by Erin Byrne
Paris and the art of transformation.
Imagine being placed at the top of the main staircase inside the most visited museum in the world. Daylight streams from above, bathing the arched walls in golden light, illuminating and exposing you. You’re there for thousands to see, but have neither head nor arms.
Winged Victory stands boldly atop the sweeping Daru staircase inside Musee du Louvre in Paris. Her legs, caressed by wind-whipped fabric, are sturdy. Her chest is thrust forward, and her feathered wings fly out behind her. The loss of her head and arms is said to enhance her ethereal beauty, what she has more than makes up for what she lacks. She beams with boldness, for she is authentic.
Sometimes, if we are in the right place at the right time, a work of art can release a current of electric insight that challenges us to our very core. Thus did a trip to Paris became a pilgrimage in which Winged Victory’s spirit entered my bloodstream.
As I prepared to travel to Paris in January, I remembered a lecture by writer Phil Cousineau. He’d been speaking about his book, The Art of Pilgrimage, which puts forth a new model of mindful travel. Cousineau directs the traveler to weave his way through disappointments and follow the hunger for something deeper. As the traveler progresses through seven stages of pilgrimage beginning with the longing to go, continuing all the way through to the arrival home and reflecting on the trip the journey becomes transformative.
I remembered Cousineau’s voice shaking with the excitement of reimagining the way we travel. “The truth of your life is as close to you as the vein pulsing in your neck,” he’d said.
All of the answers are within us, but such is our tendency toward forgetting that we sometimes need to venture to a far away land to tap our own memory.
-Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage
I was returning to the city I loved. I had been to Paris oftensipped wine and saturated my palate at tiny sidewalk cafes, dashed from the left bank literary haunts to the haute couture of the Avenue Montaigne, listened to violins inside candle-lit Sainte-Chapelle and wailing jazz inside crowded clubs.
On previous trips I had felt the city tug a string inside of me, threatening to unravel something tightly knit, though I knew not what. I had been certain Paris could melt me, thaw me out, and untangle me. The odd thing was that I didn’t think I needed melting or untangling. I had known that this was a place I could be my true self. Each time I’d been there, awareness had crept in that this self was far, far away.
Indeed, my authentic self had disappeared sometime around 1963. The last time anyone saw her was in a black and white photograph of Miss Beckowitcz’s preschool class. In the photo, a girl sits in the front row staring at the camera with quiet, solemn eyes. A million questions roll around inside her head. She is an observer, a thinker. She knows exactly who she is and is comfortable in her own skin. She is me.
By first grade, the unblinking little owl was usurped. In the first grade class photo, the girl tilts her head, shrugs her shoulders prettily, and wears an adorable smile. The same look appears repeatedly in the stack of photos that chronicle my life: the laughing teenager; the gregarious sorority girl; the effervescent wife and mother; the accomplished public speaker.
Was it twisted parental pressures or just America’s expectations of little girls in the 1960s that made me decide at the age of four to act the role of the cute, center-of-attention-loving little red-haired girl? I’m not sure, but I remember making the conscious choice that it was easier to hide my brooding introspection than live with awkward reactions to it, so I cultivated perkiness instead. By the age of six, I played the part of the party girl to perfection. I had donned the extroverted persona that the world adored, and it didn’t quite fit, but still clung to me forty three years later as I prepared to travel to Paris.
One of the ancient functions of pilgrimage is to wake us from our slumber.
As drizzly night descended upon Charles de Gaulle airport, I climbed into a taxi. The cab glided into the city as streetlights gradually came on. Paris shimmered with light. The huge Corinthian columns of the church of La Madeleine held a white glow within, the opulence of The Opera Garnier gleamed against the indigo sky. As we circled the Place de la Concord, its obelisk soared out of the mist and the gigantic medieval palace of the Louvre exuded a beckoning air of mystery that seemed directed at me. An awareness emerged out of the blueness of my brain that my soul was here.
My soul was here? It sounded melodramatic and new age not at all like me. But in that taxi floating around the brilliantly lit city, I felt my soul stir, stretch and blink the sleep from its eyes.
Pay close attention to any dreams still frothing on the surface of your mind.
That night, as I floated in and out of sleep, I dreamed of The City of Light waiting outside my hotel room. The history of Paris is not for the faint-of-heart: the scarlet blood of its kings and queens has trickled along the cobblestones and mingled with sticky redness spilled out of the poorest street urchin. Every few feet one encounters statues of history’s great thinkers. Hundreds of museums hold priceless artistic brilliance, thousands of bookstores cradle the questions of writers and philosophers. Cafes hum with contemplation.
There is nothing frivolous about Paris; it demands to be taken seriously.
The oldest practice is still the best. Take your soul for a stroll.
Every time I stepped out of my hotel, my feet took me to the streets where I greeted overcoated Parisians with a smile and a perky Bonjour. Tree branches were outlined stark against the sky, stone buildings frozen solid. Notre Dame’s stained glass was colored ice, and the clanging of its bells cut through the frigid air.
