Articles By Gord
As I see it...Vive le France!

February 2011 issue of Vibrant Magazine, view the actual article (including images).

As I see it... Vive la France!

The column is called “The Way I ‘See' It.” And the way I see it, we only get one kick at the can. One kick. This past December I landed this gravy gig in beautiful Vancouver. The show was for one of those monster pharmaceutical firms, it was scheduled for one pm Saturday afternoon. Those kinds of companies always have tons of money to throw around and so they had no objection to my wife Catherine tagging along. Our good friends Kim and David live in Vancouver and as the pharmaceutical had no issue with us flying out Thursday and staying over till Monday afternoon, we figured we'd make the trip into a semi-sort of working holiday. It wasn't as if a couple of extra nights in some hoity toity hotel was going to bust the budget of one of those pill-promoting sugar daddies. We'd visit with our friends, do the Stanley Park and Kitsilano Beach thing, Cath would snap a few brilliant pictures, I'd think of some terribly clever comments about the smell of sea air and how one afternoon we caught a glimpse of sunshine through the fog and rain. And voila another dazzling' Way I See It' column.

We got dropped off at Pearson Airport and no sooner had we stepped inside out of the cold when I tugged Catherine to a halt.

“Cath,” I said, holding her hand, “I want you to know I love you very much. We've been twenty years together now.”

Then I handed Catherine all my cash and asked her to count it. There was a pause before she said, “These are Euros.”

If time could be suspended, or even just slowed, that was the second to frame, the moment to freeze.

“That's because we're not going to Vancouver, Cath, we're going to Paris.” She was giddy and giggling, overwhelmed and amazed.

“You mean we're going to Paris for the weekend? What about Vancouver?"

“That was all a ruse, Cath. There never was a show in Vancouver. I had the help of three close friends. Larry, who marked it in my office calendar, created worksheets complete with contact names and numbers. Add our loyal travel agent/co-conspirator, Colleen, who produced a phoney e-ticket printout for Toronto-Vancouver return and who also urged us to take our passports along as sometimes even on a domestic flight the airlines can be fussy. The final piece of the puzzle was the well timed e-mails from Kim. ‘We're looking forward to you guys coming out. Call when you arrive.'

“I set this whole thing up months ago. I cashed in some of my Aeroplan points for the flight tickets and all of those twonies and loonies I'd stashed into that peanut butter jar magically became those Euros you're clutching now. Happy anniversary, Cath.”

I think this trip to Paris was our most relaxed visit ever. Relaxed, because we were both just glad to be there.

We grabbed a taxi at Charles de Gaulle airport and forty-five Euros later we were entering our friendly, familiar Grand Hotel Haussman. Eight times now we've dumped ourselves on their welcoming doorstep and I still have no idea where they came up with the name ‘Grand Hotel.' But it is quaint and for us, it is home.

The hotel is located just around the corner from the world famous Paris Opera House. And no, we've never attended a performance. Catherine loves opera the same way she loves her sports, out of sight and sound and far, far away.

The hotel's location does provide us with excellent access to shopping and the great Paris metro.

And the simple design of the metro allows us to scoot from one area of the city to another with relative ease.

That first evening we anxiously set off walking the twenty-five minutes from our hotel to the Champs-Elysees. Catherine was totally blown away by the magical display of Christmas lights that greeted us.

“They've got these tiny white lights sparkling throughout the clipped branches of the chestnut trees. And oh, there are these other lights that flare like falling stars. And under this canopy of lights they've created this Christmas village with a whole series of these little white huts. Come on, Gord, come on, hurry up. Let's go see what they've got.”

There was cotton candy and cookies and sweets and butterscotch and carmel and chocolates. Chocolates! And chestnuts. Oh I love chestnuts. There were sausages and meats and gigantic bread pretzels with mustard. There was mulled wine, but I don't like that stuff. And there were families and children and they were all having such a good time and . . . Come to think of it, we were having a good time too. And everywhere, Christmas carols could be heard.

Then the miracle occurred. High above the treetops Santa appeared in his giftladen sleigh pulled by Rudolph and the other reindeer. He brought his sleigh to a halt and spoke to the kids. Unfortunately, he spoke to them in French.

“ Ho! Ho! Ho!” I understood that part but right after that things got a little murky for me. I know Santa asked if they'd all been good little girls and boys because there followed a tremendous chorus of “OUI!” But only one little girl caught my attention. “OUI!” she cried with all of her heart, “OUI!”

“I can't hear you, ” Santa bellowed back.

And with even more urgency, desperate for Santa to hear her, she cried, “OUI!”

