Colmar, France is one of the most amazing and charming little cities I've ever been to. I was a freshly-minted eighteen-year-old, and it was my first stint outside the United States. It was a liberating day for me, when we visited this French town on the German border, because I broke away from the group after more indecision mired any plans from forming, annoyed that we were all indecisive and trying to impress one another--the French teenagers who were our hosts and the American teenagers that composed my group.
We were passing this amazing shoe store, with boots in the window in colors I'd never seen in the U.S., and everyone bowled right past it--so I ducked in, hid, and tried on some ridiculous shoes I would never have bought but loved: orange and brown leather, hitting mid-calf, laced all the way up. These make me smile now, the price tag asking for hundreds of Euro and my youthful excitement at their outrageous appearance. I would have been brave enough to wear them back home, though they would be added to the list of strange and unusual things Jessie Edens wore in high school. I was the one who had made a skirt out of my dad's old army camouflage pants. (I still own this skirt, cannot give it up.) Maybe these orange and brown boots would have looked crazy and cool with the skirt. Probably not. The point was, I was sitting in a shoe store, in a foreign country where I could barely communicate with the saleslady, and I was beyond smitten with my position on the earth right then.
Alone, exploring, free, smiling, in a shoe store, with a few hours to kill.
The first thing I did once I headed out of the shop was follow a map back to the meeting place we had established for later that afternoon. It would be no good to lose track of myself and then be late getting back to everyone--when doing little excursions on my own, it would be foolhardy indeed to lose the right to my time exploring alone. I wanted, needed, to show everyone, especially the adults guiding us, that I was capable of handling myself and that they could trust me to go it alone. Adults had a habit of not believing I could do this.
A year earlier, on a trip with my church youth choir, I had left the hotel in Philadelphia early on our last morning there, because I was bound and determined to visit the steps that Rocky runs up--the iconic steps of the fists in the air and grey pantsuit moment of Rocky. The way events had played out, some of our group had been able to visit them while I had to be doing something with another group. I was royally annoyed and ready to be defiant. When I returned to the bus (in time for departure, mind you) the adults were mad, and I relished it. I was not a bad kid, and especially disliked being treated like an incapable human, so I really enjoyed making everyone huffy with concern. "What would your parents do if we told them?" was their main argument to me. My dad would have done exactly the same thing, I responded. You know what? My mom absolutely would have done the same, too. We're not a family to have much concern for "the plan" that everyone has established.
Anyway, if people are all being group-minded and deciding things en masse, I tend to want to just wander without them. I don't have to do anything grand. It's the small things that are grand.
I wandered. I bought a postcard whose words still inspire me today, near my desk. I bought ice cream. I asked a man on the street what time it was, in French. I kept hearing water running, flowing, and finally found that it was running alongside a main rue, right between the buildings and homes and the road itself. It came out of nowhere and truly surprised and delighted me. I stepped in dog poop right along that tiny urban river. It is a testament to how happy I was that this didn't even phase me. (At least I hadn't been wearing brand new lace-up brown-and-orange leather boots.)
I found a small little restaurant, boldly went inside and ordered an "American cheeseburger" and a beer. At 18, I triumphantly drank my first beer, freezing cold in a tall glass, because it was legal and I could. The men running the place inquired whether I was allemande-- German. Je suis American, I stumbled around the language, even if the statement was simple. They understood. I wonder if my foolish, giddy grin was obvious?
That afternoon, I returned early to the park area where we were to meet, and discovered that our bus driver was an artiste during his down time driving tourists around--he loved Dali. He let me on the bus so I could grab my notebook and wax poetic about my day alone in Colmar.
Colmar has stayed with me. It charmed me more than Paris, probably because I wasn't too scared to wander it alone and discover a bit more about it in a half-day's time. It was just the right amount of pure, utter joy. Little things.