As other children raced to the finish line, one French schoolboy followed a different pursuit.
“Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling,” said the oft-quoted author Margaret Lee Runbeck. In this case, our station was Paris, and our manner of traveling was a natural meander along the Promenade Plantée. This is a brilliant walk built along an old railway track. Up above the street, you are in the midst of the city – yet are not. Hidden by the plethora of plants, flowers, and trees, the cars below fade into a distant hum, overtaken by the chirping birds.
A morning walk saw us enjoying the promenade practically on our own. Elderly women sat chatting; their melodic French murmurs a backup to the chorus of tweets. Joggers pounded by, as well as a couple of smiling dogs, but otherwise we were alone. The long weekend was in celebration of our wedding anniversary – and the escape couldn’t have come too soon.
Ascending the stark cement stairway gives you no clue to the wonders beyond. But as soon as you reach the top, flowers burst open to welcome you with their vibrant colors and fresh scents. Roses dominate with hues of red, yellow, pink, and white. The cherry blossoms were in full bloom, a lovely front court to the bamboo, maple and chestnut trees, and many other flowers and trees that were beyond my limited horticultural knowledge. But the individual was not as important as the whole – together, the plants made up a complete, rich tapestry.
We wandered slowly, enviously discussing the folks who were fortunate enough to have windows and balconies overlooking this oasis. Occasionally, we peered down onto the street, quite pleased to be at this level, rather than down in the smelly cement jungle. We chatted about the architectural details, interesting moldings and other fascinating stuff stuck to or carved into the buildings we passed. From the street below, you just can’t see the textures and creative workmanship.
We stopped to smell the roses, take the odd photo, and sit on a bench, exchanging kisses like good Parisians.
As we neared the end, nature’s music was interrupted by peals of laughter. We walked over a small rise, and gazed down onto a sea of emerald-green grass, dotted with dozens of young children.
All had scarves of bright colors – red, yellow, blue – cleverly tied around their arms or waists to identify them to their probably beleaguered teachers. They were spinning around; arms flung wide open, joyful faces turned toward the warm spring sun.
Ahhh, we sighed. Remember when we had that kind of energy? Remember when you could spend a thrilling afternoon running up and rolling down a hill? Not a care in the world as you threw your arms and voice open to the world and ran for all you were worth.
As we drew closer, we noticed that a race seemed to be going on. Leaders were lining up groups of children, counting down and letting them run across the bridge to the other side of the park below. Teachers on the other side shouted encouragement, and directed them down into the gardens.
Proud parents were present, video cameras dutifully trained on their offspring. We tentatively approached, not wanting to interrupt, but wanting to get down to the beautiful Parc de Reuilly underneath. We saw other walkers transverse the bridge, and so we eased in behind the next group of students waiting their turn to dash across. The countdown ended and off they went, pounding the wooden planks with their tiny feet, encouraged by the cheers coming from both sides of the bridge.
Except for one small boy. Racing didn’t seem to interest him; he was fascinated by the raised wooden strips adding traction to the bridge. He concentrated and stepped upon each one.
We were walking alongside him, smiling at his deep meditation. We tried to encourage him, but our remedial French didn’t include “”Let’s go!”” or “”You can do it!”” He was oblivious to us anyway – and to his teachers yelling at him from the finish line.
And then we began to hear the countdown from the other end, announcing that a new group of children was going to get the opportunity to run. Oh no, we said. He’s going to be lapped!
All the hollering finally broke into his reverie and he looked at us and at the finish line, and slowly began to make his way to his waiting supporters. He didn’t seem to care about the herd of kids waiting to overtake him – or the fact that his own classmates were long finished and probably already lining up to do it again.
It was the progression that fascinated him, the journey. What was in front – waiting impatiently – and what was behind – wanting to overtake him – didn’t matter. His happiness was found in the moment, the simplicity of a wooden bridge, and the wonder of his own two feet moving him along.