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Travels With My Friend

I was supposed to be travelling back from Nova Scotia today.

But I’m not. Instead, I went in early August. And instead of going to say good-bye to a close friend in person, I went to celebrate her life after she was gone, along with her family and friends.

These are hard words to write. You always think you’ll have more time. My friend thought she had more time — it was her suggestion I come see her in September, when all the tourists would be gone but the weather still like summer. She herself had a busy summer planned — travel, time with family, time with other visitors — and so I took the early-September slot.

I knew it wouldn’t be a normal visit. I knew she was much weaker than I’d ever seen her. I knew it would likely be the last time I could see and talk to her in person.

You always think you’ll have more time.

This is my travel blog. So why am I writing about the loss of my friend?

Because she was the best travel companion I’ve ever had.

I suppose that’s not a surprise. When you travel with your best friend, a person with whom you share so many of the interests that make travel so memorable — art, architecture, music, literature, good food — it makes travelling together so easy. Maybe it worked so well for us because we lived on opposite ends of the country, and so our periods of travel became our time to reconnect and to nurture our friendship.

After she was gone, I counted up how much of my travelling involved her.

Seventeen. Seventeen trips. Some of them as long as two weeks, others as short as a weekend.

It all started with a road trip. At that point, we were casual acquaintances, part of a crowd of thirtysomethings who hung out together in Toronto. One of my roommates was dating one of her roommates. We went to the same parties, had brunch together on Sunday mornings after church.

She told me about her upcoming trip to New Orleans. A mutual friend was driving her down for a job interview she had lined up with the New Orleans school board (she was a newly accredited teacher at the time, eager for a full-time teaching position when those were hard to come by). The two of them were also planning to go to the New Orleans Jazz Fest.

“I’ve always wanted to go to New Orleans,” I said.

“Why don’t you come with us?” she replied. It wasn’t an idle invitation — I could see she meant it. I had lots of flexibility with my time that year as I was finishing off a master’s degree while launching my freelance editing career. I was making slow progress on both at the time, so it wasn’t much of a decision for me.

“OK,” I said. “I’m in.”

I learned a lot about her on that trip. We enjoyed a memorable evening of live blues on Beale Street, saw Graceland, and had a bizarre three-hour tour of a Mississippi plantation where our tour guide looked old enough to have fought in the Civil War himself and we were the only tourists in sight.

What impressed me most about that trip was watching how my friend faced her fears. She was terrified of snakes, yet insisted we go for a long walk along creaky boardwalks through a Louisiana swamp. As we tramped along, she jumped at least a foot in the air at every little noise, convinced she would step on a snake before the walk was over. But she refused to turn back.

That road trip was the beginning of a friendship that lasted a quarter century. She introduced me to New York, a city she loved, and we went back several more times. The winter I spent in Paris, she joined me for Christmas and New Year’s. She couldn’t believe I had never tasted coq au vin, and so she insisted on teaching me how to make it. Chicken stewed in wine? Yes, please.

Another year she invited me to join her family in Florida for New Year’s. There were weeks in London and San Francisco, and a ski weekend in Whistler. We kayaked the Broken Group Islands (twice!) and Desolation Sound.

Kayaking in the Broken Group Islands, British Columbia

The summer she spent in Siena studying Italian art, I was in Prague on a writing course. We decided to meet up afterwards — or rather, I invited myself to stay in her dorm room for a few days before I had to travel on to Amsterdam to meet up with my father.

I tagged along when their entire class went to Padua to look at frescoes. We booked ourselves into a hotel room for two nights, along with some of the friends she had made on the course, intending to spend the next day in Venice. Being summer in Italy, it was hot, so we got an early start. By late afternoon, we were all knackered. There were five of us in total, and we decided to take a gondola ride. That led to beer and pasta with our gondolier. And that led to some of us sneaking out to smoke a joint along the canal with said gondolier. (You all know where this is going, right?)

