Lessons From Paris, Part 2: Walking to Do / Wahe Guru, Wahe Jio
I firmly believe that international travel, done right, centers primarily around walking. When I go to a new place, I insist on walking just about everywhere. I think it’s the best way to get to know a city: just putting feet to pavement; detouring at will down any given street and alleyway; listening and observing; soaking in the energy and the atmosphere; seeing the daily grind of local life up close and personal; and, inevitably, noticing interesting new things every time you venture out.
When following the “walk everywhere” method, not only will you be able to find your way around more quickly than if you spend the whole time underground or in a stranger’s backseat, but you’ll also discover innumerable untold treasures. Little bars and cafes that aren’t on any lists or in any guidebooks, but that have the best cocktails, the freshest coffee, the cutest ambiance or the most decadent desserts. Tiny, independent boutiques with astonishingly low-priced Italian linen and leather. Small chocolate shops with artisanal delicacies whose stylings look worthy of the Louvre. When you walk, you see your city through the eyes of a local, and get to know your neighborhood on an intimate basis.
This travel tenet of mine is also one recommended by my late great hero, the dearly departed sage, Anthony Bourdain: Make one neighborhood your home base, and get to know it intimately, rather than trying to cover every square foot of a sprawling metropolis. You’ll have more success, and more fun, getting to know one area well than running from one end of the city to another trying to accomplish the impossible task of seeing it all.
Thus, my practice abroad for several years running has been to pick a neighborhood with a good selection of bars, restaurants and bakeries (but without too rowdy a reputation), post up there for the duration in an Airbnb, go exploring during the day and return to my home away from home to rest my weary feet over dinner and drinks in a new (or favorite) haunt.
We followed this rule in Paris, making the Quartiér Latin our temporary residence. Upon arrival, we went through a routine that's now familiar to me during European travel: At first, you’re taken aback at how tiny the place seems. You wonder if you’ll even be able to extend your arms far enough to wash your hair in the shower, and note how you almost bang your knees when sitting to use the toilet. The first night, the beds seem small and uncomfortable. By night two, you’re tossing and turning less; the second morning in the shower, you're saying, “well, this is actually just fine; I don't really need more room.” By night three or four, you’re wondering if the Airbnb host will let you sign a year-long lease.
In our Paris residence, we had one fold-out couch bed that took up the entire living room, and one loft bed that seemed to have its own atmosphere, hitting equally lofty temperatures during the warm spring nights. But we quickly found that mom actually liked the couch bed, we didn’t need to use the living room anyway—and with a fan pointed at the loft bed and the window cracked, it was actually a delightful little sanctuary.
After a trip to the market for some liter-size Badóit (the best sparkling water), some creamy French yogurt and a little sub-par supermarket fruit (the local grocers' stands are much better, but they were closed), we were ready to stay forever.
From our cozy home base, we followed the golden rule: walking 10 to 15 miles every day, and only taking the occasional Metro when we needed to make up for lost time or flagging energy. Around every corner was a new adventure; an exciting experience; a funny display or a bad translation in a shop window; a delicious pastry; a beautiful trinket or piece of clothing.
Even using the bathroom was an adventure. Sometimes we had to buy bottled water or little snacks to gain access to the coveted stalls. At one point, desperate times forced me to crack the code of a confusing automatic toilet under a bridge in Montmartre, frantically pushing buttons and pulling levers to get the doors to open—only to be yelled at in undecipherable French as they sealed behind me, in what I feared might be the last thing I ever saw. The voice talked at me all throughout, the soap didn't work and the hand dryer was nowhere to be found. However, it was pretty cool when, after releasing me from its jaws, the toilet closed itself back up, like Lazarus' tomb being re-sealed shut, and hosed itself down for the next victim.
There was so much to do and see. Juxtaposed with the modern shopfronts were countless surprises from ages past. We never knew what we were going to find: a 500-year-old church, a beautiful marble sculpture, an ornate fountain or a fairy-tale brick-and-wrought-iron facade. We would turn the corner from a modern shopping mall or a supermarket and there would be a towering cathedral, beckoning us with its ancient wisdom, its mystical familiarity, its secrets yet known.
We came up with a rule: See a church, go inside.
