When I first planned my recent trip to Paris I couldn't contain myself – I told anyone who'd listen. Just talking about it was exciting.
But what I hadn't expected was that it seemed to affect others in extraordinary ways and always with some kind of emotion. I didn't get any bland, "that's nice" comments. No, mostly I received wistful looks or comments – or starry-eyed gazes.
My shoe-repair man actually got tears in his eyes and looked off to the side.
"I never go anywhere," he said. "All I've ever done my whole life is work." His wife, he said, never wanted to travel. His grown children still needed some financial assistance from him.
I was sad that I'd triggered this longing in him – and urged him to someday go on that trip he needed.
When the dean of a local college called to ask me to teach a short summer writing class, I decided to tell her about my journey as well, thinking she'd be especially pleased to know that two students from a travel- writing course I'd recently taught for her were actually in Paris now, and that I'd see them.
She, too, reacted with wistfulness and longing in her voice. "I've never been there," she said, and "I've always wanted to go."
One morning as I traversed the walking path near my condo, I met a neighbor I seldom see. I mentioned my trip, and he – who had not previously said more than a couple of words to me – suddenly became very interested. "To Paris? How great! When are you going?" And on and on.
The next day I saw him again, and he was already recommending a book for me to read about the city.
Another day I saw a former student, a young poet, and when I told her, her eyes glazed over. I swear I saw stars dancing in them. "Paris? You're going to Paris? Oh, that's so fantastic."
Once there, I spent some time with a good friend who is living in this city of her dreams for six months. She is someone who believes in fulfilling promises to herself. She had retired early. She was divorced, and her children were in college and working. She rented out her own home for half a year, found a Paris apartment, and planned her trip.
Even when an unexpected problem delayed her a couple of months, she didn't let it stop her. So she is now living in this beautiful city, and says, "Difficult things may happen, but why not be in a wonderful place if and when they do?"
I met other American women and men living in the city. All basically came for the beauty, the rich culture, and as the result of a dream. One young woman lives there at least half of every year with her husband and young daughter. She and her husband have managed to find six-month jobs in education in Paris.
A sociology professor who recently retired from a San Diego university now chooses to make her home in Paris for half the year, too. She continues to discover fascinating projects to work on and is currently deep into researching the letters of a famous expatriate author.
The appeal of Paris includes many things, I suppose – the abundant art; the contrasts (the opulence of, say, the Opéra Garnier building and the simplicity of Frenchwomen's haircuts); the glittering jewelry, chandeliers, and mirrors (even Charles Dickens was completely fascinated and charmed by these); the outright stares of those sitting in cafes, their chairs turned toward the sidewalk to watch the passing show; the intimacy of conversation and yet the reserve of manners and convention.
Back home, I told the students in my writing class a little about my trip. During the break, two women students said to me, "Thank you for telling us about your trip."
This surprised me because, of course, it had been my pleasure. I'd enjoyed sharing.
"We've been talking," said one, "and we think that in two years, when we graduate, we will go to Paris."
So the dream goes on.
My friend living there for six months inspired me, and when I made plans to have my own, however brief, visit and talked about the experience, I, too, triggered hopes in others. I realized that Paris, of all cities, is more than a city. You don't get much of a response when you say you are going to Denver, or New York, or even London.
But Paris is a metaphor – a metaphor for what we've put off or longed for; a metaphor for beauty just out of reach. It stands for whatever your dream may be.
Maybe we can't always stop bad things from happening, but we can make good things happen. We can buy a ticket to the city of our dreams, wherever that may be.