Have you ever gone back to a place that you loved and found that it had changed? Or that your experience of it was very different?
Two years ago I was planning my first return to France in over 10 years, and I was nervous about seeing Paris again. Paris had defined travel when I was in my early 20’s; it was the place I’d always wanted to go to, and the place I traveled to the most during my year abroad in college. I’d imagined that it was a beautiful, magical place, and my actual experience of it didn’t let me down: Paris did feel magical. Being there made me feel alive and so full of hope and possibility.
I was young, and I hadn’t traveled overseas before. I learned- in small doses- how to be brave in Paris, and it was something I didn’t even really think about because I was desperate to see as much of the city as I could. So I would set my alarm for 6am and wake up before the other students in my program. I’d wander through the streets with my camera in hand, then return to the hostel and join my friends for breakfast. I learned how to ride the metro, I learned how to find my way around cemeteries and museums, I learned how to drink coffee.
When I returned to Paris, on the eve of my 33rd birthday, the city felt different. The buildings still seemed to glow, Notre Dame was just as majestic as I’d always remembered, but something was off.
I still wandered through the streets, taking photos and drinking cafe cremes. Weaving through the tombstones of Pere Lachaise, I tracked down Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. I slept in the same hostel that I had when I was 20, I ate the same baguette breakfast. Climbing up the 400-odd stairs to the top of Notre Dame, I put my face up to the wire fence and looked out over the city.
This was still Paris: beautiful and enchanting and foreign.
The changes that I noticed? It wasn’t Paris that had changed, not really.
It was me.
Drinking my first cafe creme was probably the biggest tip-off. It’s difficult to explain how important cafe cremes were to my year in France, when I was a college student: I’d never really drank coffee regularly before, and I’d never made ‘sitting in a cafe and watching people and spending hours talking about life with my friends’ an everyday thing. As I moved through my twenties and looked back on my time in France, the cafe creme became symbolic. It was France, and it was travel, and it was me, at that time.
So when I returned to Paris and sat in the basement room of my hostel with my red breakfast tray spread out before me, a cup of creamy, hot coffee in my hands, I smiled before taking my first sip.
I took the first sip, and then I frowned. This was what I had been waiting for, all of these years? This was a cafe creme?
From 20 to 33, I’d changed. It wasn’t just about the coffee, although that was part of it. Back when I was 20, I didn’t know what a really good cup of coffee tasted like. And I suppose I didn’t know what the world tasted like, yet. I still haven’t traveled all that much, and there’s still so much more life I need to experience. But I’d grown in 13 years. I still have a somewhat childlike sense of wonder and innocence, but it’s very different than what I had at 20, when it defined so much of my life and how I saw the world.
Recognizing these changes, as I wandered through Paris, was a little unsettling. I walked through the city and wondered what I was looking for. I knew I wouldn’t be able to find the 20-year old girl who had been here that first time.
As the days passed I realized that these changes were okay. On my 33rd birthday I walked into a cafe that I’d remembered being in with my friends on that first trip to Paris. On that night, years ago, we’d crammed around a table on the terrace of the cafe, drinking hot chocolate and giggling about life.
On this night, I walked into the cafe and I asked for a table. I was seated outside, with a view of the Seine and the spires of Notre Dame. After ordering a glass of wine, the waiter complimented my French. I’d made several mistakes- fumbling over the word ‘boisson’ (which means ‘drink’)- and we laughed. I wasn’t self-conscious in the way that I used to be; my French was more rusty than ever, and yet, I was more confident about speaking than when I was 20.
I’m thinking about changes and how we experience the same place in different ways because of my upcoming Camino. I’m nervous about returning for a 2nd time, even though only a year separates my two pilgrimages, whereas over 10 years separated my visits to Paris. I haven’t changed all that much in the past year, and yet, I know that my second Camino will be very different from my first. Will my return to the Camino be like my return to Paris?
Will I be more confident? Will I relax a bit about my fears? Will I use the knowledge that I gained on my first trip and hit the ground running on my second? Will I be able to work on the lessons that I feel I was just beginning to learn as I ended my first pilgrimage?
Will I still love the walking? Will I still avoid blisters and still make some friends? Will I still love the cafe con leches??
I’d love to hear about your experiences of a place or an experience that you returned to- whether it was the Camino or something (somewhere) else. Were you disappointed? Did the return exceed your expectations? Will you continue to return again and again?