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Free (Wo)man in Paris

So I have a confession to make: it’s possible that I didn’t do any Pilates exercises while my husband and I were in Paris at the beginning of May. Sure, there was a morning, maybe our second day there, that I entertained the thought of leaving our comfy bed and busting out the Hundred and the Series of Five on the tiled floor of our rented bohemian loft. But that thought was quickly replaced by other thoughts. Thoughts like, “Where will we find our pains au chocolat today?” and “Bonjour! S’il vous plaît! Merci!” (yes, I energetically practiced my meager French over and over in my head for our entire trip) and “HOLY COCO CHANEL, I’M IN PARIS.” These thoughts came and went, and thus it was decided: that morning, and all the mornings I started my beautiful day in France’s capital city, would proceed sans Pilates.

Oh, I USED my Pilates while I was in Paris. Once you get Pilates in your bones (and muscles, and mind, and heart), I don’t think it’s possible to ever again move without a certain enhanced awareness of how you fit together so beautifully and harmoniously; to use that knowledge to power you smoothly through your day’s activities, whether it’s walking slowly along the Seine, browsing the dark green boxes of the famous bouquinistes (booksellers), or hiking the steep stairs to the glowing white Basilica of Sacré Cœur. From up there, you might pause to look out at the grand spread of Paris that gradually revealed itself as you climbed past charming terraced gardens. Who knows – maybe you’d also think about parting the crowds of tourists and throwing down a perfect Teaser in front of that sprawling view. Maybe you’d cajole your husband into taking a picture of you doing that perfect Teaser, your strong arms and legs reaching, your belly scooping, a radiant smile on your face. A Teaser atop the highest hill in Paris! Or maybe you wouldn’t have thought about your Teaser at all while you were in Paris. Maybe you’d conjure up that glorious little scene only when you were back home, sitting with tea and toast in your favorite Portland, Maine, café. Yep, I’ll let you guys decide what you think happened on that particular morning in France. Winking face emoji.

On our second afternoon in Paris, we rented bicycles with comfy wide seats, smooth leather grips, and upright handlebars. Both of us being pretty confident riders in city traffic, we hopped right on and set off with eagerness (but, shame on us, without helmets – do not try this at home). The sky was blue over our heads and the sun beamed down as we pressed on our pedals and sped along in the bike lane, giddy to be gliding by the throngs on the sidewalks and squeezed in next to the long buses and buzzing scooters that crowded the avenues. We pedaled and coasted, pedaled and coasted, taking stock of where we were at each road crossing. (And I cannot tell a lie: for the entire afternoon, I could not get the bike-riding scene from Flight of the Conchords’ “Foux Da Fa Fa” out of my head.)

Going by two wheels was a delightful way to see more of that magnificent city than we could possibly have covered on foot. We got close enough to the Eiffel Tower to snap a few photos; no, not the kind where we appear to be holding it or booping it on the top. (We are [mostly] dignified tourists.) We rode the length of the Champs-Élysées and watched, open-mouthed, as crazy people posed on a narrow median amid zooming traffic and took pictures of one another flashing peace signs in front of the imposing Arc de Triomphe. We stopped to load up our backpacks with fresh pasta salad, sweet sodas, and a wedge of strawberry tart from a small café where the kind woman behind the counter ran out waving an extra set of plastic cutlery right before we pushed off again. We eventually made our way to a large beautiful park that the bicycle company staff had pointed to on a map of Paris – a big green space that spread over one whole corner. Once there, we picked a spot by a duck pond bordered by wooden benches under tall trees, set our kickstands, and happily watched the slow progress of giggling couples manning rowboats on the water.

