Literary Paris

Before I travel somewhere, I tend to immerse myself in literature about the place. It’s part of my pre-trip research. And I’m not talking Rick Steves or Lonely Planet (though I did my fair share of reading those too). I’m talking about fiction and memoir.

My pre-Paris reading included Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, We’ll Always Have Paris by Jennifer Coburn, and The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.


Taking my first picture

Pieces of these books returned to me on our one-week stay in Paris last fall. Upon emerging from the metro at St-Germain-des-Prés, the first thing I take a picture of (after pinching myself that that is all real) is the café Les Deux Magots made famous by literary and intellectual patrons such as Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and James Joyce, to name a few.


While we didn’t eat at Les Deux Magots, we did have breakfast at the neighbouring rival Café de Flore one morning, which boasted an equally impressive clientele. In “A Tale of Two Cafés,” a chapter in Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik muses on why the Flore has become more popular among Parisians since the late 1990s. We wanted to experience this legendary ambience but it came at a high price. And while sitting on the terrace watching a morning unfold was lovely, the slow and snobby service left a bad taste in our mouths, even though we expected it to a certain extent given we are tourists with obvious English accents and backpacks. Next time I would just go for their hot chocolate which is apparently a must-have.


Ernest Hemingway cropped up again in The Latin Quarter. We visited his former apartment at 74 rue du Cardinal Lemoine and ate our last dinner in Paris overlooking Place de la Contrescarpe, a square he mentions several times in his memoir. We also tracked down Gertrude Stein’s apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus.


Ernest Hemingway’s apartment


Gertrude Stein’s apartment

Plaques indicating where famous people were born, lived, died, or did something remarkable are commonplace. I loved walking down seemingly “normal” streets (which really don’t exist in Paris), only to discover a plaque with a very famous name on it. Even on the tiny rue Visconti, the site of our Airbnb, playwright Jean Racine died and author Honoré de Balzac established his printing house. Tons of surprises like this awaited us upon arrival and added joy to our wanderings.


“Home” for the week was down this charming, narrow street


Keeping company with Balzac’s printing house


Where Voltaire died

Other sites we planned for, like the apartment in Montmartre where Vincent Van Gogh stayed when he lived in Paris at 54 rue Lepic. It was his brother Theo’s. A pair of dried sunflowers hang from the third floor shutters, marking the spot. (As an aside, “0” is our first floor and their 1st is our 2nd floor, etc). In Amsterdam, the last city we visited on our one-month European trip, I bought Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo and that was a perfect way of coming full circle from our beginning in Paris.


Can you spot the sunflowers? (three floors up from the blue door)

And of course no talk about literary Paris would be complete without mentioning Shakespeare and Company, an English-language bookstore you can get lost in in its own right, cozying up with a book on a couch next to its resident cat, reading the inspiring quotes on the walls and stairwells, breathing in the smell of old paper, playing the worn piano (though not after 8pm), chatting with fellow bibliophiles, and feeling like you are in literary heaven.




On Emerging from a Station of the Metro

We arrive like children on the first day of school
Backpacks bigger than our bodies.

Overeager smiles, no sleep the night before
Pointing at everything.

That church! That café! That door!
Everything so old it’s new.

The city moves faster than our fingers
We learn to get out of the way.

I try out the language like I cross the street—
Quick prayer for minimal damage.

When people are kind
The lights along the Seine double their glow.

You eat a baguette as you walk
Because you can do anything!

Paris is the girl who brings the best lunch to school
The rest of us hoping she’ll share.


Paris to the Moon

When a friend found out about our first trip to Paris this fall, she said, “You must read Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon.”


Considering I love the French language (I requested a Collins French dictionary for my 14th birthday) and reading about their culture, I was surprised I hadn’t heard of this collection of essays on Paris. I had read Hemingway’s memoir but not Adam Gopnik‘s, a staff writer for The New York Times who lived in the French capital from 1995-2000 with his wife Martha and their newborn son Luke.

It was a very serendipitous read. Many months before knowing about the book, The Artist and I had booked our accommodation on the Left Bank in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area of the 6th arrondissement. We/I chose it because of its artsy and intellectual heritage. This district had a vibrant café culture in the 20th century where Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and the like would think their thoughts, exchange their thoughts, and write their thoughts.

I wanted to feel a part of that, even if the area is more glam than bohemian now.

