Sunday, July 5, 2009
I love to travel to a place different from where I exist on a regular basis, if only for the fact that it exercises my eyes. At home I’m most often looking to the front, eyes on the road as I drive from place to place, sneaking quick glances to the right or left to check for cars exiting driveways, pedestrians crossing streets, bikes merging into my lanes. Even walking my dogs through my neighborhood my eyes are at street level. I do stop to admire gardens, chat with neighbors, but how I see doesn’t vary much.
Église de Notre-Dame de Dijon
When in a new place where everything is unfamiliar I find myself engaging in what, for lack of a better description, I might call “spontaneous looking.” I look in new directions and in new ways. My favorite direction to look in French cities is up. This isn’t about the neck-craning wonder of skyscrapers in Chicago or New York. No, in a city like Dijon with its mélange of centuries constructed cheek to jowl, life is frequently happening above street level. It’s summer now, and even if the residents have a climatiseur (those marvelous ductless air-conditioners) when the evening comes they throw open their large windows (what do the call “French doors” in France?) and invite the night air in, perched on their deep window seats or leaning over the wrought iron balcony, watching me watch them.
Up is where the French obsession with geraniums takes root. Up is where the lights glow. Up is where the architectural intricacies hide. Up is where unrecognized music drifts out of unknown windows. A suburban American can almost be overcome with vertigo walking down the narrow maze of streets while trying to take in the vista above her. As I write this I sit in my first floor apartment, which in Europe is above street level. My six-foot windows are open to let in the bit of cool air that came with last night’s rain. Rue Hernoux is such a narrow street that I feel I can reach out and touch the half-timbered houses across from me. I stare at a small window, not much more than 12 in. X 18 in. I see a shadow of a head and shoulders but the window stays closed. What room was that when the building was constructed? The window seems too small to be of any use for ventilation. In the neighboring building the current resident sticks his head out of the yellow-glassed windows that encase the ancient, carved wooden staircase to his upper floor (date on a window lintel: 1644) calling down to a friend on the sidewalk.
Flemish-influenced tiled roofs found throughout the Burgundy region
So many talk about the café life found in the plazas of major European cities. What they forget to mention is that life is lived vertically as well as horizontally here. The city surrounds me in a way that my own hometown fails to do. Perhaps, however, when I return there at the end of the month I’ll exercise my eyes a little more often and find life happening in a few more unexpected places.
Share your thoughts here