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Postcard From Paris

A new perspective on the City of Lights

When I traveled to Paris 20 years ago, I was a newlywed and a journalist who wrote about food. I saw the City of Lights as a series of romantic backdrops, punctuated by opportunities to eat cheese.

This spring, I returned to Paris for the first time — with almost two decades of marriage, three kids, a freshly minted technical college diploma, and a new career in construction under my belt. My traveling companion was 12 years old, the youngest of my three sons.

Paris looked very different.

The change wasn’t entirely unexpected. After all, the years since I last touched down at CDG witnessed the emergence of architectural icons such as the Musée du quai Branly and the Louis Vuitton Foundation, not to mention the evolution of quotidian amenities such as Uber, iPhones, and the Euro.

But the differences I perceived weren’t just the predictable contrasts between fin and début de siècle Paris. The changes I saw were in the eye of the beholder: It turns out that, as a middle-aged mom in construction, I see the world through a whole new lens.

For example, standing in front of a colossal canvas at Musée D’Orsay, this erstwhile art history major forgot to look at the subject of the painting. I have no idea whether the artist memorialized a martyred saint, a murderous Moyen Âge mob, or a marshy bank of a lily pond, because my reflex was to examine the joinery of the gilded frame. The massive mitered corner was the length of my forearm, so I was distracted by estimating how large le biscuit in the joint must be.

Meanwhile, after stumbling countless times on the way up the Eiffel Tower à pied, a bruised shin led me to wonder if Belle Époque engineer Gustave Eiffel adhered to measurements of the modern International Residential Code, which stipulate that stairs must be no taller than 7 3/4 inches with a 10-inch minimum tread and a nosing projection between 3/4 inch and 1 1/4 inch, to prevent tripping.

Finally, upon entering architect Frank Gehry’s exquisite structure at the Louis Vuitton Foundation and viewing a gallery installation of rough-sawn lumber, I caught myself estimating whether the timber’s dimensions would suffice for repairs on a rotting pergola of similar millwork back home. In that hallowed hall of contemporary conceptual art, my mind wandered to this profane equation: If the sculpture consists of X lineal feet of lumber, at Y dollars per lineal foot, what’s the insurance value, in Euros, of the museum installation?

None of these questions would have crossed my mind in my life before construction college. Nor would I have recognized the shift in my perspective without the opportunity to reconsider a city I last visited in a very different frame of mind. It’s no surprise that traveling the world can alter our perspectives at home. But quelle surprise it was when travel revealed how much the last 20 years at home had changed the way I saw the world.

When I returned to Nashville, I made a photo book of our trip as a souvenir for my son. The snapshots in its pages spoke volumes about my evolution. Last time I was in France, I captured a bunch of photos of myself in front of things: Me in front of Notre Dame. Me in front of Sacre Cœur. A lot of wine and cheese in front of me.

On this trip, my camera focused on my traveling companion. The Louvre and Arc de Triomphe — both triumphs of the built environment — make lovely backdrops, but in the eyes of this middle-aged mom in construction, my son was the most interesting thing in France.

Postcard From Paris

Copyright (c) 2019 by Carrington Fox. All rights reserved. Carrington Fox works for The Wills Company Design/Build/Handyman firm in Nashville and chronicles life as a middle-aged mom in construction at Build Me Up, Buttercup.