Every once in a while, Mystical Portugal founder Laura Esculcas journeys beyond Portugal's borders, encountering the sacredness in everyday places. In June of 2015, she travelled to Paris. In this reprint of her 2015 blog post, she shares with us what she discovered.
The places we inhabit reflect the spaces that inhabit us. It is not important if we live our entire life in one town or if we are just passing through a place, when we connect with the spirit of a place, we are suddenly aware that in everything we encounter, we discover a part of ourselves.
I was eighteen years old the first time I set foot in Paris. It was my second favorite city on my post-high school graduation grand European tour (Portugal was not on the itinerary). In a few short days in Paris, there was the requisite rainy ride on the Seine, a visit to a perfumery, deciphering of paintings at the Picasso museum, and shopping at Printemps culminating in the purchase of a t-shirt printed with "I love you" in 15 different languages. I vacillated between admiration and terror at a modern ballet performance, was flashed on the Paris metro, learned that wine was cheaper than a Coca-cola, and repeatedly found myself apologizing for not ordering meals in French.
As I walked the city streets, my imagination roamed the Paris of Jean Valjean, Javert and Eponine. I felt put off by the long lines and the other loud American teenagers at the Eiffel Tower (it's always the "other" that is such a true reflection of what we despise in ourselves, isn't it?), and thus never ascended it's lofty heights. But upon my return home, I promptly adorned my bedroom with a black and white poster of the tower's magnificent view above Paris.
I am in Paris once again. On little île Saint-Louis, a small boat-of-an-island in the heart of the Seine. A tiny cobbled triangle called Place Louis Aragon rests on the "aft" of this little island-boat. I sit upon a quiet bench and listen to the hum of the city blend with the murmur of the river. I imagine an ancient Parisian squatting along the river's edge and dipping hands into the flowing waters that both give life and take it away. The sacred river, kissing sandbars, sings its perpetual hymn to the land. The city around me, with the undying devotion of a lover, responds in kind.
Paris has been called the city of lights and the city of lovers. It was Ernest Hemingway's "moveable feast." John Berger imagined it to be "a man in his twenties in love with an older woman," and Cole Porter loved "when Paris sizzles." On a recent visit to this city of artists and writers, I wondered, what is the spirit of this place?
Open a window in Paris and the sounds of the city rush in like a river. Everything in Paris resonates with the waters of the Seine. Thirsty throngs of tourists flow through gardens, swirl past monuments, and splash into sandbar cafes. Words pour out of hunched writers, spilling onto pages. Lovers kiss on bridges while waters embrace the land. Everywhere in Paris, the river washes over us. The Seine flows through Paris like blood through our veins.
Rivers purify us. Rivers mirror the flow of blood in our veins, the directionality of time, and the fluctuation of human emotions. Rivers are vital, creative life force, flowing from source to merge with sea. Rivers are liminal and stand as boundaries as well as offer passage to the other side. The great French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard writes in Water and Dreams, "One cannot bathe twice in the same river because already, in his inmost recesses, the human being shares the destiny of flowing water...a being dedicated to water is a being in flux. He dies every minute; something of his substance is constantly falling away." This is the bittersweet purifying power of rivers that both inspires and terrifies us. It is the power of renewal, of emptying and filling ourselves again and again. This is the spirit that inhabits all of us poets, artists, writers and beings who find ourselves in Paris.
Paris is not perched on the margins of the river like a tentative lover. City and river intertwine in a passionate, eternally renewing embrace. Paris is Berger's young man in love with the older woman. She, personified in myth, is the ancient river goddess Sequana. From the little boat-island they call to us:
Au cœur de la ville
Où tout est tranquille
(Do you know the island
At the heart of the city
Where all is quiet
This is the call urging us to break loose from the margins and risk being in the mad current of life where the lovers meet. In this call is the promise that when we have the courage to dive into the stream of our emotions, we will be carried over to the the quiet island within our hearts. In Paris, as in any place whose spirit touches us, is the potential to discover a part of ourselves. As I rest on a quiet bench, in a tiny cobbled courtyard, on the aft of an island-boat, in the heart of the city of lights, the Spirit of Place settles over me. Between exhale and inhale, all that I see is in me.