Adventuring with my dog was one of the highlights of my summer. No, I didn’t use copy-paste in any of these images. He just knows his angles.
After finishing a book on the collective works of William Shakespeare, I was inspired to design typographic treatments for some of his most iconic works (I originally sketched the Antony and Cleopatra idea back in college twenty years ago … I failed the assignment):
Right after returning home from Paris, I had work-related travel in another one of my favourite cities – Vancouver. There are a few places I have visited in my life that have left an indelible mark on my being and this city of glass on the Pacific Northwest coast is one of them. I recall a visit with my father in my early twenties in which I cried on the journey home as I sooooooo wanted to stay there. Vancouver had a sheen that my hometown did not; it seemed so cosmopolitan. The type of place I imagined shit happened. The good shit. The type of place where one could leave a mark that would have impact. Perhaps that was the time to make the leap; Vancouver has only gotten more unaffordable in time. And the older I get, and the more my world shrinks, I realize that one can make an impact from anywhere. Even my hometown of Winnipeg. Even cities that are smaller (such as where I live now). I extended my deployment by a few days though to have time to explore and see if the magic was still there.
Sigh. It was.
But only with conditions.
These conditions include a downtown condo with wraparound windows and a view as good—or better—as the one I had from my hotel room on the twenty-first floor of the Four Seasons. As I worked at my desk, I would sneak glances at the people below, tiny as ants, scurrying down West Georgia and Howe picking up food at the trucks and stalls that lined the streets before they, too, returned to their offices and got down to whatever business runs this town. There was also the occasional car race, typically between two luxury sports vehicles painted in crass colours that only the very, very wealthy would purchase because they have money to waste and can be trendy rather than strategic with consumption. Think bright baby blue Lamborghinis and neon green Ferraris. The roaring of their engines woke me up during the night.
And right before the night was the greatest view of all, as dusk settled over the mountains and the water was highlighted by the setting sun. I’d retire to my room around this time to enjoy this sight with a cup of tea. But also, if I’m honest, for safety; I was, again, traveling alone and on one early night while approaching my hotel I was told by a man clearly struggling with drug addiction that he wanted to “smash my face” until my “face was smashed”. So another condition of living in Vancouver might have to be willful ignorance of the challenges it faces.
Beyond the view and despite my encounter, I appreciated downtown Vancouver because I could walk nearly everywhere (or get there relatively quickly via transit). One day I trekked to Granville Island and its famous market, later chancing upon a dog beach in Kitsilano that I need to take my Monty to someday. On my other free day I hiked all through Stanley Park, one of the most beautiful urban greenspaces in North America. All this walking then helped me justify eating at Cartems, thus launching my summer of donuts™ which has also been memorable. I’m not sure living in the ‘burbs, or further out in Burnaby or Abbotsford, would make the experience of living here as great as I experienced or imagine though. I feel that magic would get lost amidst the commute and rampant big box stores that seem to be cloned in every civic area. Therefore the greatest condition, it seems, to living here is a six-figure salary to afford my vision. Or a lottery win. I don’t need neon green Ferrari money but just enough to live an ordinary life in an extraordinary place.
Although, living an extraordinary life in an ordinary place now doesn’t seem so bad.
A Day with Marie Antoinette
Written by Heléne Delalex
I picked this up in the gift shop at Versailles and it is a fascinating read filled with beautiful visuals. Love her or hate her, Marie Antoinette led one of the most fascinating lives in history that still pulls influence today (although I am glad that Pantone is the modern colour matching system for designers and industry and not, as this book describes, inspired by royals such as “Caca Dauphin”—or princely poop—a hue once in vogue).
Favourite line: “Kings lack for nothing but the pleasures of a private life: their sole consolation for this great loss may be the charms of friendship and the loyalty of their friends.”
A great, quick reference to everything about Napoleon Bonaparte from the context of French society and culture leading up to his reign, major milestones in his life, victories in battle (and defeats) as well as secondary characters that propped or foiled his legacy.