It was there, relaxing and eating strawberry tart, my muscles cooling off like a ticking engine, that I thought of my sitz bones, or, for all you anatomy geeks, my ischial tuberosities. (I know what you’re thinking: Yes! Finally, some Pilates!) The reason I thought of my sitz bones was because I’d neglected to bring padded bike shorts to Paris, and had recklessly chosen a pair of thin cotton leggings for our adventure. Despite maxing out the seat post on my wheeled steed, the wide leather seat still wasn’t quite high enough for my 5’ 9” frame, and I found myself unable to stop sliding forward as we pedaled along in a toe clip-less state. For every dozen or so pedal strokes, I’d scoot my derrière to perch as far back as possible before beginning the inevitable slump again. This repeated action, combined with a good four hours of riding with no padding, meant that I woke up the next morning with (what else?) pain au chocolat on my mind. Oh yes. AND a set of pretty tender spots nestled in by those bony protrusions. See? Sitz bones! Pilates! There!

All right: the Louvre. If you’re from America, you’re used to things being large. Our gas-guzzling cars, boxy and view-blocking, lumber down our vast streets. Our oversized houses contain so much space, often more than is really necessary to live our lives. Order an entrée in many restaurants, and you’ll likely end up being served food enough for two. Go ahead, ask yourself whether you really need to (or can) eat half a roasted chicken in one sitting. I’m waiting. No? So my point is, America is BIG. Big cars, big houses, big food. But the Louvre Palace, my friends. The Louvre is ENORMOUS. It stretches over an area of 782,910 square feet. 38,000 objects are exhibited within. (Thanks, Internet.) You walk by on the Left Bank of the Seine, looking over at it taking up the view. You look away for a bit, your attention caught by yet another style icon in an impeccable outfit. You fall into conversation with your husband. You cross a street. You spy the bouquinistes up ahead. You stop and politely ask one with sports memorabilia if he has a vintage Tour de France magazine c. 1974 that your husband hopes will have legendary Belgian rider Eddy Merckx on the cover. You check the map on your phone to see how much farther you’ll go until you arrive at the Musée d’Orsay. You’ve walked quite a long way now. You cross another street and look over and bam! The Louvre is still there! You haven’t finished walking by it yet!

We heeded the advice of some friends and decided to not even try to scratch the surface of this famous art museum and historic monument; we opted for just being impressed by its giganticness and gawking at it from the other side of the Seine. Oh, we’ll go back and tackle it. Maybe not right away, but I’m confident that this was not our only trip to the City of Light. In the meantime, be a dear and pass me another piece of bread slathered with Nutella, won’t you?

OK. Now for some serious thoughts. Like any of us, I love being away from my routine, and yet, at the end of a trip, I’m rarely sad that I have to go BACK to my routine. My life is full of wonderful people and places, and I do work that is meaningful to me. Really, I’m almost eager to get back so I can notice how my travels may have changed me – how they may have revealed a new facet of my being, or shown me an old one that needs polishing.

In Paris, I was pleased to rediscover that I like feminine things. I like pretty blouses and lipstick and a hint of perfume! (And reader, although I do try to abide by Springboard’s “no heavy fragrances, please” policy, I did indulge in the purchase of some gorgeous, special occasion perfume from a tiny brick-walled atelier close to the apartment we rented.) I was enraptured by the stylish but not fussy outfits on the women (and men) I saw, and the care with which people presented themselves felt different than the show-offy, look-at-me-I-just-came-from-exercise-class body-baring that we Americans tend to do. French women don’t have perfect bodies; what they DO have is a spot-on sense of how to dress for their figures.

And so, after being pleasantly immersed in the rhythm and romance of the streets of Paris for several days, I became convinced that celebrating my womanly figure, in all its middle-aged, weight-shifting, changing glory, was something I should try more of, instead of beating myself up over all the ways in which my body shows I’m no longer in my 20s. On our third day in France, I combed back my hair, carefully applied my makeup, donned a black cashmere top, put on my leg-lengthening, high-waisted kick-crop jeans, and sailed forth into our day’s activities in my wedge sandals and aviator sunglasses. Did I match the effortless style of the Parisians sweeping along the sidewalks? Well. . .non. But oui, I enjoyed trying. Paris, je t’aime!