The Trouble with Traboules

If you go to Vieux Lyon, or the old center of Lyon, France, you will find what are called traboules. These are secret passageways that cut across entire city blocks and are inconspicuous from the main, cobblestone streets. They date back to the Middle Ages and beyond to Roman Gaul. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the city’s silk weavers used them as shortcuts to the market on Presqu’île, the peninsula between the Rhône and Saône rivers. They also protected the delicate wares from jostling crowds and the elements. If you’ve ever imagined a shortcut to Grand Central at commute time, or a way to get on or off the 4 train without being trampled, what you’ve imagined is a traboule.

I went to Lyon recently and wandered through some of the city’s three hundred traboules. Many are not open to the public, since they lead to private courtyards and apartments. But I saw enough to appreciate their utility and beauty, including fountains, stone staircases, and Gothic architecture. They are so elaborate that, if not for my guide, I certainly would have been up the Rhône River without a paddle.

After spending a day exploring, I sat down on a cool, stone step and thought about the significance of these narrow passages, some just three feet wide. I concluded that the traboules pose two fundamental questions. First, is it better to explore them alone or with a guide? Second, once lost–an inevitability if you go alone, but still possible with a guide–do you stay the course and soldier on, or do you cut your losses and retrace your steps? These two questions should not be taken lightly, since they are about much more than traboules.

Consider your own situation. You were born into a set of circumstances and relationships that defines who and what you are. You then set out to reach a destination based on those circumstances and relationships. It’s as if you are a merchant trying to get from one street to another via the traboules. And it doesn’t matter whether you accept a destination or substitute one of your choosing. Your ultimate goal is the market in Presqu’île, whatever that may mean for you.

So, why wouldn’t you take a guide? Why would you not ask for help? Well, for one, a guide might not be available or, as is common, recognized as such. Or you might be intellectually or emotionally biased against authority. Then there’s our culture of individualism that compels people to do things on their own even when they have no idea what they’re doing, which is a form of cruelty. How long did it take me to recognize that in my own life?

The second question may have more to do with personality than anything else. Are you risk averse or risk tolerant? If you are risk averse and try to retrace your steps, does that mean that whatever got you to that point in life–acts, omissions, loves, decisions–were wasted or wrong? If risk tolerant, do you, like Lady Macbeth, discover the futility of changing course mid-stream and so push forward hoping for the best, believing that you will reach the opposite bank before drowning? Do you even know how to swim?

Personally, I welcome risk and have followed Lady Macbeth in screwing my courage to the sticking place. The drawback is that change becomes a way of life, which can be unsettling. There is also the likelihood that as you wander through time and space you may never find your way home again, which can be quite lonely. Fortunately for me, the guide was also my friend, and that has made all the difference.

“Lyon’s Traboules,” France Today, December 4, 2012. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance. Dedicated to Anthony Brevet.

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