Favourite line: I always enjoy learning about Napoleon’s Egypt campaign.
We’ll Always Have Paris: Trying and Failing to Be French
Written by Emma Beddington
Based on the title and synopsis—which was misleading—I assumed this book was a travelogue on trying to integrate into French society after relocating there from English shores. This apprised approximately a third of the book (the portion I managed to complete). The remainder turned into a memoir on the author’s struggle with untreated mental illness and how it affected her life, family and career. The book is certainly well written and I applaud the author for laying herself bare, warts and all, but the seemingly unending negativity (especially how terrible French people are, which has been my opposite experience) got grating after awhile and I became disengaged. There was something missing from her words, perhaps a self-realization, that prevented me from viewing her as anything but that antagonist in her own life. Not recommended, unfortunately.
WTF?! What the French
Written by Oliver Magny
The first few chapters of this book started out as a tongue-in-cheek look at stereotypical French life with sections on beauty, sex and dating, and the consumption of bread (so much delicious bread). But as I continued, there was a darkness that ruined it for me such as support for Marine Le Pen and the far-right National Front party and repeated passages on how immigration is ruining the country. This may provide insight into a sliver of the French population but it isn’t well-written enough to be regarded as actual anthropological data.
Written by Jean-Claude Gautrand
The hardcover version of this book has rested on my coffee table for years and is one of my all-time favourites for when I need a jolt of inspiration (or a bittersweet reminder of travels past). With images chronicling the last three centuries of its history and development, the viewer is carried through an immersive, glorious photographic essay on the City of Light and its citizens.
The last few days of our Parisian holiday were open-ended and left to leisure, mood and whim. My friend had an interest in checking out the high-end boutiques that line the Champs-Elysées—especially Chanel where she hoped to pick up whatever was the cheapest item available—but gave up on this pursuit when she realized the sales staff could see us for the hokey Canadians we were, swiftly ignoring us while catering to the young, very wealthy, Asian clientele who actually had money to drop. H&M was welcoming though.
In the evening I took a slow stroll through the quiet backstreets of the 7th arrondissement, passing antique shops, used bookstores and other peddlers of Parisian history. I wondered about the original owners of the items (as well as their authenticity) when my eye caught several prints of Gustave Doré’s work that appeared to have been taken from a book. At a cost of 25 Euros each, the price wasn’t the issue so much as narrowing down which piece I wanted to decorate my home. But then my eye caught something else not as prominently displayed — the source itself, ‘La Bible’ illustrated by Gustave Doré. I quickly nabbed it. Regardless of price, THIS was to be my most prized souvenir from the trip. Books are a treasure. Weighing in at roughly 5lb, the 472-page hardcover book contains 241 of Doré’s wood-engraved illustrations. What a find! As this occurred after visiting his grave at Pere Lachaise, I couldn’t help but feel it was kismet.
Parisian drivers are insane. Another of the most memorable moments of my trip was when my friend and I, along with an older man, almost got hit by a car going through a red light. As it occurred, the older man jumped in front of the navy blue older model BMW and banged on the hood all while screaming obscenities at the driver. As they, in turn, made apologetic hand gestures towards us, the older man walked around to his window and started banging on it with even more fury. It was quite the show and not very common in friendly Canada.
As someone who walks the majority of the time, and am almost hit by a distracted driver at least once a week with no exaggeration, I didn’t blame him. His vocal defence of his life in this age of distraction is what I aspire to.
Exiting Pigalle metro station during daylight hours is a strange thing. Emerging onto a central boulevard, the first observation one might make are of the families strolling about with their children. The tree-lined green space of the boulevard provides a small, welcome respite for social gathering amongst the dense construction of the surrounding neighbourhood. As a woman, you might also notice the disproportionate number of men loitering and staring from each and every public bench. It can be a bit uncomfortable as you try and gather your bearings. But as the storefronts come into focus, you see that the contrast is far from wholesome. Businesses with names like “Sexodrome”, “Pussy’s” and the highly creative “Porno Shop” line the streets, with the Moulin Rouge and its iconic windmill being the primary attraction. For this is Pigalle, Paris’ famed sex district. My friend I decided to pay a visit while en-route to Sacre-Coeur Church.
