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A Triumph at the Arc de Triomphe!

Does life sometimes feel as if you are stuck on a spiral staircase that goes endlessly round and round while your legs and lungs and spirit are giving out because you can’t see your way to the top? This happened to me in a very literal way a few months ago and provided me with a memorable metaphor for some particularly challenging moments in life. Sometimes the struggle helps us savor the joy.

Last year I had the wonderful good fortune to visit Paris with my significant other, Geoff. We toured countless museums, discovered the aquarium, visited with family, viewed world famous landmarks – and of course there was the food and wine! So many wonderful, unique, and very special moments packed into two weeks exploring that gorgeous city of lights!

when we returned home

Friends asked what my favorite moment was. How to choose? And one surprising event kept rising to the top – our visit to the Arc de Triomphe.

Armed only with high school French classes from fifty years ago, Geoff and I attempted to communicate with results ranging from basic to hopeless. As we made our way through the line to tour the Arc, we tried to find out how to access the elevator. The ticket taker motioned us forward and before we knew it, we found ourselves sandwiched between countless tourists trudging up a very narrow, ancient stone staircase rising in a tight spiral. The way up seemed endless – we could not see to the top. The way down – well, that was impossible with so many people jamming the staircase, all pushing upward.

At first I thought to myself, “Well, how far up can it be? Surely we’ll reach a landing with an elevator soon.”

And then, as the seemingly endless circling continued and I thought I would lose my ability to move my knees and take a full breath, my thoughts changed to, “How will the paramedics be able to get all the way up here to rescue us when we collapse?”

Then I saw an indentation in the wall of the staircase. I flattened myself within it and grabbed Geoff’s sleeve, squeezing him in beside me. Weary climbers looked at us with envy tucked into our resting place as we shared a bottle of water from my purse. After our breathing returned to normal we looked at each other and said, “The only way out is up!” and resumed our climb. As it turned out, the resting nook was about three quarters of the way up the 284 steps to the top. Emerging from the stairwell, we observed many younger people heaving as they recovered on benches at the museum landing. A quick look told me we were the oldest people to make the climb that afternoon, and I felt proud of us! It was then that I spied the elevator on the other side of the landing.

the reward was our climb

The reward was just another short staircase away – the crown of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris! It was a blustery November day, but warmed by our extreme aerobics, we didn’t feel the cold – we felt only exhilaration! In every direction, there was a treat for the eyes and the spirit – the Champs-Elysees, Eiffel Tower, Sacre-Coeur, Notre-Dame, and so much more! Geoff and I stayed and stared and laughed, taking in every detail until the wind threatened to blow us away. And then, we returned to earth via the elevator!

Weeks later as I remembered the many wonderful experiences from that once in a lifetime trip, the Arc of Triomphe kept rising to the top of my list of magical moments. It occurred to me that it could have turned into the worst memory of the trip if my reaction to the situation had been a bit different.

I’ve never been the athletic type, and now in my late sixties I am solidly sedentary. I wasn’t terribly confident in my ability to take the stairs to the top of the monument, especially while feeling suffocated with so many other people on the stairs. Kind of scared me to be honest! And it certainly wasn’t something I had intended to do, but there I was. In other times of my life, I might have chosen to get stuck in anger and fear, blame Geoff, have a meltdown, etc., but I’ve been actively working on my attitudes and perceptions, so not this time! Instead, I was determined to embrace the staircase journey, telling myself I could do it, taking a break when I could, and being grateful for my partner as we encouraged each other to get to the top. And what waited at the top was worth every step!

Our experience at the Arc de Triomphe mirrored some key components for a happy life – staying positive and relying on warm relationships during the tough stuff and enjoying the awe and wonder of the good stuff together. We wouldn’t change a thing about our visit to the Arc de Triomphe! Full disclosure: emboldened by our triumph at the Arc, Geoff suggested we climb part of the Eiffel Tower. I enthusiastically declined!

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