We'd wander in the doors of these hallowed halls, and each one would have its own distinct, yet equally gorgeous, character. There were gothic turrets; soaring flying buttresses; brilliantly saturated stained-glass windows flashing blue and red and yellow and green, glinting and refracting back the midday sun; floor-to-ceiling paintings and shockingly lifelike sculptures that left us breathless.
Every walk was a new experience full of fun and wonder, childlike discovery, beauty and abandon. While chatting on one such walk, we realized that in this practice we were re-creating, at 10 times the splendor, the walks we took through our neighborhood in Kirkland when I was a little girl. We would traverse from our apartment through town, seeing new places, meeting animals and people, petting dogs and feeding ducks; collecting blazing fall leaves and soft pussywillows and lambs’ ears; choosing delicious pastries and treats from the familiar shopfronts. Mommy and me out in the world, looking for love and finding it everywhere; listening, receiving and experiencing all that life had to offer.
And so we resumed the trend: mother and daughter, older and wiser, moving ever forward. We were warrior women taking a victory lap after walking through so much hardship together in the years since those suburban lakefront strolls. Every morning we would wake up, me in the nook around the corner, mom usually getting ready when I awoke. I would meditate, we would change our outfits five or six times and then we’d set out on a new adventure, the day full of promise and possibility that always delivered.
We'd set out with a few destinations loosely mapped, deciding to just see what happened along the way—and we quickly realized that any time we made a specific plan, the universe would use that intention to take us somewhere even better. We would head out in search of a landmark or church, only to find it closed, but to stumble across some even more incredible, nondescript place or worship, statue, sight or sound along our route.
We passed on a day trip to Versailles, only to instead discover the Palais Garnier: an opulent display of royal decadence, only much more interesting, because the building was also a functioning opera house. We got to look through a peephole and see a stage production being rehearsed. We saw floor-to-ceiling golds and jewels that rivaled the likes of Marie Antoinette. But perhaps our favorite part was the grand balcony, like something out of ancient Rome, looking out over the city below that we had come to hold so dearly in our hearts. We gazed out over the landscape as if we were the queens of everything, and in that moment, we were.
Another case in point: I wanted to pick a special restaurant for mother’s day dinner. After exhaustive Google- and Yelp-searching, we thought we'd finally found the perfect little bistro. However, when we arrived, we found the place deserted. It was open, technically, but it didn’t exactly have a celebratory mood… or any kind of mood at all, devoid of a single, solitary soul.
Wanting somewhere with more life, we decided to explore what else was on that street—and found an incredible Italian ristorante, with hip decor, mood lighting, kind staff, an atmosphere that soon became bustling and a fine selection of reds. Not to mention, they had the freshest handmade pasta I’ve had outside of Italy—it melted in your mouth, boasting ingredients that burst with just-picked flavor, every taste and texture simple yet robust, each complimenting and enhancing the rest. The bountiful bread they served, flaky-crusted and soft on the inside, was the perfect vehicle to sop up the pooling tomato and aubergine on my plate and the decadent, milky, buttery river flowing from mom’s cacio e pepe.
When we finally wandered towards home, we intended to stop for dessert. However, we were still adjusting to European shop hours, and every bakery and patisserie we passed had long since closed. After a while, began to lose hope, thinking it might just be candy bars from the Monoprix in our future.
When we had almost given up, we crested a cobblestoned hill and suddenly saw it: a cozy, inviting little bar, the Epoch, that I could swear materialized out of thin air. Our server was a playful, satyr-like creature with flowing brown locks who suffered our wine-tinged attempt at pronouncing the menu with a mischievous smile. He happily brought us decadent créme brulee and tiramisu with shortbread crumbles, along with a Bordeaux and a chocolat chaut (which mom had been insistent on finding, and heretofore denied at every turn).
The place seemed lifted directly from the movie “Midnight in Paris.” The environment was whimsical, magical; like we were in a novel come to life, transported back to the '20s and '30s, when painters, writers and artists ran amok about the streets of gay Paris. We tried to make a return trip to the Epoch later in our trip, but it seemed to have vanished as mysteriously as it came, into the night of the Quartier Latin.
We didn’t see it again until our very last night, wandering the streets until our final dinner spot called to us. (This was in itself a laborious process, fraught with the distress of a potential poor choice for our last meal of the trip.) We found our calling in a lively spot called "Soul Kitchen," a name that smacked of Southern food but instead boasted simple takes on French seafood, pasta and salad dishes.
