To my future happy place,

I do not want to limit these letters to just people. I think doing so would force me to capture only a small part of an intricate spectrum of things that have shaped me. And so, I’d like to begin this letter by saying:

Dear happy place,

I don’t really know how to describe you. That is, I don’t really know what or where you are. Maybe you don’t exist. But here are some hopes and dreams I want to put out regarding you.

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Sometimes I think of you as the shade under a fig tree with the nearby Mediterranean sea breeze picking my hair apart in tangles. The climb to the top of Anacapri, to the vista alongside thousand year old statues of Caesar and the Sphinx, where you’ll find me sitting with a glass of limoncello. Perhaps you are the Blue Grotto, alit with an electrifying blue, and the thrill when I jump into your magical azure on a whim.

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Perhaps you are the warm cobblestones of Florence, that delicious pappa al pomodoro that I would forever call the best thing I ever ate. Perhaps you are all the museums, the mausoleums, the marble floors, the art, and the thick romance of the Italian air. Perhaps you are the ambrosial Roman sunsets.

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Sometimes you are the thunder I hear under the ground at the base of Mount Aragats or the view from Charents’ Arch looking towards Ararat; a dule of doves fly through the arch and towards their redemption–the fruit trees lining the narrow path up to Khor Virap. Perhaps you are the red poppies draping the hills of Artaz.

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Sometimes you are the blasting cold of the Northern Sea at the edge of St Abb’s Head, the sharp cliffs falling hundreds of feet below into a salt mist. Perhaps you are the rolling hills of the Highlands, the sound of wild sheep bleating, the hooves of red deer passing before the hunt, the golden eagle’s cry. Sometimes you are the ripples in the faerie pools at the Isle of Skye and the roar of the waves against the bluffs in the Hebrides.

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Sometimes you are Paris; tucked in a corner cafe across the Eiffel Tower at precisely 11 o’clock in the evening. Perhaps you are the green leather chairs at La Dome or some side bar in the Latin Quarter, still selling absinthe in old wine bottles. Perhaps you are the flower markets of Nice in the full plight of summer; the tourists past by your stand, but I know better.

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Perhaps you are the great alps of Switzerland; the train ride up to Mürren, the North Face trail winding around towards the Eiger. Perhaps you are that one hotel in Zermatt, where I wake up and see the Matterhorn just outside our bedroom window. Perhaps you are the winding trails and little hostels down the mountain that host funny travelers.

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Perhaps you are all the places I have ever been at once. You are all the feelings, the touches, the scents, the sights, the sounds.

Dear happy place, we will meet. If not all at once, I hope to capture as much of your magic in what little ways I can.

I hope we meet soon,

The bright-eyed traveler

Flâneuse: Book Review

IMG_2351.JPGI recently bought a book by Lauren Elkin, (instagram post here). An American expat in Paris, she talks about the hidden history of women in cities. More specifically, les flâneuses, the women who wander through cities. Flâneur is French slang for someone who wanders aimlessly. The term heralds from the 19th century when women simply were not allowed to walk up and down streets on their own. In fact, most of the word’s history belongs in the realm of men.  But, Elkin goes on to disprove this stereotype. She talks about her own experience as a flâneuse (feminizing the word), and the experiences of many other women in history who explored their cities uninhibited by the “guardianship” of men.

Lauren writes about her own experiences in Tokyo, London, New York, Venice, and of course, Paris. In her book she points out that the flâneuse is not just a wanderer, she is so much more. One quote I loved was, “The flâneur, attuned to the chords that vibrate through his city, knows without knowing” (3). The flâneur carries an intuition, so real and authentic and legitimate that it is often labeled as a kind of magic. How can one know a city so well? How can one be so acclimatized to the undulations of the cobblestone streets? How can one know which direction the water inside a city’s metal pipes flow? At what time does the baker peek out his window? What direction that redolent scent originates?

It is the ultimate native of a city, though she may not even have been born there. She just knows. Paris and I have been in an entangled love story for the past few years. We are no strangers. Elkin writes about my favorite places:

I walked past all the great cafés lining the boulevard, La Rotonde, Le Select, Le Dôme and La Coupole, watering holes to generations of American writers in Paris, whose ghosts hunched under café awnings, unimpressed with the way the twentieth century had turned out. I crossed over the rue Vavin, with its eponymous café, where all the cool lycéens went when they got out of school, assertive cigarette smokers with sleeves too long for their arms, shod in Converse sneakers, boys with dark curls and girls with no make-up. (5)

As you can imagine, reading about Elkin’s time in my filthy, stupefying, ambrosial lover was much more than just a thrill. I am not quite finished with this book, but I was so excited I had to write about it immediately.

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One of Hemingway’s Parisian apartments

It shocked me to know that, over the past two centuries, so many women were tied to their homes. Many were forced only to take part in marital duties. But some brave heroines refused the hearth and made their homes in the deep veins of a city. We are part of this thread of rebels. We know our cities…albeit through different strategies. Here is to all our intelligent, intuitive, illustrative, ignescent, irresistible, impious, idiosyncratic, international flâneuses who never gave a damn and loved their cities all the more.

And finally, a snippet of Baudelaire’s “Passer-by,” one of my favorite French poems that Elkin puts in her book:

The deafening street roared around me

Tall, sender, in heavy mourning, majestic in her grandeur

A woman walked past me, her sumptuous hand

Lifting and shining her hem as she went.

Swift and graceful, with legs like a statue’s

Twitching like a madman, I drank in

Her eyes, a pallid sky where storms are born

the sweetness that charms and the pleasure that kills.

  • by Charles Baudelaire (1855)