Guess where Gopnik and his wife lived during their time there? Saint-Germain-des-Prés, literally just a few blocks from where we’re staying! I basically read this book with a map in my other hand so I could follow his daily visit to the butcher and baker, his favourite walk pushing the stroller across Pont des Arts, his run around Luxembourg Gardens (using the busts of Delacroix as his reference point) and his route to fulfill un café crème or bûches de Noël craving at Gérard Mulot or Ladurée.

After reading so much guidebook-type information on Paris, it was refreshing to vicariously live “ordinary” Paris. When Gopnik mentions iconic landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, he talks about it in the context of something unexpected, like a news story that involved a clash between an American tourist and a French elevator operator. He uses this story as a springboard to philosophize on a key difference between the two cultures (absolute professionalism versus absolute tourism). I’ll leave it to you to guess what ideal goes with what culture.

I love how Gopnik can take the simplest things—for example, an error message on his fax machine (erreur distante)—and find a parallelism with French intellectuals and politicians who flash the same message “whenever they run out of paper or ink or arguments.”

But it is his reflections that come out of raising his son in a new place that stay with me the most (and provided some chuckles).

He swam, I realized, exactly the way that after five years I spoke French, which also involved a lot of clinging to the side of the pool and sudden bravura dashes out to the deep end to impress the girls, or listeners.

Midway through the book, Gopnik confesses the real reason he and Martha packed up their New York life and moved to Paris was to avoid raising their son with Barney and all that that inane purple dinosaur represents in American culture.

‘We want him to grow up someplace where everything he sees is beautiful’ we said, and though we realized that the moment our backs were turned our friends’ eyes were rolling, we didn’t care. We knew that our attempt to insist on a particular set of pleasures for our kid—to impose a childhood on our child—might be silly or inappropriate or even doomed. We couldn’t help it, entirely. The romance of your child’s childhood may be the last romance you can give up.

(spoiler alert: life doesn’t turn out the way you plan, leading to some hilarious moments in the “Barney in Paris” chapter).

Perhaps I enjoyed this book so much because I share the author’s romantic inclinations and could picture myself writing a book like this, my own Paris to the moon adventures while sitting in a garden or café. While we’re only there a week and I have a tendency to sightsee ambitiously, this book makes me want to pause long enough to notice the light.

We love Paris not out of ‘nostalgia’ but because we love the look of light on things, as opposed to the look of light from things, the world reduced to images radiating from screens. Paris was the site of the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been: cafés, brasseries, parks, lemons on trays, dappled light on bourgeois boulevards, department stores with skylights, and windows like doors everywhere you look . . . I see the moon these days from Paris because I once saw Paris from the moon.

Valentine’s in Victoria

Thanks to Miss604 and the Victoria Film Fest, I won a trip for two to Victoria last weekend, which also happened to be Valentine’s Day weekend. I’ve never won something like this before, so that was particularly exciting and it came at such a great time for the Artist and I.


Part of the getaway package was round trip flights by float plane, which I’ve wanted to do ever since seeing Reese Witherspoon reject her opportunity in Sweet Home Alabama. (what was she thinking?!) This was on the Artist’s bucket list too, and we both loved it.



The plane fit 12 people plus the pilot. We sat at the back and watched as our beautiful city faded from view—the downtown office towers, Lion’s Gate Bridge, Stanley Park, UBC. And then we oohed and ahhed as we flew low over the Gulf Islands, trying to identify which ones we were looking at. If you don’t like a lot of turbulence, a float plane is probably not for you as you do feel every dip and turn that much more than on a regular plane, but as someone who loves that sinking feeling you get from roller coaster rides, I was totally in my element.



We landed in Victoria Harbour just 30 minutes from when we left Vancouver. How fast is that?! SO beats taking the ferry. And then we walked to our hotel, none other than the iconic, Edwardian, château-style Empress Hotel built in 1908 and designated a National Historic Site of Canada. To say we were excited was an understatement!

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The hotel is beautiful, inside and out. And the staff there are so delightful. They asked us if we wanted a romantic room in the turret with a round bed, and we were like, “Yeah we do!” Can’t say I’d ever seen or known round beds existed before this trip! We stayed in the turret at the back of the hotel on the 7th floor. The only unfortunate thing was that the Empress is undergoing major construction right now so the central facade that is normally covered in ivy and shows the magnificent letters of the hotel name was hidden under  a large white sheet with a printed facsimile of the exterior.


love this arched hallway!



view from the window


That’s our room up in the turret with the blinds drawn

Staying at the Empress was ideal for walking around downtown because the hotel is situated right there, in the Inner Harbour.