To keep it short: we missed the last train to Padua. Five Canadian women looking for hotel rooms in Venice, at midnight in the height of tourist season. It wasn’t pretty.

But that mishap led to a lovely bonus day in Venice, and three of us decided to go to Murano, one of the islands adjacent to Venice, for lunch. My friend urged me to order the Caprese salad as I had never had it before. I was converted.

In addition to all of our, ahem, travel adventures, there were the numerous times she opened up her home to me whenever I was in Toronto. I would do my rounds of networking, as I called it, with clients, but I always had lots of catching up to do with my friends from when I lived there. She told me I was the perfect guest because I was never home, but, in truth, she was the perfect host.

Because of that hospitality, I always gave her first dibs whenever I lined up a home exchange, and she never said no. She joined me for 10 days the summer I was in Amsterdam — scheduling her time with me in between the chemo treatments for the disease that would eventually claim her life. I marvelled at how well she was doing. I could not keep up with her as we walked through the city’s streets. One day we cycled 20 kilometres to Haarlem and back. It was her idea to bike and that was the only day I could see she wasn’t 100 percent. She was close to collapsing when we pulled up to a café alongside a canal.

“You go sit,” I said, pointing to an empty table outside the café. “I’ll lock up the bikes.”

We spent another day in Delft, one of my favourite Dutch cities. It also happens to be where my friend’s father was born. She told me stories of childhood visits and we went looking for the house where he had lived. I’d met her father only once or twice, which is maybe why I could easily picture him as a small school boy running at top speed alongside the canals.

Interacting with the Dutch wildlife

In 2018, we spent a week together in San Francisco. We cycled across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito — that time it was my turn to almost collapse at the end of our ride. And she joined me for a weekend in Montreal where I had another home exchange arranged. That was 2019. I had no idea at the time that it would be the last time I would see her. How could I? The pandemic kept us apart after that.

My friend was a high school photography teacher and she showed me the best places to catch that unique photo. Like the Eiffel Tower from a side street I would have never found on my own. We both loved taking photographs in old cemeteries, and so, on one of my visits to Toronto, she showed me the Necropolis, which has some of the city’s oldest graves. It was a warm summer evening, and we soon lost track of the time. Or maybe we didn’t know that the gates would be locked at 8 p.m.

Ever struggle to climb over a wrought iron fence in a short skirt? She had a good laugh that time — at my expense.

She never said a word about my photography skills until I asked her for feedback. “Well,” she said slowly. “Your horizons aren’t always level. And check your corners. You want to edit out any distractions.”

Needless to say, every time I edit my photos, I’m checking my corners. And thinking of her.

Photographing Gertrude Stein’s grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

She was a far better friend to me than I was to her. There was one travel dream I had, a trip I haven’t yet taken and likely won’t, and years ago, when I first brought up the idea, she had mixed feelings about whether she wanted to join me. But later she told me about a conversation she had had with her mother. “You know,” she told her mom, “I really have no burning desire to make that trip. But it’s important to Elizabeth, so that’s enough of a reason to go.”

Who does that? Not me — that’s for sure.

I’m shattered I didn’t get one last visit with my friend and a chance to say good-bye in person. But I am so incredibly grateful she was able to spend her last years in Nova Scotia, surrounded by her family and by so much love. And I’m so grateful they shared her with me for so many years. 

I will miss her more than I can say.

Having a bit of fun at the Vermeer Centrum Delft

Through My Lens: Portico of La Madeleine

When I’m photographing my European churches, I’m always on the lookout for an unusual angle. Here’s one: from the portico at La Madeleine.

Happy Easter!

Église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, Paris, January 2011

Through My Lens: La Madeleine

Today is Palm Sunday, and I’m posting a photo of Église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, commonly known as La Madeleine. You’re right, it doesn’t look much like a Christian church. That’s because the building was originally intended to be a temple to celebrate Napoleon’s army. After the fall of Napoleon, King Louis XVIII decided that it would instead become a church dedicated to Mary Magdalene. It was eventually consecrated in 1842. La Madeleine is located in the centre of Paris in the 8e arrondissement.