We decided that “Sexodrome” seemed to be the most female-friendly (i.e. “not creepy”) establishment on the street. With five levels of merchandise, the store contained anything and everything one could possible desire for sexual intimacy (including a granny blow-up doll that advertised “no teeth” and a cock-and-balls kitchen apron that made me laugh so hard some of the more serious shoppers glared in my direction). My friend became interested in a rhinestone covered g-string that she referred to as a “tiara for my [redacted to keep this blog semi-classy]” but left empty-handed when we were told the only one available was displayed on a mannequin. There’s always floss and a bedazzler, I suppose. Traveling with a friend can give great inspiration for their future birthday gift.
The last day of our trip we visited the Palais Garnier, the very opulent Opera House in Paris that was inspiration for the musical ‘Phantom of the Opera’. Upon entering, one is greeted by a dark, violet-lit room with a subterranean feel mimicking the storied waterways that are said to exist beneath its structure. The higher levels you reach after climbing the Grand Staircase, such as the Grand Foyer, are as elaborate as Versailles; no matter how much gold I see, it always makes my jaw drop at how excessive it is. Literal floor to ceiling. It’s blinding. On this visit, there were even gold tires adorning the top of the Grand Staircase in celebration of the Paris E-Prix race that was days away.
It’s on my bucket list to attend a show here, in this baroque masterpiece. Unfortunately I was not able to see anything on this trip, although entering the balcony overlooking Place de l’Opera and watching Paris play out before me made me feel part of a greater performance of life.
My favourite day in Paris was marked by an unexpected encounter while exploring a site for the dead.
But prior to that, I took the metro to an art exhibit that proved to be absolutely magical.
I saw pictures online of La Nuit Étoilée while researching my holiday and thought it might be hype to increase upfront sales when numerous publications warned to get tickets in advance. I did book MONTHS in advance, just in case (also because I’m “type-a”), and was relieved that I did because the exhibit was indeed sold out on the day I attended. I understood why when I entered; the animated exhibit is a completely immersive, multi-sensory show where the viewer becomes part of the artwork. Set in three parts—showcasing contemporary art, Japonaiserie and the iconic work of Vincent Van Gogh—this is something that must be seen to be believed.
Afterwards, my friend and I took a short walk to an unlikely tourist destination in Paris: Pere Lachaise cemetery, final resting place of artists, philosophers and rock stars of the ages. It’s such a landmark that people sell maps at the entrance. Being my frugal self, I pre-printed a map from the internet … that proved worthless. My friend and I quickly got lost while searching for the grave I wanted to pay respect to, that of my favourite artist Gustave Doré. As we walked amongst row after row of eerily creepy—often open—nineteenth-century crypts, I took a moment to rest against a tree and try to figure out exactly where we were amongst its 110 acres.
“Maybe a spirit guide will appear,” my friend commented.
And no word of a lie, within two minutes of her stating that a Frenchman approached us asking if we needed help finding anything.
He introduced himself as Glen and informed us he was a lawyer that lived and worked in Versailles. He debated traveling to Normandy that day for a dip in the English Channel but decided against it because of a questionable weather forecast, instead opting to visit one of his favourite places in Paris - this very cemetery. He then inquired about what grave we were looking for. When I told him “Gustave Doré” he was impressed; it was apparently a rarity that anyone requested to visit that site. As we made our way over, I noted that someone had once placed a small rock over a now weathered paper note left for the artist. Glen and my friend chatted while I also gave silent thanks to a man that has provided immense inspiration and wonder to my life.