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You could tell love was in the air that weekend, from the decorated lampposts to the rose salads at Wild Coffee and the “kissing bench” that we couldn’t resist 😉




In the evening, we saw Our Little Sister at the Victoria Film Fest, a simple yet beautiful Japanese movie about sisterhood that was one of the best storytelling I’ve seen on cinema in a long time. (I’ll save my thoughts on that for another blog post because it needs more space than this).


Before we left on Sunday afternoon, we took a stroll to colourful Fisherman’s Wharf and saw some seals putting on a show for the crowd.

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It was a wonderful way to spend Valentine’s and we are so grateful for the generosity of all who were involved!


Keep Austin Weird

I apologize for being MIA on here this past week. I was in Texas where I stared at the domed ceiling of the State Capitol Building in Austin; stood underneath the Gerald D. Hines Water Wall in Houston; smelled the seaweed-infested beaches of Galveston; posed in front of Texas’ oldest dance hall in Gruene; and dropped my mouth at the size of their college football stadiums, fast food drinks, and Buc-ee’s gas stations that look more like a Walmart.

Renaissance Revival architecture of the Texas State Capitol in Austin

Renaissance Revival architecture of the Texas State Capitol in Austin

Looking up from the rotunda of the Texas State Capitol

Domed ceiling of the Texas State Capitol

Texas Memorial Stadium at University of Texas in Austin.

Texas Memorial Stadium at University of Texas in Austin

Before this trip, the furthest south I had been was Oregon. Texas is only a two-hour time difference from Vancouver, but it felt like a completely different (albeit fascinating) world. Many of the stereotypes are true: American flags on houses, stores, and car dealerships, spaghetti-style highway systems (made me appreciate Vancouver’s highway-lessness even more), and big portions of everything, especially food—so much so that there’s even a “Texas size” option on many restaurant menus.

Have you ever seen onion rings this big?

Luckily there were 4 of us sharing these beastly yet delicious onion rings.

I got used to seeing these colours everywhere

I got used to seeing these colours everywhere

But I was also pleasantly surprised at many things—particularly in Austin. Like how green and pretty it is after stopping over in Phoenix, Arizona, and how snazzy their skyscrapers are, like this Frost Bank Tower with its owl-like face:

Frost Bank Tower. 33 floors & 3rd tallest building in Austin. People say its owl face helps keep Austin weird.

Frost Bank Tower. 33 floors and 3rd tallest building in Austin. People say its owl face helps keep Austin weird. One critic said it resembles an enormous set of nose hair trimmers. What do you think?

I loved strolling along Town Lake, experiencing TexMex food, and taking in the plethora of live music acts along Sixth Street competing for your ears and your wallets. Austin is the self-proclaimed “live music capital of the world” and in staying there for a few days, it’s easy to see it’s a hip, artistic, friendly, and vibrant city. Being introduced to Texas through Austin was probably the best and least shocking way of meeting this strange state—although the 33 degree Celsius heat was shocking enough to almost send me running back into the airport. Thank goodness for AC in every single building.

Lady Bird Lake in Austin (but what everyone still calls Town Lake)

Lady Bird Lake in Austin (but everyone still calls it Town Lake) with a view of downtown skyscrapers. Pretty, eh?

6th Street - home of live music, pubs, and tattoo parlours

Sixth Street – home of live music, pubs, and tattoo parlours. Locals call it “Dirty Sixth”

I was also surprised to learn that Austin’s “Keep Austin Weird” slogan was the original city to birth this phrase intended to promote small businesses. This happened in 2000, and Portland followed in 2003. In honour of that slogan that you can find on banners, billboards, bumper stickers, and T-shirts, here are my favourite “weird” Austin photos, most of them from South Congress Street (or “SoCo”) which I would compare with Vancouver’s Main Street, although I think SoCo is even more eclectic.

Keep Austin Weird sign on South Congress Street

Keep Austin Weird sign on South Congress Street

public art near Town Lake

public art near Town Lake

a favourite local Austin business

a favourite local Austin business

Austin Motel

A classic Austin lodging that sums up the city’s ethos pretty well

A costume store that has everything you could possibly imagine and things you don't want to.

