You step off the plane, and it’s like you’ve time-traveled. Your body finds itself six hours ahead of its time. Your eyes see sunshine where they expect darkness. Your ears find noise where they expect silence. Your internal clock is now stalled and completely out of sync with your surroundings. And yet – the sounds! The people! The language! Everything is colorful and lively and new and you’re afraid to blink and miss a single second of it. Your hands shake — with excitement or exhaustion, you can’t tell.
On the train ride down to France, you see its neighbor Germany through a window – your first real view of Europe. It is somehow everything you expected and nothing like you imagined. It’s a cluster of villages nestled into the sides of a rolling hill. A countryside that sprawls out far as the eye can see. The grass, the rivers, even the air – all have a foreign quality to them.
After two hours acquainting yourself with Europe behind glass, you leave the train and take your first step on the ground of this alien continent. You feel like Neil Armstrong, going boldly where no man has gone before. The people around you speak in a tongue that, to your ears, is complete gibberish. Your head swirls with English thoughts that you cannot express to anyone, and, for the first time in your life, you feel voiceless. Unable to talk, you listen.
French is music. French is ballet. French is a silk ribbon of sound floating through the air into your ear and you understand nothing about it except that it is beautiful.
Fast-forward to your visit to quaint French villages, where you feel as if you’ve been plucked from reality and set down in the pages of a storybook. Think fairytales. Think Beauty and the Beast. Think flower-boxes and horse-drawn carriages and outdoor cafes where poets, artists, and intellectuals recline and discuss the great theories of the universe over coffee and bread.
Bread. It permeates everything. You smell it in the air, on your clothes. You carry it home with you and smell it on your skin at night. Your first French pastry is a pain au chocolat and when you bite into it, you bite into the sun. Fresh out of the oven, it fills with you with warmth that runs like liquid gold along your taste buds and into your bloodstream, stimulating every drowsy atom of your body to life. Bread at home will never taste like proper bread again.
You spend a night in Alsace, walking its streets long after the sun has fallen and the shops have closed and the tourists have cleared. And suddenly, in a moment of pure clarity, you realize you have stumbled upon the secret heart of France. It isn’t in Paris, as so many believe. It’s here. It’s in this little village – this tiny, overlooked dot on the map. You know because you ate its cheese and you drank its wine and you opened your mouth to its every taste. Now you stroll under its streetlights; you kneel to pet its stray cats. You touch the stones of its cathedral and think of everyone who has ever bent to pray here. You want to smile and you want to cry but mostly you want to lie down on this cobble street and be swallowed up into it and become a part of this magical town forever.
But you leave. You leave and you visit Paris, which is gorgeous and vibrant and wonderful in its own special way. You climb the three hundred steps of Montmartre and view the city from its highest vantage point. You wander through the artist’s quarter and see an endless line of painters at their canvases and wonder if the next Monet is among them. You sit on sidewalks eating ice cream and listening to the tunes of street musicians, tapping your foot because music is a language spoken by everyone. You walk through the doors of a dozen cathedrals and raise your face to a thousand stained-glass windows and think to yourself, If I were God, I would always have an eye on Paris. It is dazzling and it is loud and it is impossible to look away.
It is also exhausting. You visit the quiet hometown of your favorite artist to get away from its hustle and bustle. You pick a sunflower and write a letter and leave both on his grave, where you weep six feet above his bones. You close your eyes and can almost imagine him standing over you, his hand on your shoulder, his kiss on the top of your head. It is a day he would have loved: blue skies above golden wheat fields. You wonder if he would love you as well, love your offerings – read your letter and touch your sunflower, every petal.
You visit his exhibit in the Muse d’Orsay and it is something out of a Doctor Who episode. You stand for thirty minutes staring at a single painting. Hundreds of people elbow you, snap their picture, then turn quickly to the next one. You take the time to look, to see. You study every brushstroke, every bit of texture, every fleck of color. Tears slide silently down your cheeks. To know that you are standing face-to-face with the canvas his hand ran across – that you are inches away, that your fingers could easily stretch out and graze the places his fingers grazed. To know that is to reach through time and touch him.
You visit medieval castles and hear history whispering in the walls around you. You visit Notre-Dame and understand why it inspired so many stories. You sit on the lawn before the Eiffel Tower and consider how profoundly lucky you are to experience all of this.
And then, just as France begins to feel familiar, just as the land beneath your feet has stopped seeming so strange and you’ve even begun to speak a little of its language, you’re on the plane back home. You watch Europe tuck itself beneath a blanket of clouds and you wonder if you’ll ever see it again.
But you do. Even in America, you see it. You see it in pictures and poems and the pages of novels. You read descriptions of towns you’ve visited and your heart swells with joy. You hear a French word or phrase out of an English-speaking mouth and your ears perk up to listen. Bonjour. Voila. Bon appetite. You see it in the eyes of others who also been to Paris, who seem to understand everything you can’t articulate about it. Who can only nod their heads and smile and say “I know” as you struggle to find the words.
You know that six hours ahead of you, France is just as beautiful and busy as you left it. You lay your head down on your pillow at night and think about all the people in Alsace just waking up, sipping their morning tea and watering their flowers.
And you fall asleep, leaving the world in their capable hands.