Resonance: What Really Does Happen When You Revisit Memorable Places

Posted on: May 16th, 2013 by Priya Chhaya

Wrought iron detail in Paris. Credit: Priya Chhaya
Wrought iron detail in Paris

For the first week of April I walked Paris.

My friend and I would greet the morning with a pan au chocolat, piecing together our agenda for the day before we strolled and meandered through this city of light, paying homage to monuments, memorials, museums, and memory. As hours chased the sun away, we would look back at our pictures and take notes, trying to capture the moments, ideas, and conversations we’d had just hours before.

Last month I wrote of the return, of re-visiting places you have already experienced and looking at them through the lens of life experience. In my case it involved two trips -- one to Paris and another to New Orleans, two cities rich in the tangible layers of the past.

Now that I have returned home I am left reflecting -- thinking how to document, preserve, and contain the taste, smell, and the feeling of being in two cities with so much character -- while understanding that no two visitors see a place in the same way.

I am determined to not couch my experiences in the veneer of romanticism, to talk of the wonder and breathtaking views, of listening to jazz in the streets during French Quarter Fest in New Orleans, or of seeing the Eiffel Tower at the top of the Arc de Triomphe. These things did happen, and they did bring me joy. But they don’t bring any realism or texture to the trip. They sound like a sentence in a guidebook rather than part of my personal narrative.

Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris; gargoyle. Credit: Priya Chhaya
(left) Exterior of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris; (right) an attentive gargoyle.

Details matter. In my last post I told the story of how fifteen years ago I missed seeing Notre Dame because we wanted to sleep in, choosing instead to take a train to Euro Disney. This time, we made the trip to the Île de la Cité on a day filled with wind, rain, and teeth-chattering temperatures (a spell that marked most of my stay).

After touring the main nave we stepped back outside and hopped into another line to see the Towers above. For an hour and a half we waited in the cold before gingerly scurrying up 387 winding steps on half-frozen feet to the top of the Cathedral. I discovered that walking up the stairs is not nearly as difficult as coming down, and that from the top of Notre Dame the roofs of Paris bring with them a sense of symmetry.

My Paris in the details -- waiting in the cold, feeling the burn in my calves as I stepped up to the top, breathing in the cold air as I stuck my face as close as possible to examine the details of a gargoyle that appeared perched on a rooftop read to leap out onto the city below, playing the silent spectator.

Balcony performance at French Quarter Fest. Credit: Priya Chhaya
Balcony performance at French Quarter Fest.

In New Orleans I barely remembered the dizzying chaos of Bourbon Street from my younger days, and I wonder if my parents shielded me from the insanity. However, this time I will remember how, despite being bone-tired (early conference wake up calls!), we went from the artistry at Mardi Gras World -- pop culture references and all -- to the Maple Leaf Bar where we heard the Rebirth Brass Band explode across my senses.

My New Orleans is in the details -- seeing oysters being smoked outside the bar, tapping my feet to the cornucopia of sound which felt like reverse onomatopoeia, each instrument speaking words of meaning, connecting the city, the food, and the music all in one place and time.

In Guy Gavriel Kay’s piece about re-reading books, he states “there is also writing that needs us to have lived to respond to aspects of their resonance….” In the fifteen or so years since I visited New Orleans and Paris I have lived, and those experiences allowed me to look beyond the typical and to see these places through my love of history, place, and the past.

Put another way: Each place we travel to have different levels of resonance -- embraceable at different stages of life, unique to each individual, and in our own turn.

What place has resonated with you recently?

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Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.

Reflections, Travel