One interesting bit of trivia about La Madeleine: Frédéric Chopin’s funeral was held here in 1849, and he had requested that Mozart’s Requiem be sung. The Requiem has parts for female voices, but La Madeleine did not allow female members in its choir. Eventually, the church decided it would allow a mixed choir to sing at the service, but only if the women stood behind a black velvet curtain.

Through My Lens: Inside Saint-Gervais and Saint-Protais

Last Sunday, I posted a photo of Église Saint-Gervais and Saint-Protais. For today, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, here’s a photo of its interior. I quite like the look of the wooden stools, though I don’t imagine they’re too comfortable to sit on for an entire church service.

Through My Lens: Église Saint-Gervais and Saint-Protais

Église Saint-Gervais and Saint-Protais is located in the 4e arrondissement of Paris, just steps away from Notre-Dame. The church is named after Saint Gervasius and Saint Protasius, twin brothers from Milan who lived and died, it is believed, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, last emperor of the Pax Romana. The present building dates back to the fifteenth century. Although its interior is Gothic, the façade (not pictured) is in the French Baroque style.

I took this photo of the back of Église Saint-Gervais and Saint-Protais from Rue des Barres, and it is my photo choice for today, the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

Through My Lens: Église Saint-Germain de Charonne

For the Third Sunday of Lent, here is a photo of Église Saint-Germain de Charonne, located in the former village of Charonne, which was annexed by Paris in 1860 and is now part of the 20e arrondissement.

It is believed that the first church on this site was built to commemorate a meeting that took place in 429 between Saint Germain, Bishop of Auxerre, and Saint Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris. Parts of the present structure date back to the twelfth century. The bell tower was added in the fifteenth century. What is most unusual for a church within Paris is that the parish cemetery remains intact, and was still in use as recently as fifty years ago.

Through My Lens: Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix de Ménilmontant

One of the advantages of spending time well outside the centre of Paris, as I did one winter, is that on neighbourhood walks you sometimes come across surprises like this church. Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix de Ménilmontant is my photo choice for today, the Second Sunday of Lent.

This church was built to accommodate the population growth of Ménilmontant, a neighbourhood in the 20e arrondissement. Construction began in 1863, and was completed in 1880. Its architectural style is what’s known as the Second Empire style, which was popular in France during the reign of Napoleon III. It’s known for combining materials (such as iron and stone) and styles (such as Romanesque and Gothic) in one building.

Through My Lens: Basilique du Sacré-Cœur

Seeing as it is the tenth anniversary of my first-ever Lenten series, I thought that for this year’s series, I would return once again to Paris, whose churches were my inspiration a decade ago.

For today, the First Sunday of Lent, here’s a photo of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart). Thanks to its location at the top of Montmartre in the 18e arrondissement, it’s one of the most recognized landmarks in all Paris. The basilica was built as spiritual reparations on behalf of France for its part in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Its unique Romano-Byzantine architectural style was influenced by Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and San Marco in Venice. Construction began in 1875, and the basilica was consecrated in 1919.

Solitude

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the winter I spent in Paris. Although I was on my own, ironically for being in a city so far from home, I had way more face-to-face contact with friends and family than I’ve had this winter. That is not something I ever thought I would say.

Pandemics, eh?

Not everyone enjoys travelling on their own. I really enjoy the trips I take with other people, even when they require a lot of compromise. On the other hand, if I limited my travel to the trips that suit the interests and schedules of my friends or family — well, I’d be giving up a lot of opportunities.

And so, I do a lot of solo travel. I’ve learned a few tricks over the years to help me be comfortable (and safe) when on my own in a foreign country.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it is this: if you can handle the solitude of living alone during a pandemic, you will thrive at solo travel.

Jardin des Tuileries