Tag Archives: place

Rediscovering awe in Paris

Carved figurine in the Sainte-Chapelle

Towering glass kaleidoscope walls twinkle blues, reds, greens, yellows. Patterned pillars guarded at the foot by be-robed bearded figures with fanciful parasols stretch up between the stained glass panels. One wall would be magnificent, but a whole room of light filtered through rainbow stories and symbols brings the humans within to silence. Room is not an adequate word for this building, this Sainte-Chapelle.

How should one behave in such a room? Religious or not, the ancient art, the soaring structure, the light, leads you to sit and gaze in awe. In a knowing society, not much strikes us dumb. For a westerner, who feels (or at least feels the illusion of being) in control of their life, their destiny, it is significant to step through a carved doorway and suddenly feel dwarfed and insignificant in the scheme of things. You’re in the presence of a royal chapel that was built in the 13th century and all the gold mouldings and the rainbow light are ancient and grand. On this  Île de la Cité in the centre of Paris is this soaring, rich interior that belies its grand but grey exterior. You’ve stumbled on a treasure trove, but not a monetary one, a trove for the soul.

Of all the places in Paris that might have been brought to my mind, this is the one that has left the greatest lasting impression, ten years on from my visit. Sometimes when you travel you encounter a series of disappointments: the Mona Lisa is smaller than you imagined; the serenity of the Sistine Chapel is interrupted constantly by broadcasts instructing people to keep moving along; half the Vatican museums are mysteriously closed the only day you’re there. On the other hand, there are places you’d never dreamed about or heard about before that you discover on your adventure. These are the places that lodge in your imagination, that link to positive emotions and are recalled sometimes with a longing to return to that place and time. These are the places you can wax lyrical about given the opportunity, or the opposite: sometimes find yourself without any words to describe the spirit of a place and what it stirred in you.

Ten years ago I quit a job that had become stressful and politic-laden and took off to Europe for three months. A friend met me in Rome and we took a small group tour from Rome to Paris, through Switzerland. The tour group wasn’t all we might have hoped, but the places we saw and the stories we shared on our modern day ‘Grand Tour’ were an education. It’s hard not to feel like a cringe-worthy tourist when you’re in a group. A tourist who tramps through monuments, museums and cultures with barely a care or a context. Looking up at a vaulted vivid blue ceiling-sky storeys above you that glimmers with gold motifs you’re no longer a tourist, but a student of awe and wonder.


Filed under A reflective life, Travel

Little libraries, talking cats and creating your own places

Beyond the pergolaPlaces

I heard an interesting interview on ABC Radio National on the weekend, while driving around in my car from place to place (specifically from a ukulele festival  in the inner northern suburbs to a birthday party on the north-eastern rural fringe of the city). The interview was with social geographer, Alistair Bonnett, who was talking about his book Off the Map: Forgotten islands, abandoned spaces, feral places, invisible cities and what they tell us about the world.

Apart from competing for the longest ever book title, one of the fascinating points he raised was around children and place. He said that one of the most important things was to let children create their own places, and that in today’s western culture and context, children can often only create virtual places (on websites already designed and governed by adults). The discussion took me back to the places we created in childhood.

I grew up in a house where there were numerous books in bookcases and in my own way I began putting together my book collection in my bedroom. Then my brother and I would play libraries in there. We made the old cardboard school-library cards to go inside each book and we’d take it in turns to be the librarian and the borrower. Somehow we also mixed it in with the characters from a TV show The secret lives of Waldo Kitty and I seem to remember us as Waldo and Felicia (cats from this show that featured real cats with dubbed voices having adventures) coming in to check out books. I have maintained an affinity for libraries (and cats) and have always loved having tall bookcases in my home that loom over everything else.

Another time I remember turning the wooden garden table into a pirate ship and inserting a pirate flag through the hole that was supposed to fit the garden umbrella. I’m sure we also had numerous cubby house experiences and we’d climb trees and pretend we had a tree house. We were also obsessed with the Famous Five and Secret Seven and would scheme to create a club house in a shed or other space.

When I was a child, my mother might come into my room and see mess and tell me to clean it up, but to me it was usually something else, the paths of clothes were grasses in a murky sea that you had to push through on your adventure to find the path to the castle, like something in The grass beyond the door by Catherine McVicar (which also featured a talking cat). If I’d found Narnia in the back of my wardrobe, I would have been ecstatic. Unfortunately my wardrobe wasn’t even big enough to climb into.

It is amazing the worlds you can imagine with the most ordinary of props, when a lot of today’s toys are very prescriptive. Adults and children alike, next rainy day, grab a cardboard box, a bed sheet, a broomstick and a marker pen and see what place you can create.


Filed under A creative life, An adventurous life