Originally published on Jun 12, 2014:
I’m rushing across the bridge, late for a meeting, when I get tangled up in pedestrian traffic.
“Move!” I elbow past a giggling, crouching couple that's busy putting up a lock on the Halfpenny Bridge over the River Liffey in Dublin, Ireland, the city I’m living in for the summer.
Right now, the Halfpenny Bridge is nothing like the Pont des Arts in Paris, whose fence partially collapsed from the hulking weight of far too many padlocks this past week. Where the Parisian bridge is entirely covered a metallic quilt of locks, this bridge has only a few so far; placed sporadically enough to look almost sweet. And, I admit that the practice — clicking the lock into place with a lover and throwing the key in the river — is romantic.
While the tradition supposedly originated from a Serbian folktale, the concept handily lends itself to an imagined scene out of a Nicholas Sparks novel: a moonlit night, no one on the bridge, no idea if the couple will ever have a future, but at least they have this one moment — and the physical evidence to prove it.
But, the reality is different. The reality is dozens of commuters, who actually live in the city, trying to get to the other side of the river, being delayed because of this tradition. The reality is that the lock will never likely be found by you and your significant other again, even if you do stay together and travel back — after all, a lot of cities make a point of clearing the locks on a semi-regular basis. The reality is that, really, why do you need to make a physical mark on a city that you’re only passing through?
Last weekend, I was in Belfast, where I took a tour of some of the major conflict zones of the 1970s and 1980s. We ended at the Peace Wall, which had been built to divide the city at the height of its troubles. Now, the wall only has a few gates, the majority of which close at dusk. One section was filled with graffiti, and our guide held out a thick black marker, inviting anyone to write.
One by one, people from my group took their chance to write messages of hope and peace, or simply their name and hometown, but I abstained. This was different than the love locks — this wasn’t hurting any infrastructure. And yet, it didn’t feel right to put my words and name in a place that wasn’t mine. I felt the same way when a friend told me about a visit to an elephant sanctuary in Kenya. She was allowed to meet a baby elephant, who, she explained, would remember her scent forever from that initial interaction.
"Is that a good thing?" I countered. It seemed the last thing an orphaned baby elephant would need on its mind was the scent of a random American tourist that she’d likely never encounter again.
Her expression made it clear that had been a killjoy question, and maybe it had been. But, as a traveler currently on a yearlong adventure, trying to minimize my impact on the places I visit is something I think of a lot — and one that the recent Pont des Arts bridge collapse made me evaluate.
Tourism profoundly affects its location — in plenty of good ways. But, it also demands that tourists have a certain responsibility to respect a place, its people, and its local landmarks. Love locks, as far as honoring a locale goes, are not about Paris. They’re about ego; trying to lock down one tiny corner of the world — literally — to prove you were there, and that attitude can create very real damage.
Maybe it’s because I spent my teenage summers as a camp counselor, where we drilled the importance of not leaving behind trash, or taking away treasures from the forest, on a daily basis. Maybe it's because I spend a lot of time living in other people's homes. But, I’ve always tried to tread as lightly as possible when I get to a new place. And, if anything, what I’ve learned in my travels is that you shouldn’t make a mark on a country — the country should make one on you. Sometimes, that means getting desperately lost in a winding sea of unfamiliar streets. Other times, it means spontaneously saying yes to meeting new friends to watch a 5 a.m. rugby match at a local pub. Less often, though, does following the trail of many tourists before you make for great memories.
And, ultimately, even if love locks are banned in Paris, some intrepid tourists will likely still find a way to show the world they were there. But, others may hopefully find that, even without the lock to prove it, the most memorable travel experiences are the ones that don’t leave a trace.