After Gustave, my friend wanted to visit Pere Lachaise’s most famous (or infamous) gravesite - that of sixties icon and lead singer of The Doors, Jim Morrison. This grave is quite controversial within the cemetery and there have been numerous calls to remove it over the decades since he passed in 1971. Today, one can’t even walk up to it. A steel fence surrounds it and several of the perimeter headstones in order to protect against further vandalism. Even in death, rock stars require crowd control.
Glen seemed keen to continue the tour and ended up showing us around for over an hour. As someone who appreciates the macabre, I specifically asked to be taken to the creepiest parts of the cemetery. He happily obliged. These included some truly beautiful and haunting headstones and crypts depicting ghosts, spirits and the afterlife. There was even a crypt with a stained-glass window detailing the folklore behind the will-o’-the-wisp, once believed to be a phantom light but since explained via science.
At the end of our day, Glen asked if we wanted to go for a drink but my friend was feeling a bit tired and we declined. Prior to parting, I exchanged my business card with him in the hopes of keeping a well-informed contact in the city but I’ve never heard back.
Was Glen a spirit? Was he an actual lawyer seeking reflection in the calm of the necropolis? Or was he just a dude trying to hit on two foreign chicks? All I know is that a cemetery is a great place to meet someone. Dead or alive.
La Grande Epicerie is a high-end, fine grocer in Paris’ 7th arrondissement that many describe as a “Disneyland for foodies”. It was high on my list to see as there really isn’t anything quite like it where I live. Anything one could possibly want from any culinary region of the world is available within its aisles from black truffles direct from Italy to Ethiopian passion berries (I bought both). There was even an American section that had overpriced Reese peanut butter cups and Hershey syrup, which offered great perspective on the food habits of North America compared to Europe. I never imagined I would take such delight in cooking after years of eating based just on convenience but now that my tastebuds have been awakened, I treat it less as a chore and more of an art form. The kitchen is now my canvas. La Grande Epicerie was the perfect place to evolve my palette further. My wallet and I came prepared.
At first I thought I would pace myself and wander before filling my handcart but after being met with the chocolate section, located right near the front entrance of course, that stance quickly went by the wayside. I must have spent at least twenty minutes studying all of the different types and their premium packaging. This wasn’t 7-11. Most of the bars on display here have won international awards for their taste and production, including the varieties I bought:
• Bonnat Chocolatier Madagascar 100% Criollo: made with the rarest cocoa bean in the world, this bar was the silkiest I’ve ever eaten. Absolutely exceptional.
• Dolfin Chocolate bars in lemon ginger, bitter orange and masala chai. Very flavourful.
• Mademoiselle de’Margaux boxes in earl grey, raspberry and pear.
Indulging my sweet tooth was just the start though; the spice aisle is where my imagination really went wild! I bought several unique flavours of salt, including a pungent viking salt from Norway and a French espelette pepper salt that I now sprinkle on nearly everything, as well as spice blends from around the world, vanilla beans from Madagascar and Saint Lucia, black rice, smoked rice and even a pink rice coloured with beet juice that can traditionally be found at Indian wedding celebrations.
Besides all the ingredients I was set to haul home in a very, very packed suitcase, I also picked up a takeaway lunch from La Grande Epicerie’s in-house boulangerie. A simple sandwich with three visible components—roasted cajun chicken breast, guacamole and a fresh French baguette—I was so enraptured as I ate it that I completely zoned out of a conversation with my friend to focus on the flavour notes and mouth feel. It was easily one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve since tried to replicate it at home but haven’t been successful (giving me reason to return again one day).
When I returned to Canada, the first meal I made with purchases from La Grande Epicerie was a lemon rosemary garlic chicken with a side of herbed vegetables and black rice, served with an après dîner drink of absinthe. It was great to bring a bit of France home to share with my loved ones.
My friend and I also visited the Palace of Versailles. This was my third visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site and while it forever remains preserved in time, it is always fascinating to experience it again (especially the gardens, which is one of my favourite places in the world).
