I took a weekend trip to France once.
It made me realize that I don’t think life is about achieving impressive goals. I think it’s about creating honest stories.
I took the trip during my sophomore year of college when I was studying abroad in Florence, Italy. I had never been to France prior to the trip, or out of the country for that matter, but I always wanted to go.
Most of what I knew about France, I knew from watching Beauty and the Beast. I had no idea what to expect. Like most girls my age, I was attracted to Paris because of the fashion and the romance and the shimmering lights.
I never knew how much I adored traveling before my semester abroad either. To be fair, I imagine traveling is much different when you’re relying on your own finances and trying to navigate the real-world responsibilities of adulthood – a full-time job, bills and housing situations. But at twenty years old with a scholarship, financial aid from my parents, no apartment and no responsibilities, it felt too good to be true.
I am a goal-oriented person. I am always working toward a future something. I am never satisfied unless I am achieving a goal or on a path that is pointing directly to one. I have always looked at life as a series of destinations, all strung together to achieve one final outcome. When I look back on my life, I’ll feel fulfilled knowing I accomplished what I set out to accomplish.
Maybe that’s true in some respect. But I read a book one time written by this guy who wrote down all of his memories. Every day, he would sit at a computer and write as much as he could remember from the day, in as much detail as possible. They all began to come together to form tiny stories, and he eventually compiled them into the book I was reading.
You would think reading a book about someone’s life would be boring. After all, you’re living life, so why would you want to also read about it?
By writing down all of the memories that were meaningful to him, the author of this book was somehow able to compile a story that was relatable and held my attention. It was a book full of his most engaging memories, some big and some small, but none meaningless. There was no ultimate conclusion, or plot, really. But I felt oddly fulfilled after reading it.
It sounds silly, but after I read that book, my perspective changed. I don’t think life is so much about reaching destinations and achieving goals. I think it’s more accurately a series of moments, all strung together to create a story.
Maybe that story could be put together in a book or a movie. Or maybe not. It doesn’t have to reach some groundbreaking conclusion or solve a problem or achieve a goal. You could say the story itself is the destination, or the goal, but I don’t think that’s the point.
I think fulfillment comes in the search for meaning. And you find it in moments that are significant to you, big or small.
It’s strange which moments stand out as significant, though. Usually the moments in which I’m standing there thinking, “I have to register everything that’s happening right now. This is an important moment,” aren’t the ones I remember most vividly.
I’m sad to say I don’t remember much about my first kiss.
I remember where it took place and when. But I don’t remember how I was feeling or what I was thinking. I was over-thinking it, and because of that, the details of the moment just sort of didn’t register.
Then, there are moments that seem small and insignificant at the time. Instead of thinking about how I need to soak it all in, I am just living in them.
Those are the ones I usually remember the most clearly in hindsight. Sometimes I don’t know why I remember certain things. Sometimes it becomes obvious after a while, and sometimes it remains a mystery.
In either case, those are the kind of moments the author of the book I was reading would write down in the most detail. The big moments were the most exciting, of course, but the small, seemingly insignificant moments somehow were the most moving. I think they’re the kind of things most people don’t think about.
When I visited Paris for the first time, the whole weekend felt like a dream come true. I was determined not to miss a single second. Consequently, I don’t remember most of the exciting things that happened in any detail.
I know we went to the Louvre for free with our student IDs. We went to mass on Sunday at Notre Dame, and we visited the Palace of Versailles.
I took the cliché selfie in front of the Mona Lisa. I wandered through the vast palace and gardens at Versailles wondering what it would be like to own so much land and so much gold. I ate a crepe on a street corner as Nutella ran down my hands. I put a snail in my mouth and promptly spit it back out, and I paid way too much for the season’s first pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks.
I moved through the motions as I checked goals off of my list of destinations I felt obligated to reach.
There is one moment that stands out above the rest whenever I think about that weekend.
For the longest time, I could not for the life of me figure out why I remembered this, of all things, so vividly. But the feeling of it has not left me.
My five roommates and I had just arrived in France and were taking the bus from the airport to our hostel in the city center of Paris. It was about an hour trip.
It was late in the evening, and we were exhausted from traveling all day after missing our connecting flight. We each had a backpack with a change of clothes that was feeling heavier by the minute, and we boarded the shuttle in a blur of excitement, stress and fatigue. There weren’t any seats left together on the bus, so we split up. I had been traveling with my roommates all day, so this was secretly fine with me.
I chose a seat by myself near a big window. I noticed the bus had WiFi. I began to fiddle with the settings on my phone before deciding I should enjoy the French scenery, and I could survive without WiFi for the hour. I decided to listen to music instead. I flipped through song after song and couldn’t decide on anything I wanted to listen to. I turned my phone off but left my headphones in my ears so no one would talk to me. I leaned my head against the window and decided maybe I should sleep. I couldn’t get to sleep because of the overhead announcements and finally settled on simply looking out the big window as the engine rumbled to a start.
