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WILD HEART, WONDERING MIND: An American (child) in Paris

Bonjour de Paris!

Yes, I’m writing you from the heart of Paris, France, where I finally have arrived to explore the land of my dreams for just over a month. Not only did I cross 4,771 miles to arrive here from my hometown of Cody, but I also have traveled back in time.

You think I mean to turn this into a trite treatise on how Europe’s rich and storied history spans so much farther back than the United States’. But no — that’s too obvious. When I tell you I’ve traveled back in time, I mean within the trajectory of my own life.

In France, I am a child again.

For instance, my first day here, my gracious host asked if I’d like to accompany her to a bookshop to find some Easter books for her grandchildren. I said yes without guessing just how engrossing I’d find the children’s section of a French bookstore.

Scene: Brightly clad behemoth girl squatting in a chair constructed for toddlers, nose buried and brow furrowed in concentration as she mouths and sounds out each word of “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge” (Little Red Riding Hood) before turning to the next cardboard pop-up page.

Despite endless hours of studying French, now that I am in France, my communication level might — if we’re talking about a slow developer — rival that of a 4-year-old. Any pride I had at my progress with the French language has been absolutely extinguished in the fire of my flaming cheeks any time a Parisian speaks to me and expects a response.

On the eight-hour flight from Cincinnati to Paris, I began reading a book several friends suggested as less of an option and more of a bible for my trip. It’s especially relevant to me because the next leg of my trip will be on foot — walking a portion of The Camino, a centuries-old sacred excursion spanning about 780 kilometers of Spain.

One passage in the book, “The Pilgrimage” by Paulo Coelho, spoke directly to my childlike experience in France thus far:

“When you travel, you experience, in a very practical way, the act of rebirth. You confront completely new situations, the day passes more slowly, and on most journeys you don’t even understand the language the people speak. So you are like a child just out of the womb. You begin to attach much more importance to the things around you because your survival depends on them. You begin to be more accessible to others because they may be able to help you in difficult situations. And you accept any small favor from the gods with great delight, as if it were an episode you would remember for the rest of your life.”

In France, I am as clueless and nearly as helpless as a child. At first, I found my ineptitude devastating. But Coelho’s words remind me great value can arise from the innocence and attentiveness of a child.

Children do not assume they know anything. Thus, they are able to learn much — much more than adults who have long since decided they’ve seen and heard it all and therefore do not need to be on the lookout for anything new or terrible or wonderful.

Since dropping every last ounce of my pride, I feel light enough to learn a whole new set of flight controls. Here in France, the old adult Virginia, who was all too familiar with how to set her course exactly and express herself in English precisely, exists no longer. She died to give birth to the French Virginie, and Virginie c’est une enfant — a child who has no idea where she is going; that’s what she’s here to find out.

To a child, any moment might be miraculous or disastrous: any and every moment matters; every person might be my savior or my demise. Since I do not know anything about anyone, I must pay extra special attention for any sign of that next big-hearted someone who will help me navigate the great unknown in which I now find myself.

I guess I knew I would have to make some kind of trade-off in order to live out my dream of traveling abroad. And if I must trade in the adult Virginia for the enfant Virginie, then I agree to this exchange.

Because, let’s face it, the grown-up Virginia would be too busy defending all she thinks she knows to learn anything new. Now that I’ve accepted my status in France as that of a child, it’s miraculous how the britches for which I was far too big suddenly fit me perfectly.

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