As a Los Angeles native and a New York City resident, I am able to derive a certain level of comfort from key aspects of contemporary urban planning, including those outlined by Kevin Lynch. In metropolitan spaces, I wield the longstanding capacity to use landmarks as frames of reference; Paris, notably, is home to the globally unmistakable Eiffel tower, whose grandiose silhouette can seamlessly ground me and provide me with a clearer sense of where I am geographically, spatially and culturally. Big cities, given my constant exposure to them since birth, make sense to me, and the chaos and cacophony that they often lend themselves to feel like familiar friends that I am well equipped to handle. In their propensity to change and regenerate constantly, cities are emblematic of the fast-paced life I am used to living.
Consequently, rural realms have never been my forte. Small towns and rolling fields have always seemed anemic to me—in the bubble of my concrete ridden upbringing, I’ve often wondered what the point of living in isolation from the modern world could be. I foresee myself retiring in a high-rise as opposed to a country home.
This past weekend, in an effort to explore France and refine my language skills, I decided to take a day trip to Giverny, a small enclave in Normandy with a population of just over 500 inhabitants. The village is home to a series of impressionist museums and is famed for serving as the inspiration for some of the world’s most iconic paintings, most notably Claude Monet’s “The Water Lily Pond.” Although I chose to travel to the town in order to explore its artistic history, I couldn’t have predicted how impactful the journey would be in other ways.
I arrived in Normandy on Sunday morning alongside a new friend and traveling partner. Looking out of the window on our hour-long train ride from Paris had already introduced a sense of calm within me—for kilometers and kilometers, the only focal points that caught my eye were those embedded in nature: deep blue lakes, vibrant assortments of colorful trees, and sinuous mountains. Upon our disembarkment in Vernon, a town which neighbored our final destination, we missed the bus that we were meant to take next. After briefly pondering calling an Uber or attempting to find a taxi, we realized that we might be depriving ourselves of a great opportunity to witness the French countryside up close. Why not just walk?
Google Maps warned us that our journey by foot would take over an hour, but with no time constraints for the rest of the day, we grasped the opportunity head-on. As we strolled, I took note of the stillness in my environment. These cottages and shops had been around for centuries, devoid of any sense of urban development. A war monument framed the perimeter of the town, a reminder of a complicated and historical past. We had no frames of reference to guide us—no Eiffel tower loomed in the distance to lead the way, no familiar convenience store chain opened its doors to acknowledge a greater world. Regardless, this tranquility felt timeless, secure—anything but disconcerting.
After crossing a bridge over an expansive river, we noticed that the GPS’ on our phones were unable to locate a digitally traceable path to walk on. Instead of panicking, we wandered onto a dirt road in the direction of Giverny, wayfinding in the most literal sense. This spontaneous release from a regimented itinerary was viscerally liberating. Enveloped in farmland, we walked alongside wildlife, hydrangeas, and maize fields, sights I have seldom seen. The gentle breeze seemed to propel me forward, surely in the right direction. The half visible sun seemed to drench my skin with the right amount of warmth, surely to tell me I was safe. With nothing familiar to latch onto, an inherent connection to nature that I didn’t even realize I possessed was what ultimately pacified any fear.
Upon reaching Giverny, it was easy to ignore the soreness of our legs, busy reflecting on the beauty around us. After a leisurely meal at a local cafe, we explored the gardens of Claude Monet, admiring the most vivid arrangement of flowers I have ever had the chance to see. By the famous lily pond, I noticed a line of cows grazing, all white except for a brown one in the back. This, again, felt like a sign from the universe as I glided across the promenade, surrounded by Caucasian figures in a foreign continent, my complexion mirrored in the living thing beside me. Just two drops of brown in a sea of white, we stood together in silence. I smiled all the way through our walk back to the station.
This trip, in its simplicity, felt existentially fulfilling, allowing me a sense of magical quietude that I am not accustomed to. Although I believe cities will continue to correlate best with my identity, my perspective on rural spaces has developed in a meaningful way. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1836 essay, “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”