At first, the scenery was mostly highway. I questioned whether we were in Europe or America as we rolled past familiar sights: gas stations, fast food restaurants, grocery stores and factories. We eventually left the highway and began bumping along down a two-lane road as vineyards and farmland and foliage moved past the window, making it more apparent that we were, in fact, in Europe.
The bus was moving at break-neck speed, but the scenes shifted slowly and lazily. Two girls, about my age, who were also studying abroad sat behind me chatting the whole way. I contemplated whether their chatting was going to annoy me and if I should turn music back on to drown it out. But there was something oddly soothing about their conversation.
They weren’t talking about anything significant. It was early October, and they mentioned they were excited to see their families again at Christmas once the semester came to an end. They discussed the souvenirs they would bring back, laughing about how their siblings didn’t deserve souvenirs. They planned what they were going to do the following day in Paris. They spoke contentedly about how this was their first time outside of the U.S. and how much they have enjoyed traveling around Europe so far.
I felt a weird sense of peace enjoying their conversation from an outside perspective without having to actually engage in it. It felt like life was moving all around me, but I was just observing rather than participating, which strangely took a lot of the pressure off.
“I’ve travelled a lot within the States, but this is my first time to Europe,” one of the girls said.
“I’ve never left the East Coast!” the other girl responded, slightly ashamed and slightly amused. “What is your favorite place to travel to in the States?”
“I love Maine. It’s just beautiful. Everything seems perfect. Straight out of a postcard.”
I don’t know why this surprised me. I had never thought about Maine. I had no idea what it would be like, but it sounded like I had to go. There were places on my bucket list in the U.S. to visit – places like California, Hawaii and Texas. Maine had never once crossed my mind. I remember feeling oddly comforted by the idea of traveling there. I don’t know why. I made a mental note to mention it to my parents and see what they had to say. The girl said something about sailboats and rocky shores. I decided to add it to my bucket list and do some research once we got to the hostel and into better WiFi.
They continued to chat about Maine, and it became background noise as I looked out the window and wondered what Maine is like. I heard my roommates wake up from their sleep and begin talking loudly and excitedly as we neared the center of Paris. A seat opened next to them, and I thought about joining their conversation but decided to continue pretending to listen to music instead.
The bus seats were made of scratchy blue material with hard cushions underneath, but they felt comfortable compared to the airplane seats we had spent so much time in that day. The whole bus smelled a little musty. There were pull-down trays, and for a moment, I thought about how wonderful it would be if there were snacks. Or even better -coffee. I searched my purse, but I didn’t find any snacks.
I felt kind of sad that the bus ride was only an hour and a little overwhelmed by the idea of having to haul myself off of the bus and use the mental energy to check into our hostel. What was my name again? Where was my passport? I made a mental note to dig that up in a few minutes.
As we inched closer to our destination, I secretly wished there was more time to sit there contemplating whatever I was contemplating.
“There’s the Eiffel Tower!” my roommates squealed. “You can see it out the window!”
I couldn’t actually see the Eiffel Tower out my window, but the bus became chaos as study abroad students climbed to the windows where you could. I stayed in my seat looking out the big window and felt this strong sense of peace. That’s what I remember most above everything else: the feeling of peace and contentment.
I don’t know why it felt so nice to be going somewhere new, surrounded by strangers and chaos and enjoying things as they passed from an outside perspective. There are few other times in my life I remember feeling so undeniably peaceful.
I don’t remember much that happened after we reached Paris that night. Although I do have a picture of the tiny street corner, illuminated by an overhead store lamp, and the sidewalks glittering with fresh rain. It’s a pretty picture, but I don’t remember taking it.
I still can’t figure out exactly why that moment on the bus registers with any significance in my brain five years later, or why it’s the first thought that pops into my mind when I think about my first trip to Paris.
I wasn’t overthinking it, but it was still important to me. There’s no ultimate conclusion or lesson behind it. It’s just a nice memory.
I did end up going to Maine almost every summer after that. It is just as beautiful as the girl described, complete with postcard-esque sailboats and rocky shores.
And, I got married in Maine last year. So maybe that memory was foreshadowing something. After all, I met the boy I married on that trip abroad.
Getting married wasn’t a goal of mine, or a destination I felt I had to reach. It was just something that happened because the timing was right.
The day I got married is such a big, impressive memory that stands out compared to that small, honest moment on the bus.
But together, they’re both part of a meaningful story. I think this is what I will look back on in my life one day and feel the most fulfilled.