Continuing my culinary adventures, I also purchased more spices here as well as tea made on the grounds that is the same recipe Marie Antoinette favoured during her reign (black tea with apple and fragrant rose petals).
Day three was momentus for a few reasons, most notably for the arrival of one of my best friends who would be joining me in the City of Light. It would be her first time in Europe, but not the first time we’ve travelled together - she was my partner-in-crime during previous excursions to San Francisco, Chicago and Dubai. Despite enjoying all of those places, I set the expectations high for Paris and promised, né GUARANTEED, that this city would would surpass those experiences and positively change her life. After all, Paris IS life. When we met up though, I realized I had my work cut out for me.
“This is not Toronto. The people—the men—here are very rude.”
Granted, the metro system was a clusterfuck because of the fire at Notre-Dame the evening prior. And granted, my friend had just flown in from Canada with little sleep and was now lugging a heavy suitcase through cobblestone streets and crowded sidewalks. But negatively comparing the greatest city in the world to a place I don’t even consider one of the greatest cities in Canada (fight me) was so beyond comprehension that I felt I greatly misjudged Paris’ power as universal tonic.
We slowly made our way to the next place I was checking into, an apartment in Paris’ famed 7th arrondissement. I booked this location for two reasons: it was in close proximity to nearly everything, Les Invalides was literally around the corner and the Eiffel Tower was a 10 minute walk away, and, more importantly, it would be safe. The latter is something I research thoroughly before traveling because the world is not the same for men and women and I often travel alone. An easy target. I’ve been followed. I’ve been harassed. I wanted to limit any possibility of this for us both and just live, as should be our right.
There was another, more superficial, factoid though that I knew my fashion-loving friend might be impressed with.
“Karl Lagerfeld lived in this area.”
“Really?!!” Her eyes widened. My friend’s number one goal of this trip was to visit the Chanel boutique.
Over the next ten days, the magic of the city would eventually do what I promised it would.
Prior to obtaining the keys to the apartment, we sat down for lunch at a traditional Parisian café. I ordered a green smoothie and a cheeseburger—yes, please judge, but do realize that a honey and goat cheese burger I ate in France a few years ago was one of the best I’ve ever had. My order this time came to 35 Euros and was, admittedly, pretty mediocre. At the time I paid no heed and just enjoyed the moment as my friend and I played a guessing game on whether the well-dressed characters walking by were secretly spies but I later nearly had a heart attack when I realized the currency conversion would make the meal over fifty dollars (Canadian). It would be my only splurge on dining at a restaurant. For the remainder of the ten days, I would cook my own fresh meals (wine included) at a much, much reduced cost.
I would, however, indulge without limit or guilt at Paris’ many amazing bakeries.
After lunch, we checked in and my friend hit the couch and immediately fell asleep. Her adventure would begin the next day. I spent some time marvelling at the apartment before heading out for another walk. The fifth floor unit was bigger than I imagined it would be with a small kitchen, bathroom with laundry, bedroom and living area (with couch that pulled out to a bed). It had great light and air flow and I couldn’t help but imagine what my life would be like living there and actually becoming a Parisian. My father would always tell me that life would be the same as it is here; that life is what you make of it and I would get as bored in Paris as I do in Saskatchewan. It’s not about location, it’s about motivation. Yada yada. I get this. It’s still nice to dream though. It’s also good to set goals in life. If I can’t live in Paris, then I want to spend as much time as possible there.
On one of our first days together, we visited the Louvre. It would be my first time walking its galleries. My first impression was that it is truly massive; one could spend an entire week perusing it and not see everything. We visited in the early evening, which made the line-ups slightly less intimidating but still present. Most of the wait had to do with security measures. Once in, we immediately went to the Denon Wing to see the most famous painting in history - the Mona Lisa. The artwork, which, as everyone says, is much smaller than you imagine, is located in its own massive room with barren walls, the only focus of which is her mysterious smile. At one point I got within maybe twenty feet but I gave up on getting closer. A more interesting observation, to me at least, was standing in the back of the room and watching people clamour to take pictures and selfies to prove that they were there.
