“I want all my senses engaged. Let me absorb the world’s variety and uniqueness.”
I started this blog because of a duck pond.
This story actually starts earlier, in a pair of glossy green chairs beside the water in Luxembourg Garden in Paris. I was a successful sales executive then and Derrick and I were celebrating our fifth wedding anniversary in the city for several days before stealing away to Spain to watch our friends Sara and Pablo get married.
Love locks on the Pont Des Art bridge. I’m glad we took a photo of these, since they came down last year.
Getting there was brutal, both because we missed our connecting to flight to Paris and had to doze on the rock hard floor of the Madrid airport and because when you’re a successful sales executive in a competitive field, you pretty much need to dedicate 100% of your energy to remaining a successful sales executive. You work nights and weekends. You’re on call 24/7. You let the vacation days pile up.
You certainly don’t refuse to purchase an international calling plan and escape to Europe. But I did. Because although I didn’t recognize it at the time, I was already deep in burnout mode. I was just so used to living on nine cups of coffee and adrenaline that I didn’t see the writing on the wall.
Have you ever seen David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross”, where the salesmen are cursed at for wanting anything in life, anything at all, other than making the sale? Sales at its worst is exactly like that, so much so that we were once shown this portion of the film as a motivational tool in sales meeting.
I bet Mamet would love this. It just illustrates how perfectly he understood the psyche of top sales managers — and salespeople too.
Derrick at the Louvre
Booking Paris was almost medicinal. I’d been there before and I knew I needed to be with people who understood pleasure, people who didn’t eat lunch at their desks and who didn’t work 40 hours in three days just to clear enough time to catch a plane.
And it worked. We did some of the touristy things, sure — the stunning jewel box that is Sainte-Chapelle, the view from Montmartre and the beautiful light in the Musee Rodin will always stay with me. But we spent a lot of time wandering and just sitting and watching the world go by, two things the French are absolutely masterful at and don’t get nearly enough credit for.
Best. Public Works Project. Ever.
We wandered the Latin Quarter and popped into ancient churches. We took bridges into the unknown. I stopped constantly to take photos of lampposts augmented with fish and gargoyles on the rooftops and interesting doors and graffiti and random Metro signs.
We stumbled upon the Sunday bird market and watched the Eiffel Tower sparkle from perches across the city. We strolled through the supermarket and bought snacks and a bottle of Veuve Clicquot for a song.
And we sat. A lot. We sat in dimly lit restaurants and on patios and in The Place des Vosges, where we purchased delicious sandwiches on crusty baguettes from a nearby shop and ate them on a bench while the local kids played soccer and the old folks strolled.
Sitting in Luxembourg Garden was transcendent. We bought a giant caramel and sea salt macaroon and a few cans of beer from a park vendor and let ourselves just be. We chatted, we snacked, we watched the ducks swim. I watched a small boy and his dad sail a toy boat in lazy circles for so long it hypnotized me.
Derrick and I in Luxembourg Garden
“I need this,” I said aloud, both to Derrick and myself. “Why can’t we have this at home?”
I should have meant “Why can’t I be this relaxed, this in tune with my senses, this open to the world when I’m at home?” And maybe, on some level, I did.
But at the time, I just literally wanted what was in front of me. A place to sit, a patch of sunlight and some water with ducks. If I can have that, I mused in some odd, silent bargain with God, I might be able to live like this all the time — more still, more open, less wild and restless and brutally exhausted. I might be able to make a new kind of life.
We came home to our apartment, to our routines, to our busy lives. But I hadn’t even been home a week when, on my way to run an errand, a noticed something — a calm expanse of blue. I pulled over.
There, just blocks from our apartment on a route I’d never taken before, was a small park with a little lake, surrounded by a neat path and a few benches. I read the plaque. It was the Caroline Ruby Vetter Memorial Duck Pond
I laughed out loud.
What else had I missed? What other magic was right under my nose, just waiting to be discovered?
The Place des Vosges, where we spent nearly every morning.
It took me a long time to untangle myself from sales, but I did slowly realize I had the tools to live a different kind of life. And I didn’t need to move to Paris to do it. I just needed to be as curious and open and engaged at home as I was on vacation. Changing my life seemed scary. But this seemed doable.
I was lucky to have a sales route that took me deep into North Dakota and up and down western Minnesota. I stopped seeing these work trips as obligations and reframed them as mini vacations.
I sought out parks and interesting shops, just like I did when I was on vacation. I asked for restaurant suggestions from friends and strangers. I got coffee where the locals did and took the time to really look at people as they passed. I took it all in — the softly falling snow, the small town parades, the richness of homemade pie, the vivid prairie sunsets.
A metro entrance in Paris
And I really did feel like I was seeing this familiar landscape with new eyes. I felt hungry and curious and grateful. There are so many things that bitterness and busyness and “maybe tomorrow” made me miss.
Never again, I thought. So I walked. I wandered. I pulled over and took photos. I filled notebooks with notes. And finally I knew I had to find a way to show someone else the miracle of what I found, how it’s possible to see the place you’re from in an entirely new way.
Our way of life here has its own rhythm, quirks and idiosyncrasies. We should embrace it and own it because it’s ours. And it’s beautiful.
Paris taught me how to enjoy life, but the Midwest taught me how to live it.
“I think you travel to search and you come back home to find yourself there.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
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