The sun was setting on my last day in Paris. This was not a good time to find a new neighborhood full of places to explore. How had I not seen all these adorable streets, all this architecture, these Metropolis-sized banks beside dust-covered rare-stamp shops, and never even heard of this St. Georges neighborhood in the two dozen times I'd been to this city?
Travel is about exploring — it's a time to stretch your comfort zone, tap into potential you may never have known you possessed. Usually this means "Go on, get off the beach, shake up your worldview, get a passport." But what do I do but go to the same place (Paris) every year for vacation?
For me, going someplace I know is a break from my normal way of traveling. But going back to a place you already know gives you the luxury of stumbling around. With the must-see items checked off and the lay of the land already scoped out, you can explore with less distraction.
It also allows for you to follow your own particular interests — museum overdosing, say, or looking for 18th-century espresso cups — and the freedom to explore in whatever style suits you. Wake up at sunrise and attack like Patton, or sit at a cafe and watch people all day.
I was thinking about the best ways to approach a place a second (or third) time and came up with a few surefire, productive methods.
Find a theme
I found the St. Georges neighborhood on a DIY walking tour I'd assigned myself for a story. The story would be in conjunction with an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, featuring Impressionist art related to art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, kind of a patron saint for Monet, Manet, Degas and others before they were even called Impressionists.
I mapped out significant places in the life and career of Durand-Ruel and his contemporaries, including the starving artists. I got off at the metro station at Pigalle, not an area I like in the least.
But soon my mood changed as I followed the maps away from what I remembered and down unfamiliar streets. This was an area once called "Nouvelle-Athenes," where the intellectual and artistic elite lived, building homes in classic Greek style. It has few big tourist attractions, making it a truly Parisian quartier.
Finds: Passage des Panoramas, one of the first covered commercial passageways in Europe; the former center of the Parisian philatelic (stamp) trade (it looks like the proprietors locked up and went home 100 years ago, and nobody came back); and great and locally priced boutiques. At Sybella, a retro clothing shop, the charming clerk suggested I go to nearby Chartier restaurant, an institution since 1896. There's always a line for lunch, she warned, so go at 2 or 2:30 and you'll get in (she was right).
I ended up at 14 Rue Clauzel, where in the 19th century Pere Tanguy sold art supplies to the soon-to-be famous. If his young and starving clientele couldn't pay, he'd barter brushes for finished paintings. Galerie Pere Tanguy today is run by Akihiro Aoyagi, a Japanese art historian who's made it something of a cause to remind anyone who enters about the Japanese influence on the Impressionists, particularly Van Gogh. In fact, Tanguy was one of the first to exhibit ukiyo-e (Japanese prints) in Paris. Who knew — again.
Finding themes is one of the necessities of being a travel writer. It's the best way to be able to return to the most popular tourist destinations, and come back with new spins and ways to explore.
Like finding the "Old Florida" within a day's drive of Orlando. Or Las Vegas drive-through weddings. Or following New York's Hudson River for the 350th anniversary of its discovery by Henry Hudson, where even I found amazing new things: the cute and cultural riverside town of Tivoli, the 5 billion-year-old fossils on a residential street near Glens Falls. Starting out on Staten Island, I not only discovered 26-acre Fort Wadsworth right on New York Harbor, but a herd of goats just above, on the Verrazano Bridge.
This isn't necessarily a choice. You try to get there. But if you know you've got poor navigational skills, make peace with that already. It's liberating to give yourself permission to enjoy exactly wherever you've wound up. Unless you're met by thugs with switchblades, I have found that most places have aspects to enjoy, even learn from.
In Nashville, I was hellbent on getting to the Country Music Hall of Fame — which I'd been to and loved. But I was lost, and to get toward any kind of civilization I followed the only sign I saw: "Farmers' Market." I wound up visiting not only the seriously "only local" six-acre Nashville Farmers' Market, but Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park.
The then-new 19-acre park was full of nature and history, all family-friendly: a 200-foot granite map of the state, a World War II memorial and, my favorite, the 95-bell Carillon, representing Tennessee's musical heritage. While I was walking around the circular installment of towers, reading the plaques about various home-state heroes (Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, etc.), the carillon began playing "Tennessee Waltz."
When in Rome...
Visit like you live there. I went to Berlin with a tour on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall. But I'd arranged to stay a few days post-tour. Before she left, I asked one of the tour leaders for some recommendations. I'd done the "must-see" list. Now what?
"Oh, you must go to Street Food Thursday at the big Market Hall." The hall was full of local produce and other products, but it was only a few years old and hadn't made it onto most tourists' radar. It was a true B-list "must," unlike any dining experience I'd ever had. Only in Berlin.
It's not just about asking the locals. Keep your eyes and ears open to pick up clues. I heard such clues almost every morning in Siem Reap, Cambodia: the sounds of Cambodian music and the giggling of children coming from the building just beyond my windows at the Angkor Village Hotel. The desk clerk explained that it was a school of dance.
A young man, overhearing our conversation, said he was a student there and offered to take me over. I spent the next several hours watching young people practice their gorgeous traditional dances, getting to see the nuances close up. They explained they were rehearsing for a trip to Paris!
Too bad I didn't know about St. Georges at the time.