I let the magnet inside me draw me to the Louvre, where I walked slowly up the staircase, never taking my eyes off Winged Victory. Nike symbolized victory to the ancient Greeksin battle, athletics, lovein all areas of life. The sculpture once stood in an open-air theatre on the Greek island of Samothrace sometime around 190 BC. She was nestled in a niche carved out of a rock, the sky above her blending with sea-blueness on the distant horizon.
Inside her home in Paris, I viewed her from all sides, from afar, and from below among crowds gazing up worshipfully. I knew she had a message for me. I wondered if her head and arms had felt awkward and weighed her down like so much ballast. She was proud without them, her wings spread out behind her. What she had all seemed to fit. I felt suddenly envious.
(Walking) allows time for your soul to catch up.
I winded through worlds of wrought iron, down tiny alleys bordered by fragrant flower shops and miniature markets of colorful fruit. I glided along the quays next to the steely Seine where every so often a bridge would offer itself graciously to be crossed. My eyes stung and my hands were numb, but my core slowly began to thaw.
Repeatedly, an invisible thread pulled me to the Louvre, to the bottom of the stairs where I’d stare up at the goddess of Victory leaning forward on the prow of her ship, the wind plastering her garments against her body. She presented her self to the world so sincerely; I longed to emulate her.
The statue was unearthed in fragments, brought to Paris and reassembled in 1860. More recently, in 1950, her right hand and the tip of her ring finger were discovered on Samothrace, and the rest of this finger and a thumb were found forgotten in a dusty drawer inside a museum in Vienna, Austria. These no-longer-missing pieces rest inside a glass case near her podium.
I walked. My breath, cloudy puffs in the icy air. In the frosty Luxembourg Gardens, the statues of Balzac and Delacroix were unflustered by the weather. The Pantheon cradled in its chilling crypt the long dead heroes of La Belle France. Hurried footsteps slapped the sidewalks as the cold turned bitter.
Uncover what you long for and you will discover who you are.
I peered into a little cafe where glasses clinked and voices hummed. When the door opened, an aroma of exotic coffee and buttery croissants wafted into the street. I looked in at the people. Their faces … there was something in their faces that reminded me of Winged Victory. Something that challenged me.
A young student wearing round glasses, a scarf slung around his neck, puzzled over something his friend was saying. His forehead scrunched and his eyes darted as his brain twisted and turned. Here was a relentless thinker who didn’t pretend to know but was comfortable just contemplating.
An old woman with white hair and coral lipstick sat alone and meticulously sipped from a tiny white cup; I could see her inner poise, elegance, and utter lack of pretention. She just sat there quietly, comfortable in her own skin. As I looked through the window I knew that the expression on each face revealed the true spirit inside with the same honesty I’d noticed in Winged Victory’s pose.
My own face wore a smile that suddenly felt very heavy. It was not part of my essence, it was ballast. Slowly, I let go the mask. My brow straightened, my eyes relaxed, my face melted into the serious expression that reflected my own spirit. The muscles in my face felt reassembled into a no-longer-missing me.
We learn by going where we have to go; we arrive when we find ourselves on the road walking toward us.
During the next ten days, the self of the preschool photo emerged right there on the streets of Paris. I welcomed her home bit by bit. I shed heavy layers of wide-toothed smiles and let the quiet observer emerge, watching, pondering, day-dreaming. I mulled over questions rather than eagerly spilling forth answers. I let myself sit quietly, unsmiling, and sip a glass of scarlet Bordeaux. And for the first time that I could remember since the age of four, I was myself with the world. The truth of this was as close as the victorious vein pulsing in my neck.
In sacred travel, every experience is uncanny. No encounter is without meaning.
As my Parisian pilgrimage progressed, the people I encountered showed me exactly how I could be. In a tiny upstairs nook with books crammed in every crevice, a group of reflective young writers recited prose that revealed their cherished wishes and buried heartaches. Michele, an artist who had carefully cultivated her observer’s eye, shared her personal and creative secrets with me; we felt our spirits kindle. A shy Irish poet spoke his thoughts with a quiet confidence inside his lyrical accent. None wore a false mask of frivolity, and when I was with them I didn’t either.
The challenge is to learn how to carry over the quality of the journey into your everyday life.
I am home from Paris and each day I’m faced with the challenge of my pilgrimage: to blend my inner and outer colors. Learning how to do this is an inner journey as meaningful as any trip across land or sea. It involves much excavation of traits I forgot I ever had: curiosity, contemplation, creativity, and seriousness. I am the girl in the preschool photo and the woman who walked the streets of Paris. I am charged with the current that flowed from the statue at the top of the stairs.
A worn postcard on my wall shows golden Winged Victory against a dark background. Inside the Louvre, day turns to night, the crowd empties out, the security systems are activated, and all is still. She stands there, Nike, the goddess who symbolizes the precise moment when victory was granted by the gods to the ancient Greeks … and to me.
Erin Byrne won the Travel & Transformation Gold for “Winged Victory” in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.