The other day, I pulled out a file marked “Paris – 2020” and saw the plan I’d made with two lifelong friends to meet there for a five-night rendezvous last March. They would fly from Toronto and I’d take the Eurostar from London. But when pandemic reality zoomed into hard focus last February, months of excited planning turned into days of frazzled e-mails as we scrambled (and largely succeeded) to recoup the cost of pre-paid bookings.
Still, it remains the trip not taken. But while reading the file on a gloomy winter day, I flitted through the days in my mind and was able to see, for the first time, how each of us had put our distinctive stamp on the itinerary. Together, we three friends had constructed a trip that was a rich and varied blend of our uniquely different personalities and preferences – and it seemed all the better for that.
Susan loves music and has a talent for rooting out the best classical concerts in the most atmospheric churches. When she comes to visit me in London, we always find time for a candlelight concert at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, followed by a glass of wine in the crypt café underneath the ancient church. It’s not as spooky as it sounds – in fact, the crypt is cozy and comforting. So, it was no surprise that during the meant-to-be trip last March, Susan’s plan was to guide us to the Ile de la Cité in the heart of Paris, where in the shadow of Notre-Dame, we would find La Sainte-Chappelle.
Built by Louis IX in the 13th century, this French Gothic church is a miracle of medieval design, with vaulted ceilings and more than 1,000 stained-glass windows. Listening to the strains of the chamber orchestra, we might have been lucky enough to look up just when light from the setting sun streamed through the jewel-toned glass, creating a magical moment of beauty. When we travel with Susan, we not only get to hear exhilarating music in sacred settings, but we take the time to reflect and refresh. These uplifting experiences are Susan’s gift to us.
Louise’s contribution could not be more different: As queen of the quirk, Louise will always take us sleuthing for the slightly subversive sideshow. In any city, she’ll find the museums of greatest oddity. Last March, Louise’s scheme was to steer us to the 16th arrondissement and the Musée de la Contrefaçon (the Museum of Counterfeiting). Housed inside a mansion gifted by Gaston-Louis Vuitton (grandson of you-know-who) to the French union of manufacturers, this museum’s mission is to unmask the crafty art of fakery. (The museum doesn’t hesitate to point a finger back at itself – admitting that its beautiful townhouse location is, ironically, a copy of one such house that was found in Le Marais in the 17th century.)
Had we gone to the Musée de la Contrefaçon, we might have been both amazed and amused by the collection of counterfeit artefacts comprising art forgeries, knockoff luxury goods, and fake everyday brands. The museum challenges you to test your powers of detection by examining juxtaposed pairs of real versus fake items. In my mind, I can hear Louise in the café afterwards, spurring us into a discussion of whether the “value” in the authentic item was real, or simply the product of the marketer’s sleight of hand. Louise’s primary goal has always been to steal secret pleasure in skirting the edges of the mainstream, and in the process, she loves to make us laugh and think in equal measure.
Looking back at the itinerary, I wondered what I brought to the mix. I thought it might be my inclination to take a deep dive into a single district, slowing down to wander and explore the corners and crannies of a place. Last March, I proposed we stay in Les Batignolles, a neighbourhood off the tourist radar, so we could retreat to its quiet streets and live like locals after a long day of sightseeing.
Nestled in a corner of the 17th arrondissement, Les Batignolles is said to be a perfect blend of old-fashioned and cool – a place where you can take your hipster-brewed artisanal coffee to a leafy square with the nannies and children, enjoy the latest foodie buzz along the Rue Brochant, or buy made-in-Paris art, craft and clothing in one-of-a-kind pop-up boutiques. I would have suggested we roam the streets with a spirit of quiet adventure, ready to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. I know this much for sure: We’d have carved out our own little corner of Paris, allowing time and space for special moments to emerge and then live on in our shared memory.
I’m glad I looked back at this trip not taken, to see it for what it is – a story of friends coming together to build an adventure, enriched by the diversity of our distinctive contributions. I sincerely hope we’ll be able to dust off the plan and piece the trip back together some day. If and when we do go, I’ll be the first to raise a toast to the precious gift of travelling with friends.
Keep up to date with the weekly Sightseer newsletter. Sign up today.