As happens with most people who come to this region of the world, they spend the rest of their lives trying to come back. (Michael Dahlie)
I find, when I talk about Chamonix, that I speak in a lot of extremes. I’ve never seen strawberries so red. I’ve never seen anything like those mountains. The bread was the best I’ve ever had. And, most intensely, those weeks were the best experience of my life.
I almost always follow that phrase up when telling someone about the trip. I’ll add in something like “I know that’s easy to say, but I hope it comes across as earnest as I mean it.” It’s the best I can do to communicate an experience that is too big for superlatives. You know when you do something that just feels different than anything else you’ve ever done? Something that takes you out of yourself. Something that wholly and completely freaks you out in a way you didn’t know you needed.
I left for Chamonix just over three weeks after my thesis defense. I left emptied. I was exhausted and didn’t know if I had enough in me to write another poem. I left for Chamonix not having touched a draft of a poem for in a month. I finally closed the Word document of my thesis that had been left open for months. I made a new folder for all the work I hoped to do in France. I figured it’d stay nearly empty, because I was empty.
When I got there, I wrote a poem for every workshop session. I fully believe I can write anywhere, but something about writing while looking at Mont Blanc and thinking man, now I really GET what sublime means…not to write would have been to tell myself this place was exactly the same as my apartment in Nashville.
But Chamonix had accepted me on new terms.
There, I fumbled through coins in my hand to see if I had enough for a baguette. It rained but wasn’t windy, so I could stroll easily through the town with my umbrella notched on my shoulder and watch the stone walkways glisten. I attempted to pronounce French words so I could order lunch. I spoke up in workshop. I gave critique confidently and took it better than I ever had. I was completely fine being alone. I was okay being in my head all day. I listened to people older than me tell stories about their lives that I didn’t yet have in my own. I thought about what I did know. I accepted what I didn’t.
One of the best things I did in Chamonix was keep a journal. It wasn’t even in sentences; I just made a bulleted list of everything I did each day. I’ve found that’s one of the best ways to remember a trip—you don’t need to spend a lot of time doing it or try to describe it beautifully or figure out what it all “meant”—but writing down where you had lunch is enough.
Now, looking back, I did it all. I was in the mountain valley and on top of the second-highest peak there (literally). In a brief moment of insanity, I stepped out into a glass box hanging off the side of that peak. I looked down. I ate in tons of restaurants (and my favorites twice or three times). I walked the loop of the city daily. I made friends with the shop owners. I bought reusable grocery bags like I lived there. I laughed at the strawberry farmer’s French jokes. I bought two scarves, not one. I admitted everything into my poems. I wrote about airports and eavesdropping. I wrote about being single. I wrote about my skin. I left my thesis in the States. Turns out, new poems were waiting for me somewhere else.
And now I’m coming closer to finding out what it all means. When I got to Chamonix, I found what happens when you just go: everything brightens. I still hold that the strawberries and breads were like nothing in the States, but even if they actually weren’t that impressive, it’s worth remembering that my experience of the world became worthy of superlatives when I said yes. I found new terms for living, skills I didn’t know I had, experiences I didn’t know I needed. I found strawberries and pinot grigio and baguettes and macarons. I found kitchens and friendships.
I found the whole world lit up.