The ceiling work in the Louvre, but especially the Denon Wing, was unbelievable. I wished I could lie on my back on the floor and spend some time staring up at it but instead I left with neck strain. Parts of it felt so heavy that I thought it might crumble onto the patrons below. But it was hundreds of years old and would probably be there for hundreds more. The artistry and craftsmanship impressed me as much as anything hanging on the walls.
My absolute favourite part of the Louvre was the opulent Napoléon III Apartments. Entering this area, in the decorative arts-focused Richelieu Wing, was like stepping back in time. I imagined the ghosts of Parisians, who once sat in the exact chairs laid before me, drinking from gold-plated goblets and conversing about life during the Third Revolution. I’d honestly never even heard of this part of the Louvre before … and considering there were few tourists walking about, I don’t think I’m the only one. It was the perfect cap to the evening before heading back to our apartment and enjoying some bordeaux of our own.
*Abbi and Ilana may be more accurate.
I awoke from what I thought was an hour long nap cursing because it was actually three. I would have slept even longer were it not for the near-constant sirens I heard outside. These are always part of the background noise in Paris. One becomes accustomed to them and their distinct tone. However, on this early evening, Monday, April 15, 2019, it felt escalated. From the bottom living quarters of my boat, I couldn’t see much save a few skateboarders near the dock looking and pointing eastward. It piqued my curiosity. After ascending to the upper level of my boat, I saw it all — a giant plume of smoke filled the air from the direction of Ile de la Cité.
My immediate thought was that a terrorist attack may have occurred. The central island houses the law courts for Paris, in addition to being a major tourist hub because of Notre-Dame Cathedral. I streamed my live line of vision on social media and almost immediately a stranger informed me that the world-renowned church was on fire. I grabbed my keys and joined the thousands of Parisians taking to the streets to observe and pray that it could be saved.
Construction on the Cathedral began over eight-hundred years ago in 1160 and was completed in 1260. It is known for being the finest example of French Gothic architecture in the world, with its iconic stained-glass windows frequently listed as an artistic zenith of human skill and spirit. Over twelve million people per year visit Notre-Dame, making it the most visited site in Paris (exceeding even the Eiffel Tower). Beyond being a bucket-list item to see though, it remains a place of worship in this dominantly Catholic country and is dearly beloved by Parisians as part of their history, part of their being.
Police barricades prevented the growing crowds from getting anywhere near the fire, but with its scale I could clearly see that it was major. The entire roof was engulfed in flames scaling upwards to the clouds and helicopters circling overhead. Some observers stood in shocked silence, others openly wept. Some sang choral hymns. I was acutely aware that this was something I would never forget for the rest of my life, a moment that would be recorded by history. I tried to take everything in: the multi-lingual conversation of strangers in shared shock, the changing hue of the sky as the sun started to set, the smell (and taste) of smoke. After observing for a few hours, I returned to my boat to try and sleep. I was a bit restless with worry as I didn’t know what the extent of damage would be … or even if Notre-Dame would survive the night.
The next day, framed with a sombre overcast sky, I returned to the scene. The crowds were even larger, now met with world media turning their cameras and headlines to what remained of the structure. From the exterior, damage was clearly visible (and extensive) to the back-end and roofing which was all but destroyed. But I feel there was enough of a skeleton still standing that a full reconstruction could be achieved (this would later be confirmed and priced at $5 billion, with $1 billion being donated by France’s elite within the first twenty-four hours of the fire leading to increased fury from the Yellow Vest Movement protesters).
One of the most memorable scenes I encountered took place as I walked the perimeter of Ile de la Cité. A crowd broke out in applause as several firefighters exited the area of Notre-Dame Cathedral making their way for much needed rest. Their task over and a new one about to begin.