I don’t remember visiting a museum before I was nineteen. I took a fashion merchandising course in Europe over the winter interim in college, and our first stop was Paris.
The city opened up the whole world to me. Aside from a high-school graduation trip to Cancun and an excursion to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, I had never left the U.S.
As I explored Paris, I was particularly fascinated by cultural, architectural and culinary differences from the U.S. But there were little differences, too, that caught my attention: the placement of traffic lights, the nonexistent separation between the ladies’ and the men’s bathrooms, the homogeneous fashion trends, the adorable little dogs.
I was told that the French were rude and didn’t like Americans. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. I loved the French and they were kind to me! I laughed about being a 19-year-old girl, so every French guy wanted to “practice his English” with me, but really, I found the French to be funny, though a bit sardonic, and kind, though a little abrupt. As a Philly girl, I thought this was perfect.
But let me get back to the museums. Aside from loving Paris and the French, I fell head over heels in love with Impressionism on that trip.
Imagine that you have never been to a museum and the Musée d’Orsay was your first excursion into the world of art. I stood before this painting, and my whole world changed:
I had never heard of Vincent van Gogh or Claude Monet or Edgar Degas. But when I saw their work for the first time, I felt like they knew me. It was like they reached out and tugged at my soul and said, “Hey, I’m listening. I understand … and by the way, the world is full of magic.”
I walked around Paris with a freed spirit and a rich perspective that has never dulled.
That winter 20 years ago, I was supposed to write a paper about fashion merchandising, but I decided to write about culture instead. What hit me more than anything was how we all perceive and approach the world a little differently, but if we understand where our neighbors are coming from, we may be a little kinder and a little more open to observing new customs and bridging the gap with cultural understanding. Life is better that way.
When I returned to Paris this week for the first time since then, I felt exactly the same way. I laughed at the French sense of humor, wandered the streets of Paris with a sense of awe, and cried at the d’Dorsay and the l’Orangerie as my old friends van Gogh, Monet and Degas greeted me with their magic on canvas.