Good things come in light, white pastry boxes that we open on the steps of opera houses and city halls and eat in the stretching late afternoon sunlight.
Bordeaux is fine food and lively squares and leisurely bike rides. My friend and I partake in all of it with the bleary-eyed stupor one acquires on city vacations. The fatigue is unavoidable: Bordeaux is our third stop. In April, it’s finally warm enough to wear the clothes I jammed hopefully into my suitcase–heels and dresses and shoulder-baring tops–but just barely. My packing job was no match for the winds in Lyon or for Paris gloom, so my trusty black blazer and I have been seeing a lot of each other. It’s the only thing resembling a jacket I have brought and by now must bear the microscopic evidence of everywhere we have gone together, hundreds of kilometers in dust and cat hair and croissant crumbs, like a map of Pilgrim’s progress.
When Taylor and I walk we dodge shadows–the temperature dips within them, anyway–that beg a change of outfit. There are a lot of shadows in Bordeaux. Named a UNESCO World Heritage City in 2007, 1,180 hectares of the city fall under the designation. That makes for a lot of tall old buildings.
The fiercest shadow is near our apartment on the Quai Sainte-Croix facing the Garonne. A short walk takes us to the stately Basilique St-Michel, behind which towers the Flêche St-Michel, a 114-meter white stone arrow to the sky. The angle of its shadow determines where we stop for breakfast or an afternoon coffee. As the sun rises or sets we jump tables to stay a clumsy half-step ahead.
We start the days with coffee here or nearby. I find a new favorite pastry in the Jésuit, a huge, flaky almond-filled thing that leaves a telltale trail of powdered sugar.
Sometimes in the afternoon, exhausted of our ability to appreciate more art or culture, we seek out more “dessert” pastries. I eat vanilla cream tarts stacked with wild baby strawberries the size of the first joint of my thumb. I eat pistachio and raspberry macaron sandwiches: Alice in Wonderland-pretty as if plucked from a cookbook. I eat ice cream on chilly days, mouth numb from cold sweet cream and dark caramel. I eat cannelés, small cakes with vanilla and rum, a Bordelais specialty.
I watch my funds dwindle.
Somewhere we’ve replaced moderation with excess: of caffeine, wine, and artful sugar. It’s a curse: I am bombarded with beauty and can only respond with a bleary-eyed “oh.”
I thought I wanted this freedom. I’ve been looking forward to this trip for months, but if I’m honest with myself, I am no longer satisfied. I am less free than I thought, for I am bound by restlessness. It turns out there is a limit to my ability to appreciate all this beauty, history, and almond flour. I experience a longing–not for more macarons or views or fun–but for things like work and responsibility.
This summer I read Rick Steves’ Travel as a Political Act. Early on, he describes the kind of trip in which you “see if you can eat five meals a day and still snorkel when you get into port.” That’s not travel, he says. That’s hedonism.
That clicked with me. True travel should challenge and provoke. It should be marked by a willingness to observe, listen, and participate. It should lead to the paradoxical conclusion that the world is both bigger and smaller than it once seemed.
By that definition, this part of my trip isn’t quite travel. I am greedy, grabbing handfuls of material happiness and stuffing my face. I have lost sight of moderation. It’s participation without much thought. Is there any sort of challenge, or is it just fun? Fun is, well, fun. But not sustainable.
I am glad to be here but I am also too full. I have spooked the skittish horse of happiness and it has bolted.