A long time ago I wrote an academic book about French writers traveling to encounter themselves or a version of themselves. Today we walked a new direction along one of the canals here and ended up on the side of the autoroute at rush hour with cars whizzing every which way. We had to turn around and go a much longer way and I was stressed. We stood on the grassy hillock in the middle of one of those roundabouts and were slightly terrified. I do not plan to find myself on the Autoroute of the Two Seas.
So to soothe myself I walked home through the Jardin Royal and found this statue I had never seen:
It was dusk so it is a little hard to see but St-Exupéry is holding a book and looking at a very small Little Prince, some version of himself floating through the stars. I have read this book, much of it aloud, to my students so many times and yet it never fails to move me, always in a slightly different way. The main focus of my academic research, Victor Segalen, ran into his fifteen year old self while utterly lost walking in China. I loved that scene and analyzed it for years. Le moi hors du moi.
In my last post I wrote about losing myself in a body that was here but still held traces of my twenty year old self’s memories and loves.
Yesterday I fell on my face, just like that, slipped on the sycamore leaves while riding a heavy bike and eating a green matcha very hard and sweet cookie. I bloodied my lip and left the cookie on the ground for the squirrels. A woman with a slight accent gave me a tissue and a man came and asked me in accented English if I was okay. Where am I? When I lived in Paris I fell mightily off of my bike as I was racing to my job at the Bateaux-Mouches. A crowd of Americans surrounded me as I lay on the ground. I said, « I’m okay, I’m okay » but they couldn’t understand me because they assumed I was speaking French and they kept trying to figure out how to speak to me in French.
In these moments when we lose our equilibrium and hit the ground fast and suddenly for no good reason I wonder where my reality is. I was deep in thought, coming home from a long yoga class, hungry, planning things and bam, the sidewalk met my lip.
Today someone shared some (dubious) research claiming that people who travel have a stronger sense of self. https://hbr.org/2018/05/how-living-abroad-helps-you-develop-a-clearer-sense-of-self?utm_source=facebook&utm_campaign=hbr&utm_medium=social&fbclid=IwAR3MWxl4e97K8xm9Ci5LpkyR08MX_S3j6bMJmGjy3uC_4p03nWJXHXAKgpc
However, the article also mentioned that maybe people who have a stronger sense of self are the ones who travel. I am content to be living far from my external trappings of self. Without car, house, job, most of the people I know, I have a lot of time to explore my own mind. One of my favorite quotes from Nicolas Bouvier says that we don’t travel to decorate ourselves like Christmas trees but rather to wear ourselves down into the tiniest sliver, like the shard of soap one gets in a brothel. So what is left? Who remains? I walk through the streets of Toulouse and I look and listen and think and sometimes I even forget I have a self. I remember similar sensations on a rainy lonely Sunday in Lisbon or late at night on a speeding bus in Buenos Aires. It feels like there are some large dark warm caves within me that I have only just begun to explore.
But it also feels dangerous to get too ethereal, to forget the body, to wander out into traffic after hours of inversions. Travel, for me, is like a new opportunity to reset the scales of my inner and outer selves. I can place a few versions of my self on one side, a haircut, a pair of shoes, a voice, and then on the other, delicately balance a few new dreams, memories of a conversation that surprised me, breathing differently, and see if I can get the balance just right so that inner and outer self can live fully. I am thankful for intense yoga classes for this work and for very long meditation classes and for all the writers and thinkers who are visiting me in my mind. How sad our world would be without the Little Prince and all the stories that remind us to be friends with ourselves.