I can’t remember how old I was. Six. Or maybe seven. One day, on our way to the beach, my mother noticed a tent going up in an abandoned lot. “Look,” she said, “The circus is coming!”
It was summertime on the Jersey shore, and every day we went to the beach like everyone else. And every day we passed the budding circus, watching as the mélange grew: animals, ticket booths, food stalls. One day my mother came home with tickets and off we went. I have spotty memories of that circus, but I still recall an intense feeling of wonder. And joy.
Our apartment in Paris is near the Cirque d’hiver–the winter circus. I had heard of it years ago, during high school French, I think. But I remembered it historically–as in: a hundred years ago, this is where they used to hold the circus. And that was correct. The circus first opened at the Cirque d’hiver in December 1852 by the Emperor Napoleon III.
A circus is a nostalgic thing for me. When I learned the Cirque d’hiver still operated, I bought tickets.
The exterior of the venue is beautiful, buttercup yellow with two rims of white friezes. At first I thought they depicted circus scenes, but when I looked closer, I realized they were more like Roman fighting scenes. I guess that’s what happens when you let an emperor plan the circus venue.
From the outside, the building appears huge, but inside it was surprisingly intimate, constructed to feel like a big top hoisted over one center ring. We found our seats: red velvet and wobbly, well past their prime. Parents poured in with kids waving glow sticks. Vendors hawked popcorn and cotton candy. This was the cotton candy of my youth, fluffy and pink and twice the size of my head.
The lights dimmed; members of a live band ran out, climbed up to their stage, and struck up the circus song. In pitch blackness, all I could see were streaks of blue from the glow sticks. Performers paraded into the ring, wearing glow-in-the-dark outfits. Then swirls of brilliant lights.
“Ladies and Gentlemen. Children of all ages.”
The clock turned back fifty years.
Performers climbed into boxes and disappeared. Others climbed into boxes and were cut in half. Some dangled from high wires. Others juggled, balanced, or flipped from the back of one elephant to the next. They tumbled and twirled for two hours; each act was different, and amazing.
Between acts, a clown entertained us. Of course.
When it was over, the crowd jumped to their feet, “Bravo!!” Pat turned to me and said, ‘That was outstanding,” and I agreed.
This has made me think about the evolution of wonder and joy in my life. As a child, I found it easily and everywhere in a myriad of firsts. Later, I channeled it through the eyes of my kids and all of their firsts. Then they grew up and moved away. Without me noticing, wonder moved away too.
I could blame social media and my ever-present smart phone, I suppose. Now, I would have learned about the circus on Facebook. Seen the acts on YouTube. Even the serendipity of taking a wrong turn and stumbling upon a fabulous place ended when my phone started to direct my turns. It’s less frustrating that way. But less fun.
Yet when I look for it, wonder still lurks. Over the last five years of travel, I have found it in a hundred different places: On the Irish farmland when we came upon my first road bowling match on a country lane. Or the first time I watched a Mayan fisherman sell his catch on a counter-balance scale weighed against a rock. During my first (and in this case last) pig killing on a rural Hungarian farm with friends that I had come to love like family.
It turns out wonder didn’t leave my life. I stopped looking for it. Granted, it is harder to find. But it is out there.
Maybe that’s why I love this photo. Because I know exactly how this girl feels. I feel it too.
Tips: The winter circus is just that. It runs each year from October through the end of February. If you are in that neighbourhood anytime of year, check out the Clown Bar. A hundred years ago, it was the cafeteria for the circus. Clown tiles, a zinc bar, and wonderful (albeit exotic) menu. It’s worth a peek or a drink or a meal. Reservations necessary.
Categories: A year in Paris