We were seated outside, looked up—and there it was, in all its glory, making a one-night encore appearance. The Epoch. The satyr-server flitted from table to table, attending to customers outside. As he sat down to chat with one of them, he did a double-take of his own when he saw us staring, scratching our heads at the bar’s apparent manifestation, asking each other, "that wasn't there all along... was it?!?"
Even the simple meals were full of surprise and wonder. One night, we were searching for a quick-fix falafel stand or panini counter, wanting to just enjoy a glass of wine and grab something easy to eat after a long day. There were innumerable spots along our neighborhood's main drag, but only one had a line that stretched for blocks: Au P'tit Grec. We looked it up on Yelp, and it seemed to live up to the hype, catering to hungry, tipsy patrons who steadily poured out of the nearby nightspots.
We had to have it. The line was long when we first walked up, around 7 p.m., so we decided to come back after having a drink and resting our aching feet. By 9 p.m., we figured, surely, with the dinner hour past and the bars not yet closing, the place would be more accessible. Alas, the line had not abated since our last arrival. But now, we had committed so fully that we simply had to stick it out, regardless of how enticing the three other savory crepe and pita stands on either side of Au P'tit Greek began to appear after more and more time passed without eating.
An hour and a half later, they began cutting off the line behind us. Incensed and half-drunk would-be customers drifted off to the lesser competitors, crushed. Our anticipation grew as we ever-so-slowly crept closer, our movement as if through deep water, barely perceptible. Finally, at nearly 11 p.m., we made it to the Holy Grail of Greek sandwiches, and were rewarded handsomely. Each crepe was hand-poured, the halloumi browned to perfection, the fresh vegetables prepared and wrapped by an exhausted-looking, silver-haired proprietor with intensely creased features, steely eyes and a bottomless cup of what was either espresso or liqueur.
When we finally dug in, the bread and cheese and vegetables and the tangy, nutty sauce seemed to have been handed down from the gods themselves. Poor mom almost didn't even mind when that magical sandwich turned her stomach inside out for the rest of the night... almost. It was all part of the adventure. (Though, we never did go back).
The most show-stopping surprise of our walking tours, however, came at Saint Chapelle Cathedral. We put it off at first, not being familiar with it, and not particularly impressed by the rather drab exterior. Eventually, about halfway through the trip, we decided we had time to check it out. There was no line and we walked right in. The ground floor was more lovely than we anticipated, with bright blues, reds and golds adorning the ceiling and walls, and crumbled bits of gargoyles and columns and Gothic architecture scattered about the floor. We took some pictures and took it all in. It was beautiful, but no more so than other churches we had seen so far. We decided, sure, why not go upstairs to the chapel before moving on.
We ascended the twisting spiral staircase, expecting to see some cool stained glass, maybe a few statues—but nothing could have prepared us for what awaited. We bounded up the stairs and casually waltzed into the chapel, and were stopped dead in our tracks. The sight literally took our breath away. Tears sprang to our eyes. It was epic in scale, detail and color. It was a thing of beauty unlike anything we had ever conceived of, and which photos cannot do justice to.
Floor-to-ceiling color. So vibrant, so detailed. Alcoves with hidden art and architecture. Statues representing the different saints winding around the room. The light filtering through the windows, the light of God himself: Illuminating the room; illuminating our hearts; lighting our souls ablaze. The intricate detail of the glasswork and the carvings, so precise there seemed no possible way it was created by a mere mortal. This was the universe in all its glory, manifesting through the hands of men and women, calling forth in generations past a connection with the divine.
We turned to stare at each other, mouths agape, and uttered… “Oh my God!” The words to the kundalini song “Wahe Guru, Wahe Jio” popped into my head, which seemed strange, since I couldn’t even remember what they meant.
When we got outside, I looked up the lyrics.
Wahe guru, wahe jio means “Wow! God is great.”
On this trip, we recaptured the spirit of adventure. Mom and I walked like we had so many times before, only with a new purpose, with new hearts and minds and souls, destination nowhere and everywhere all at once.
We were the same, and yet we had never been more different. Our souls knew this road, even if our minds and eyes and ears didn’t recognize it. We were on a mission that I will continue for the rest of my life: to reflect back the beauty I see in the world through my life’s work, my relationships, my words and art and food and conversations. To give and receive joy and wonder. To look for love and find it everywhere.