the sights of Paris, I could probably do it at home. I think what I want to do in Paris is figure out - or maybe remind myself of - what I want to do in Paris, of what I can do or who I can be outside my context.
Which is why I started this post talking about packing. For much of my adult life, I have been packing frequently. I've moved roughly every two years since the end of college, if not to a new town than to a different living situation (i.e. from having roommates to on my own) and now not only will I not be moving but I will be entering a phase in which I will not have to move for a potentially very long time. I am settling down, in a place and a manner I didn't anticipate.
And I am becoming someone else. Changing careers has hit me harder than I think it might otherwise have because my work has always been what has defined me. Everything else - my location, but also my friendships and other relationships, has been subservient to or even defined in terms of, what I do for a living. So doing something different suggests I am someone different, or that I'm not who I always thought I was. So I think part of the reason for taking this trip is to see who I really am now, and to remind myself of who I've always been.
The last time I took a trip of this magnitude was after college. Like now, I had something lined up for afterwards; like now, the trip was highly unstructured. I went with a friend, but after a couple weeks we parted ways, and all of my most compelling memories (although not all the most humorous ones) are from the time I was travelling alone. Alone in a series of foreign countries, with the daily difficulties and inspirations of travelling and a series of new landscapes to explore, the thing I felt most comfortable inhabiting was myself.
I think that's why I chose Paris. Partly, of course, to experience the beauty and excitement of the City of Lights. But partly to rediscover the beauty and excitement that have been leaking, over the last few years of defining myself by a pursuit that became increasingly unhappy and unsuccessful, to rebuild and rediscover the beauty and excitement of my life and myself.