A costume store that has everything you could possibly imagine and things you don’t want to

Allen's BootsAlligator skin boots

Called the "grandaddy of all local music venues," where Stevie Ray Vaughan and other famous musicians played.

Called the “grandaddy of all local music venues,” where Stevie Ray Vaughan and other famous musicians played. Opened in 1957.

Stevie Ray Vaughan statue by Town Lake

Stevie Ray Vaughan statue by Town Lake

Yard Dog art gallery featuring American folk art on South Congress Street

Yard Dog art gallery featuring American folk art. Allen’s Boots just up the street where I even tried on a few pairs. Not the alligator skin ones shown above though.

South Congress Street

View looking downtown from South Congress Street. Can you spot the State Capitol Building straight ahead in the distance?

Austin has a lot of food trucks. Here's a crepe place in a space shuttle

Austin has a lot of food trucks. Here’s a crepe place in a space shuttle next to an art market.

I’ll write about Houston and the other places I visited some other time, but to finish off this post, I’ll leave you with my favourite weird Austin photo. There are hardly words.

Just in case you're unsure about finding your car...

Just in case you weren’t sure which car was yours…

A Story of Origins

I can’t get London off my mind. After a dazzling opening ceremonies last night that poignantly captured British history and culture, my heart went back to 2009 when I visited the city for the first time.

It was summer of my 3rd year in university. Being an English minor and knowing I wanted to eventually do my Master’s in English Lit, I knew I also couldn’t go further in this field without taking a trip to the birthplace of what I was studying. It may sound silly but I really felt I had to experience the origin of what I loved to love it even more – as if a dark cloud would be hanging over me and my academic future if I didn’t make this trip. I had to go.

I went with so much expectation, hoping to find answers about where I should study for grad school (Canada or England?) and what area I should specialize in (17th century, Romantic, Victorian, or modern literature?) I came back without much clarity on these questions (I’ve learned that when I want a big revelation in life, I don’t get it), but I did come back with a magical summer I like to relive every now and then.

Herstmonceux Castle, England

I studied literature at a castle about 45 min south of London (see pic above) – yes, a castle with sheep baaing out my bedroom window and a Shakespearean garden where I read As You Like ItThe Winter’s Tale, Oliver Twist and Mrs. Dalloway. How much more British can you get? It felt like I was transported into a fairy tale world, or maybe Harry Potter. Not only did I read Shakespeare’s plays but I experienced them in their original form, performed at the Globe theatre in London, where I stood so close to the stage I could see the sweat dripping from the actor’s faces.

front-line view of the Globe Theatre, London

After the six-week program at the Castle was complete, I did my own literary tour through the UK.

With my bucket-list of places to visit that I had only experienced second-hand through books, I traipsed through England, Scotland, and Wales to see places like this first-hand:

Tintern Abbey, Wales

Romantic poet William Wordsworth made this abandoned Cisterian monastery famous in his lyrical poem, “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” Did the words ever come alive when I was reading them in the space that inspired them!

How oft, in darkness, and amid the many shapes / Of joyless day-light; when the fretful stir / Unprofitable, and the fever of the world, / Have hung upon the beatings of my heart, / How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee / O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the woods / How often has my spirit turned to thee!

Overlooking the River Wye, Wales

“While here I stand, not only with the sense of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts that in this moment there is life and food for future years.”

Early grey tea and a poem. Couldn’t have been happier

I’m looking back on this trip three years ago and realize there was life and food in it for future years, even though I didn’t see it at the time. I took a course that summer called “Literature and Place” that ended up having a huge influence on my interests in grad school. We took field trips to London to regularly walk the city like a character in a novel, travel the tube, and get to know the city that provides a muse for so many writers.

This London course began in me a fascination with literature and cities that hasn’t ended yet – nor do I want it to. I applied a lot of what I learned in London to my Canadian home context, Vancouver, when I wound up doing grad school (in Canada), and I’m still exploring ideas from the course in my current creative and non-fiction writing. So I guess London hasn’t left me yet, nor left me unchanged . . .

Needless to say, because of this background, I loved the literary references in last night’s ceremonies. Did any part of the long 4-hour ceremony strike a special London memory with you?

Children representing the Great Ormond Street Hospital, the NHS and children’s literature take part in the Opening Ceremony. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)