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The wooden staircase rising from the parking lot near Prince's Island Park to the top of the rugged bluff has 166 steps, perhaps 167.
Having not been down to the Calgary park for years, I enjoy my power walk through it, but eventually have to face the climb back up. I expect many joggers to pass me on the stairway, but not to see some of them leaping two or three steps at a time. I stare in disbelief at such self-inflicted torture.
I walk, and I count each stair, because I'm preparing my body for the 704 stairs I will have to climb to reach the second level of the Eiffel Tower with my daughter in August. They have been having elevator difficulties at the tower. By the time we arrive, all may be well, but I'd still rather be prepared. Preparation, I maintain, is the key to a great holiday.
As I plan for these exciting days in Paris, I have to caution myself. Summer in Canada is short enough. How sad if I centre all my attention on those 10 days. I don't want the idea of Paris to consume all of my summer ("consume," the Canadian Oxford Dictionary says: "reduce to nothing or to tiny particles.")
So I have to hold the rest of my life together while I prepare physically and mentally for France.
First I went to my local library. Instead of taking out my usual mystery DVDs, I checked out actual books. I left the library feeling different – intelligent, excited, on the edge of historical discovery.
During a typical day at home now, I make progress on my writing projects, vacuum and gain a new understanding of the causes of the French Revolution.
In late afternoons, I find myself reluctantly closing The Complete Idiot's Guide to European History. Too soon, I must leave the guillotines behind, for I have kitchen work to do with knife and cutting board.
Days spent sitting at my computer have been a struggle. I know I should be writing, but my eyes glance at the library books. Self-discipline bolts me to my chair and I remain at my desk. But my mind has entered the Louvre, wondering if my grasp of the Renaissance is truly sufficient.
Will I look at the massive, ornate frames longer than I look at the paintings themselves, because I understand so little of the artists and their great works? Am I coming apart? I tell myself to get a grip.
In the evenings, I now watch the news anticipating the commercials so I can use the breaks to jot down tips from the library's most recent edition of Fodor's Paris. I muse about how commercial breaks should actually be much longer, then I wonder if indeed I am being consumed.
In Paris, the gardens are très elegant, but I have to banish those images from my mind, drum up some enthusiasm and buy a few annuals.
My heavy ceramic planters are soon filled with colourful petunias and geraniums. I drag them across the cement patio on their rickety metal coasters, wheels squeaking.
After more planting and weeding I survey my backyard. It's no Versailles. But neither are we Louis XIV and Maria Theresa. I am not prepared to follow in their footsteps: I have read too much about how endless profligate spending could lead to unhappiness, unrest, bankruptcy, uprising and revolution.
I continue my research and planning. The Roman numerals slow me down more than the French phrases do. On the whole, I believe I really have it all together. Still, there is more to do.
I've been preparing for the going, but there is also the return and that is-there-life-after-vacation feeling. After all, it's not every decade that I venture off the continent.
A funny thing happens on the way down the 166 (or 167) stairs. I look out over Prince's Island Park, so green and pretty, with the waters of the Bow River, swollen by recent torrential rains and mountain snowpack runoff, sweeping by.
There is beauty everywhere, and suddenly I wonder, "Who was the Prince?" I've been so immersed in the French kings, yet I know nothing of this Calgary Prince.
I think about other parks I know little about and have not visited in decades. I used to go every year to Nose Hill Park to see the spring crocuses. Why haven't I done that for the past six or seven springs?
The "after-Paris life" has begun to take shape. I'll continue the walking but do more exploring, reading and perhaps tackle the stairs.
I don't want to arrive home needing to glue back together little pieces of a person devastated by going "back to the grind," wondering when I'll get another vacation.
I want to return as a whole person, together, intact, knowing how blessed I am to have had an adventure with my daughter.
I want to come back to the family I love and to a city of beauty with wonderful parks, one of which was named after a hard-working lumberman from Quebec, Peter Anthony Prince.
Kim L. Clarke lives in Calgary.