That little girl had not seen the zip line that held Santa, his sleigh and reindeer aloft. No, to her and the other children, Santa was a true magical miracle. And I was so glad to have shared in their belief.

Leaving the Christmas Village behind we slipped down a side street and found the perfect corner cafe. The perfect cafe? You shouldn't need to ask, because it's the one you envision. Three or four posters of old Parisienne street life hung on the walls. Not one of them straight. Some Christmas decorations had been haphazardly placed. There were a few of those small round tables, the kind your knees never fit under. They were surrounded by wobbly metal framed chairs with well worn red covered seats. The locals ignored us as we headed to the bar, where a bartender, complete with beret, greeted us, “Bonsoir, Monsieur, Madame?”

“Deux pastis, s'il vous plait,” I answered, coating each syllable with my best French accent.

We've often enjoyed pastis at home but how much better it tasted that frosty night in Paris.

It was just before noon the following day when we visited Notre Dame Cathedral. Unlike previous visits this day a blizzard raged, howling winds and it was cold. So cold that there was not the usual press of tourists posing for photos in the square before the Cathedral. Nobody paused to admire the enormous Christmas tree that swayed back and forth in the icy wind. I sensed there was only one thought amongst us all - GET INSIDE!

I love the calm that comes over me when I enter Notre Dame Cathedral. I have often wondered why? Is my calm imagined? Or is it inspired by the physical structure of the building, with its stain glass windows and those magnificent stone columns towering to the ceiling, as if reaching to the heavens? Is it the history of prayer, of those seeking salvation? What inspires the soft tones of all who visit? Maybe it's the safety I feel inside the Cathedral or maybe it's best those reasons for my calm remain a mystery.

Linked arm in arm we walked down a side aisle past the confessionals, towards the alter. Catherine found us two seats and for a moment we sat quietly in reflection. Invariably, our reflection was cut short by the discomfort of those hard straight-backed wooden chairs. They're like some form of medieval torture. I suspect during the terror of the French Revolution one had a choice, lose your head on the guillotine or spend an hour on one of those seats.

When we left Notre Dame the blizzard was still raging, but we weren't bothered as our plan was to grab lunch in the nearby Latin Quarter.

I don't think Cath and I have ever come to Paris without having at least one meal in this section. In the evenings the quarter's narrow streets and alleyways bustle with crowds manoeuvring from one posted menu to the next. Those crowds and the variety of restaurants, French, Greek, Lebanese and Turkish too, make for a festive atmosphere.

But that atmosphere was not to be found that snowy afternoon we were there. We wandered in virtual solitude, whenever we did pause to check out a restaurant, a waiter instantly appeared to clear snow off the menu. A restaurant selected, having acquired Catherine's stamp of approval, we entered.

Steaming bowls of French onion soup, accompanied by two glasses of the house red and the traditional basket of sliced baguette and soon our spirits began to warm. But I needed more. And more the menu offered. So while Cath indulged in a plate of fries, I savoured foie gras du canard.

I know many people detest foie gras and even more are horrified at the process involved in its production, but despite that, I love the stuff.

Sunday morning we hopped the metro out to the artsy neighbourhood of Montmartre. Montmartre has a funky kind of bohemian feel about it with street artists and performers and quirky little jewellery and clothing shops. And there is of course an abundance of restaurants and cafes, I mean after all this is Paris.

The bascilica Sacre Coeur is the main draw to Montmartre. Positioned high on a hill the view of Paris is spectacular. The only drawback to capturing that view are the roughly three million steps that must be climbed.

In the past Cath and I have sprinted up those ancient steps. . . Okay, okay we've struggled up them but that day, we stood at the bottom and sadly realized we were both older. We happily abandoned the sprint and rode the funicular to the top.

We spent little time admiring the view as the temperature was as frigid as the day before. Ducking inside the comfort of the church, together we lit a candle. The candle, the bascilica and being there with Catherine, that was what this whole trip was all about.

The single dark note of this trip was the tremendous number of heavily armed military police. They were posted everywhere! They never spoke nor intruded but, stone faced or frozen with fingers on triggers, they watched and they watched. . . . Alas, today, such is the threat of terrorism. In my mind I tried to pass them all off as Santa's hard working elves.

I know a lot of women love the pure romance of a surprise trip to Paris. I've heard many of them lash out at their partners, “Why couldn't you do something romantic like that for me, you stupid mook?”

“Ahh, Honey, what are you talking about? Don't you remember last year when I took you to Disney's Stars On Ice? You got your picture took with Goofy? . . . Remember?”

Maybe like that little girl gazing up at Santa, her dreams and yours will someday come true.

We only get one good kick at the can. One crack of the whip.

. . . So, give it your best.

 
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