I depart from my normal leadership/innovation/effectiveness fare to stroll along the Seine with you and share a moment of serendipity I experienced along it’s banks one evening.
At the wise suggestion of my wife, I recently read The Seine: The River That Made Paris by Elaine Sciolino. The book explores its geography, history, and the impact the river has on its winding journey from a remote area in Burgundy to where it meets the English Channel at Le Havre.
Along its 482 mile route it passes through French countryside and – famously – the City of Lights, where 37 bridges span it. When I’ve traveled between London and Paris, one of the immediate differences I’ve noticed is how the Seine is the heartbeat and major artery in Paris in a way the Thames in London is not.
If you’re a subscriber to this blog, when you signed up you should have received an e-book of a few of the quotes I have gathered over the years (if you’re not a subscriber but would like to be, sign up at the bottom of this page). Although it wasn’t in the e-book, one of the entries in my list of interesting quotes was this bit of wisdom from travel writer Rick Steves: “Good travelers create their own serendipity.”
The reason I snagged that particular quote and greedily stuffed it into my pocket is that my own experience bears it out. By saying “yes” to travel in the first place you open yourself to the unexpected. Upon arrival, you might decide to go out for a walk in the evening instead of staying in your hotel room. As you’re walking in this different place, you might then think “that looks like an interesting street/shop/restaurant, let’s have a look.”
Serendipity, if you’re not familiar with the term, can be thought of as a “happy surprise”. My wife and I ran across some papers from my elementary school years once and laughed while reading my response to a school assignment where we were asked to write a sentence about a time we had experienced serendipity in our own life. In my childish handwriting I wrote about a time I was in our backyard and I found a nickel in the grass.
While the discovery of a nickel may lack an element of grandeur, to the little boy who wrote that sentence it was a happy surprise indeed. I wish I had invested it in Microsoft.
So let me set the scene – or, as the French might say, the “mis-en-scène” – on the Seine for you.
I have had the opportunity to travel to Paris a number of times in my career. I was winding up a trip in 2017 when, on the night before my departing flight, I decided to saunter along the Seine in the style of a flâneur, as Charles Baudelaire might say. I paused while crossing one of the bridges with a great view of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower and decided to shoot a short video.
It was then, unexpected as always, serendipity visited me. The two things to know about this video are 1) make sure your volume is turned up, and 2) when the video starts, remember that I think I’m just capturing a view of the River with the Eiffel Tower and nothing more.
I defy anyone to watch that video and not want to visit Paris immediately. When the restrictions of this pandemic are eased, and we begin to move more freely, remember that good travelers create their own serendipity.
Maybe you’ll even find a nickel.
Let me share some interesting information about three of the words I used in this post.
The origin of the word “serendipity” can be traced to Sir Horace Walpole. I was recently re-reading Alan Jacobs’ book The Pleasures of Reading in the Age of Distraction and was reminded of Walpole. Professor Jacobs writes: “In a 1754 letter to a friend he describes his discovery of some curious Venetian coat of arms and pauses to say that ‘this discovery, indeed, is almost of the kind which I call Serendipity.’ And then he explains this ‘very expressive world’ of his own invention: ‘I once read a silly fairy tale, called ‘the Three Princes of Serendip’ – Serendip being an old name for Sri Lanka: ‘as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of…(for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description).’ ”
I was introduced to the excellent word “flâneur” when, in 2013, I happened to read this article entitled In Praise of the Flâneur published in the periodical The Paris Match. It is a French noun referring to a person who strolls or saunters without an urgent destination in mind but is observant of the world around him (and flâneurs were men, since back in the day flâneurs were generally well-to-do men who had the time to saunter in the first place).
And speaking of the word saunter, I was alerted to a fascinating story about its etymology by – again – my wise wife. From naturalist John Muir: “People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently”