Walking Tours of Paris

In trying (and largely failing, sadly) to keep my trip on some kind of budget, I spent some time researching free things to do in Paris. I turned up a company called Discover Walks that runs a handful of free tours around Paris.

Well, free is something of an overstatement. Rather than a set fee, they operate on tips. 5€ from every guest goes to the company for administrative costs, and the rest goes directly to the guide. The description of each tour offers an average tip amount for that tour (usually between 10-15€) to use as a guideline.

All the guides are Parisian, so they’re showing you around their own city, and all the tours are in English. I found the quality of the tour varied greatly depending on who I got as a guide, as there isn’t a set script, or even, I think, a set route. The idea is that each guide will show you their favourite places in the neighbourhood.

I took four of their five tours, split over two days. I met up with Victor on the steps of the Opera Garnier for a tour of Paris Landmarks (the right bank tour). And as far as guides go, he absolutely rocked my socks. He had spent two years studying at the school of art history attached to the Louvre museum, and then several months working in Malta to improve his English.

His explanations of the landmarks we visited were thoughtful and informative and funny. He gave us great details about the art and architecture we encountered and brought historical figures to life, giving them all personality and attitude. I had one of those rare and joyous moments of being able to connect dusty history learned in high school (in this particular case the Paris commune in the 1870s) to the explanations he was giving and the monuments I was staring at. I love when that happens.

Victor says he wants to run his own tour of Paris one day, and I would almost fly all the way back to the city just to experience that.

The second tour was of Notre Dame cathedral and its immediate surroundings, and Victor was my guide again. The tours were conveniently timed so that I just had time to cross the city and grab a quick lunch before the next one started. There was an American family with us on this tour – two sisters with five children between them – as well as assorted adults, and Victor kept even the younger kids interested in the tour.

We spent a lot of time looking at the sculpting around the doors of Notre Dame and it was fascinating. Victor told the stories of the building and the art with such character that we were all riveted. And it’s funny, when you get information like that, detailed and entertaining, you can’t not see it when you look at the building again next time. And you feel a little sense of ownership, a connection with the building. That may be the most valuable thing I take away from the whole experience. The Opera Garnier and Notre Dame are my friends, now.

The third tour of the day – The Left Bank – was immediately after the second one. I had to run for it a little, but mostly it timed out okay. This was my first experience with a different guide, and she was… a little underwhelming, actually. She did have historical information to share, but mostly it felt like a hurried tour of the guide’s opinions. Not as thoughtful, not as informative, not as funny. It was a little like getting just the headlines instead of the meat of the article.

The Left Bank was the tour I was most looking forward to, but I felt like the only piece of information I really took away from it was about the public drinking fountains.

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The drinking fountain in front of Shakespeare and Company.

The decorative statues surrounding the stream of water were put there to keep horses from using the same fountains as the people – the horses can’t fit their heads in between the statues. And you can actually drink from the fountains. The water is safe and clean. There are hooks on the side that used to have cups attached by a long chain for communal use. That was eventually deemed unsanitary and the cups were removed. These days, most people use their own water bottles.

On Monday, my last day in the city, I decided to do the Marais walking tour. I had met up with my friend in the Marais for tea on Sunday and it seemed like a lovely neighbourhood. I was interested in learning more.

I arrived early and had my fingers crossed to get Victor as a guide again. Or at the very least someone new. I almost walked away when the Left Bank crazy lady turned up again. Only a lack of any alternative plans kept me there. This tour wasn’t as scattered as the Left Bank one, but again it wasn’t as informative as I would have liked. We saw some lovely courtyards, and I really liked the Place des Vosges, but…. meh.

At least the tip-based system allowed me to compensate the guides on a sliding scale.

I was glad I took the tours, and even more glad I did the bulk of them early in my trip. It helped me to get a handle on the city and its history. I was able to put other things I did and saw into context much more easily, and the tours helped me to identify the other activities and sights in the city I was most interested in pursuing.

Discover Walks run five different tours of Paris. You can book ahead or just turn up on the day. (I never booked ahead and had no problems.) Look out for the guide wearing a pink jacket.

Opera House

On Saturday night, I walked in the footsteps of Emperor Napoleon III. Sort of.

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The central staircase, where once upon a time the rich elite came to be seen.

On Thursday, I met Victor, the guide on two walking tours I took, on the steps of the Opera Garnier. He gave wonderful details about the history, the design, the architect, and the sculptures of the building. He told us funny stories about the bees on the roof, the carp in the lake under the opera house, and the ballerinas in the attic. He made me feel like I knew the building, like it was a friend, and I found I really wanted to see the inside as well.

Part of me wanted to pay for the tour inside the building, but a little voice in my head piped up: wouldn’t it be better to go in and actually see a show instead? So when I got back to the apartment that night, I hopped on the internet and looked up what was playing.

The Opera Garnier was designed more to be a place for the rich and famous to show off their new clothes and jewels than to host performances (if you look at the floor plan, the space devoted to the actual theatre part within the building is relatively small given the building’s overall size) and apparently the acoustics aren’t great. These days most operas are performed at the new opera house across town and the Opera Garnier is mostly used for ballets.

I found one I liked the look of, and on Friday morning I stopped in to the box office. I was expecting to just ask the clerks about the various price options – a quick visit in and out. Like any normal box office. Little did I know. I ended up standing in line for an hour, and at that point I almost felt obligated to buy something to make it worth my time. Luckily they had restricted view seats for 12€. What I wanted was the experience of going to this fancy-pants opera house – restricted view was fine.

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No one does over-the-top gilded opulence quite like the French.

On Saturday night, I went to see a ballet called Rain at the Opera Garnier where the French glitterati have gathered since the 19th century. I felt deeply embarrassed that I didn’t have anything nicer than jeans and a sweater to wear, but it turned out I was hardly the only tourist there.

I arrived early to find a party happening on the steps of the opera house. Students and tourists milled around, some taking photos and others just sitting on the stairs chatting, entertained by a variety of buskers. None of them seemed to be there to see the ballet, though, they were just soaking up the atmosphere.

It was quieter inside. Tourists took photos of themselves posing on the stairs or sipped wine while gazing down from the balconies at the grand staircase and the people filing in. I ducked into every gallery, stepped out onto the balcony above the entrance stairs (and listened to a busker below sing Set Fire to the Rain by Adele in a thick French accent), and climbed to every level of the building to take photos back down over the central atrium.

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The view from my box.

My seat, it turned out, was in a box on the first level. I presented my ticket to a man dressed in black tie and he used a little key to let me into the box. There were six seats inside, and mine was the worst. Only a sliver of the stage was visible when I sat down. The clerk at the box office had assured me I could stand if I wanted to, and when I tried that the view actually wasn’t bad. When the show started, though, the two front seats in the box were still empty, so the rest of us all shuffled up a row and I ended up being able to sit and still see everything.

I really enjoyed the ballet. It was modern – the dancers wore loose clothing in neutral colours and their feet were bare. The music was largely percussive, made up of two grand pianos and several large xylophone-type things, as well as shakers and other pieces. The musicians played this steady, modulating rhythm non-stop for an hour and ten minutes, and at a certain point I was convinced their stamina must be as great as the dancers’.

The dance was simple, not fussy at all, and joyful. Like children playing. It seemed to span a day, from morning through until nighttime, judging from the lighting and some very subtle changes in the dancers’ costumes. I won’t pretend to understand all the symbolism, but I really enjoyed sitting there and soaking it in.

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The Chagall ceiling above the auditorium. Also, the famous chandelier – which did not, in fact, fall during the ballet.

The man with the key came back at the end to let us out of the box. I lingered a moment when the others left so I could hang over the edge and take a photo up at the ceiling. The frieze surrounding the chandelier was painted by Chagall, and I love his work.

It was a lovely evening. Very civilized. I’m very pleased I didn’t give up on the line at the box office when I was first tempted to.

Surprises in the Tuileries

I walked through the Tuileries gardens twice this week – the first time as part of a tour with Victor, and the second time walking through on my way to somewhere else. The gardens surprised me both times.

When I was reminiscing with my dad about our visit to Paris when I was a child, he asked me if I remembered the merry-go-round near the Louvre. I had to admit I did not. And I really didn’t, right up until I saw not the merry-go-round itself, but a specific ostrich-shaped ‘horse’ on it. And then a dozen memories came flooding back. They were all snippets and impressions, too vague to explain, but I remember sitting on that ostrich. I remember riding that merry-go-round with my brother. It was the strangest feeling.

That ostrich was a part of the reason my friend Dario and I cut through the Tuileries that second time, just so I could see it again. I didn’t get a proper chance to stop and goggle at it while I was trying to keep up with the walking tour.

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Goat!

After paying my respects to the ostrich on that second visit, Dario and I wandered through the gardens, on our way to find something for lunch. And as we passed by one of the open spaces, we noticed a goat picketed in a grassy ditch. Dario’s first comment was, ‘Now I’m just waiting for the tyrannosaurus rex.’ Mine was, ‘well, it’s an efficient lawn mower at least.’

I have absolutely no idea while the goat was actually there. But it was definitely a surprise.

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Art installation of dozens and dozens of wind chimes.

On our way out of the gardens, we passed a collection of dozens and dozens of wind chimes, all flickering and tinkling madly in the stiff breeze. It was loud, but magical too, and almost hypnotizing to look at.

Just another random art installation in the park. And no one has defaced it or broken it.

I love Paris.

on the roof of Galeries Lafayette

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Galeries Lafayette

I’m not sure why, but I was expecting the Galeries Lafayette to be a shopping mall, with a collection of small stores inside. It turns out to be more of a large department store. Multiple levels of displays and kiosks look down over this central atrium, and the whole place smells faintly of perfume.

Galeries Lafayette is across the street from the Opera Garnier – the Paris opera house of Phantom of the Opera fame – in a neighbourhood that has been the playground of the rich since the time of Napoleon III in the 19th century.

Victor, the guide on one of the tours I took on Thursday, told us the Galeries Lafayette can be a fun place to browse, and that the prices aren’t actually that bad. But best of all, there is access to the roof, which offers a spectacular view over Paris.

I headed in on Friday, after starting the morning at the Opera’s box office. (I scored tickets to a ballet on Saturday night for 12€, so the hour-long wait in line while little old ladies made the clerks talk through the available seats for every. single. performance. in the next three weeks turned out to be worth it.)

Unlike, say, the Arc de Triomphe, which also has a wonderful view over Paris, the Galeries Lafayette has both escalators and elevators, and there is no cost to go up. I took the escalators, so I could get off at every level and take pictures down into the atrium and up to the stained-glass dome overhead.

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The dome above the atrium.

Up on the roof, they have laid out fake grass and plastic sofas to make the atmosphere more inviting. And it looked as though there was also a cafe there for when the weather was nicer, although it was closed the day I visited.

The view of the Opera Garnier is impressive, and provides a chance to see the architectural work from above. Victor had explained that bee hives were installed on the roof of the opera house (the honey is sometimes for sale in the opera’s gift shop, although they were sold out when I checked), and he suggested we try to spot the hives from Lafayette. I am sad to report that I both tried and failed.

(The Opera Garnier is not the only building in Paris with bee hives on the roof. Urban beekeeping has been on the rise in Paris over the last decade – in 2010, it was estimated there were more than 400 hives in the city, including on the roofs of the Grand Palais, La Defense, and certain hotels and restaurants.)

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View over Paris from the roof of Lafayette shopping centre.

The Eiffel Tower stands over the skyline to the right of the Opera House, and if you head all the way to your left (as you face the opera) and then turn around, you’ll be able to see Sacre Coeur cathedral between two bits of the Lafayette building. I was surprised to find it looked both larger and closer than I was expecting, and due to the strange way it was framed by the building, it seemed like it was floating in the sky above Paris.

The roof was a lovely place to spend some time. I was a little afraid that snooty French salesmen might frown on the ragged tourist as she trooped through the store to get to the view on the roof, but the Galeries Lafayette have gone out of their way to make it feel welcoming.

The Louvre

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The Louvre, Paris.

I’m not even going to pretend to try and tell you what you should see at the Louvre. I know virtually nothing about the history of art. And the gallery is so overwhelmingly huge I wouldn’t even know where to begin, anyway.

Victor, one of the tour guides I spent time with on Thursday, said he studied at the art history school attached to the Louvre for two years and the best part was that he got free access to the Louvre all the time. He was in there every day for two years, and that was the only way to get his head around the whole place. He also said that only a small percentage of the Louvre’s actual collection is on display at any one time, and the rest is boxed up in the basement.

So. Buy a guide book, I guess. And good luck. I was so intimidated by the Louvre – the art I don’t understand, and the line-ups, and the expectations – that I almost didn’t want to go at all during this trip. (I visited when I was eight and my only memory of the place was a security woman jumping up and down in front of the Mona Lisa waving her arms and yelling “No flash!” at the tourists with cameras.)

In the end, I went in for about two hours. I went to see the Classical Greek art, some Egyptian pieces, and then the ‘famous’ items.

I saw the Venus de Milo and Winged Victory. And I saw the Mona Lisa – no one was jumping in front of her this time. And she is smaller than I remembered her. Although I was much smaller, too, the last time I saw her. With all of these pieces I tried to put the camera down once I took the picture and to make sure I spent some time just looking at them, to see what they made me feel. To smile back at the Mona Lisa.

There are two or three other paintings by Leonardo da Vinci (there was a point when I became unclear on whether he had painted something or it had been painted by his students) in an adjacent gallery. These ones had only the smallest of crowds in front of them and I could get much closer and not be jostled while I did so. It was nice to get the chance to linger with them a little.

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Cleopatra, queen of the Nile.

In the Greek galleries, I found statues of so many of the people referenced in Anthony and Cleopatra I couldn’t possibly include photos of them all. More statues of Octavius Caesar, statues of Agrippa, and Marcus Crassus, and more. (I worked on a production of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra not so long ago, so I kind of feel like I know the characters. It is both strange and wonderful to realize that they were real people, to see their faces in front of me. Even though, in many cases, the statues were carved long after the person’s death.) In the Egyptian section I found two statues of Cleopatra herself. The one pictured above isn’t in great shape, but the other one is more symbolic than representative.

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Statue of Orestes (brother of Electra) and his friend Pylades. No, I don’t know which one is which. From the 1st century AD.

I also found this statue of Orestes and Pylades, both characters in Electra, a play I saw earlier this week. Now, these representations are absolutely fiction – the play was written in the 5th century BC based on characters who lived, if they lived at all, somewhere around the 12th century BC, while the statue was carved in the 1st century AD – but it was still cool to see. I would have loved to see a statue of Electra to go along with it.

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A family of lion-heads.

There was a point when I didn’t believe I was ever going to get OUT of the Louvre. Thank god for the signs pointing towards the exits. It was the end of a long day of walking (I had done the catacombs that morning) and my feet hurt and my back hurt and I just wanted to head for home and food and a chance to sit down, and it took me a good fifteen minutes of walking to get to the exit. The museum really is just overwhelmingly huge.

So I would say pick your battles as you head in there. Find the stuff that you have some connection with, the stuff that really interests you, and don’t even pretend to think you’re going to be able to see it all.

The Louvre is open from 9am – 6pm, except on Wednesdays and Fridays when it stays open until 9:45pm. It is closed on Tuesdays and certain holidays. General admission to the permanent collection costs 12€, and there will be an extra charge for admission to any special exhibits. See the Louvre website for further details.

Paris

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The Louvre at sunset.

I seem to have skipped over the part where I explained that I took the Eurostar from London to Paris, so let me step back and do that now. On Tuesday I hopped on a train and got off in a completely different country just over two hours later. I love Europe.

The night before I left London, my dad called me from Canada to sort out some mail that arrived while I’ve been away. We ended up reminiscing about a trip we took to Paris when I was eight. My dad wanted to show my brother and I the wonders of the Old World, which is an admirable sentiment, but he got very upset when we were most excited about the moving walkways in the airport. May I repeat, I was eight years old and my brother was six.

During this conversation, though, he managed not to yell at me about that (again), and I started listing some of the things I remembered about the trip. We rented an apartment near the Pompidou centre. We saw Napoleon’s tomb. We broke the washing machine in the apartment and flooded the bathtub. We visited the palace of Versailles. My brother and I both got strep throat.

I think because of that conversation with my father, I’ve been trying to recapture some of the experiences from when I was a child. I bought a bottle of Orangina, because my brother and I drank that the whole time we were here. It didn’t exist in Canada at the time. Neither did KinderEggs, which we also loved on that trip.

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Street art near the Pompidou Centre.

The Pompidou Centre is the Paris gallery of contemporary art. (When I was eight there was a giant boat that had knives unfolding (as in: they moved, folding and unfolding) from it like a swiss army knife as part of an installation on the ground floor. That is one of my clearest memories. This year, there is a wrecked car surrounded by caution tape.) Inside, they have an extensive collection, including Picasso, Chagall, and Kandinsky, among many, many others. The outside of the building is notable as well, with all its technical guts on display. All the heating ducts and plumbing pipes and gas lines are on the outside of the building, colour-coded for ease of identification.

Despite a long day of walking on Thursday (I did three separate walking tours of Paris during the day – more on that later) I insisted on schlepping across to the Pompidou centre before heading home just so I could walk around the outside of it. We stayed in that neighbourhood when I was eight and I feel like if I just closed my eyes for a second I might be able to retrace my steps and find our little apartment. (I asked my dad if he had a record of the address anywhere and he laughed at me.)

When I was eight, my dad wrote the address and phone number down on a piece of paper – in case we got lost or separated, I could tell a police officer where I belonged – and I zipped it into this little side pocket on my pink running shoes with the velcro straps. I distinctly remember I never took that paper out, even after we got home. Sadly, though, the shoes are long gone.

I didn’t find the apartment, although I think I figured out roughly what direction it was in. I’m not sure what I would have done if I had found it, but it felt important to try.

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My favourite place on the Left Bank.

This next part I probably shouldn’t even admit out loud, but we’ve already established that I’m a geek. I had a huge fondness for the television show Highlander back in the day, and it was set in Paris for about half of every season. So there are a few places in Paris that are indelibly linked in my mind with that show. The Seine near Notre Dame where the barge was moored, the church of St-Julien-le-pauvre that was Darius’, and the bookstore Shakespeare and Company.

Shakespeare and Company is a tourist stop in its own right (and it is so crowded this week they have someone stationed at the door to control the flow of people). It is famously linked to Earnest Hemingway and James Joyce and the Lost Generation in Paris.

In addition to just being a wonderful English-language bookshop, it hosts talks and readings and events. There are a couple of different writers’ workshops based there. And I hear they also offer crash space in exchange for two hours’ work a day at the shop, although I have no idea how you would go about arranging that.

And it is just a stunningly beautiful shop in its own right – warren-like, crammed with books to the very ceiling, supported by ancient, pitted wooden beams, with a library upstairs full of chairs and cots for sitting on, and even a tiny writing cubby. (There is even a picture of the eponymous Shakespeare, framed and hung out in the air shaft (..?), visible through a window at the top of the stairs. The frame has a little ledge on the top edge to keep the rain off.)

But I will always love it because the Watchers owned it on Highlander. Hey, it’s the little things that make me happy when I’m so far from home.

Paris Catacombs

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Entrance to the Catacombs

I first heard about the catacombs under Paris when I visited for a weekend while I was in Brussels with the circus. The friend I was travelling with explained she wanted to see them, but it was forbidden and all the entrances were locked. She thought there was a way down through one of the mausoleums in Pere Lachaise cemetery, but we didn’t have the time to go monument to monument and test the theory. Also, ew. Continue reading

Blood swept lands and seas of red

Art installation at the Tower of London – Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is an art installation at the Tower of London to commemorate 100 years since the beginning of World War I. The plaque on the railing reads:

This evolving art installation is filling the Tower moat with 888,246 hand-made ceramic poppies. Each one represents a British military death during the First World War, which broke out 100 years ago. The last poppy will be planted on 11 November.

The amount of red in that moat is overwhelming.

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A moat full of poppies.

The panoramic shot covers only two sides of the tower – there are more poppies planted than are visible from this angle. And they haven’t planted them all yet.

They began putting in the installation on the 5th of August, and the sea of red has been expanding ever since. There’s almost no green left visible. It’s an unexpectedly powerful memorial, and crowds jammed the paths and the railings to get a closer look.

Every evening at sunset, the names of 180 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the war are read out as part of the Roll of Honour. This is followed by a playing of Last Post. Members of the public can nominate names to be read out as a part of the ceremony. Nominations open at 9am on Monday morning for the ceremonies in that week.

Despite the grey skies, it was actually noon when I was at the tower so I didn’t stay for the ceremony. I am moved, though, that they’re commemorating the fallen in this way. When I was a child, the First World War was still a part of living memory. It’s hard to get my head around the fact that it has been a century since it began. That it’s purely history for the children of today. So I’m very glad that so much effort is being made, that we as a culture will not forget.

The river of blood made to look like it's pouring from the window of the tower. I'm not sure if the archer in the upper left hand corner of the photo is part of the art installation or not...

The river of blood made to look like it’s pouring from the window of the tower. I’m not sure if the archer in the upper left hand corner of the photo is part of the art installation or not…

The poppies are for sale – when the installation is dismantled they’ll be posted to buyers around the world – with the proceeds going to six different service charities.

The Tower of London website has more information, and you can also find links to buy a poppy or nominate a name to be read out.

Circus Life – all I want is a job for Christmas

I arrived in London on October 28th, and at Christmastime I was still unemployed, still sharing a bunk bed in my cousin’s house. So I was happy enough to abandon my ongoing failure and head north with my cousin to my aunt’s house for the holidays.

I always felt closest to my mother’s family, even though they lived in the UK and we lived in Canada. We visited several times through my childhood, and they came to visit us. I bonded with the aunt in question – my mother’s sister – during one particular visit late in my high school years. My family was living out in the countryside at the time, and I was deeply unhappy. My mom, my aunt, my sister and I all went for a wander down in the valley behind the house. We found a tree that had fallen, and climbed up to sit on its branches in the autumn sun. And we talked. And in that conversation I felt like a grown-up too. It was the first time I felt comfortable articulating in front of my mother how miserable, how excluded I felt around my stepfather. There was an honesty that was unlocked in those hours, just women together, with the sun and the wind and the tree. I loved that tree – always thought of it as ‘the girls’ tree’ – until it decomposed to mulch and moss and we eventually moved away. Sans stepfather.

The town in the north of England where my aunt lives is, it turns out, a wonderful place to spend Christmas. I hadn’t ever been there before – she lived in a tiny village in Cheshire the previous times I’d visited her, in a 200-year-old cottage that still had meat hooks in the kitchen and slots in the wall to hold a bar across the front door. The cottage had once been a part of the nearby estate, and we used to go for walks on its grounds to see the deer if the weather was nice. Some of my earliest memories are of visiting that little cottage – being bathed in the sink, because the bathroom was an extension on the back and only had a shower, no tub; walking to a nearby park to play, even thought the air was thick with the stink of tar being laid on the road.

My aunt’s new house was in what had once been a Victorian spa town, full of stone-built buildings and wrought iron gazebos. Up in the hills of the peak district in Derbyshire, the town reliably got a dusting of snow for Christmas, and the air smelled of coal fires in the evening. My romantic heart loved it instantly.

There were enough bedrooms in my aunt’s new house that we could each have our own. Mine was up on the third floor under the eaves and contained the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. Something about the way my aunt tucks wool blankets under the fitted sheets creates a little slice of heaven.

I missed being at home for the holidays, missed my family and our particular traditions, but I was grateful not to be alone at Christmas. Even if I did feel a bit like a fifth wheel at someone else’s celebrations. We called Canada in the evening on Christmas day, so I could talk to my mom and dad. I tried to enjoy myself and not stress too much about my continuing unemployment.

In the lazy days after Christmas, my cousin picked up a newspaper while she was at the co-op to buy milk. She wanted the television listings to see if there were any good movies on for her daughter. Later that evening, tucked in my aunt’s living room, cozy in the combined glow of Christmas-tree lights, a coal fire, and the movie playing on television, I picked up the newspaper and flipped to the job listings almost out of habit. Because that’s what you do with a newspaper, you look for work.

The paper was a slim evening edition and the employment section was tiny, maybe half a page. And down in the bottom right-hand corner was a small ad that changed my life. I wish I had clipped it to keep forever, but I didn’t know it was significant at the time.

The circus was hiring in a number of different departments – everything from sous-chefs to school teachers. They provided a website address for further information and applications. That ad hit me like a cattle prod. My whole body burned with it. A job with the circus? Yes, please. A million times yes.

The only thing standing between me and that dream was a complete lack of internet. My aunt didn’t have internet in the house, the small Victorian spa town didn’t have an internet cafe, wifi and smartphones didn’t exist yet, and the library was closed for the holidays. I bounced on my impatience for the rest of the visit, terrified all the positions would be filled, that they would disappear before I could apply for them.

We drove back to London – in my cousin’s bright orange VW camper van[1] – on New Year’s Eve. The previous night had been so cold the water in the windshield washer tank froze solid, and the van didn’t have working heat. It was a long, cold, five-hour drive, and we arrived home to a house where the heat hadn’t been on in two weeks. My cousin went out to celebrate the night with friends. I spent New Year’s Eve wrapped in blankets and pressed against the radiator.

I hit the local internet cafe in our suburb of London bright and early on January 2nd, when it finally re-opened after the holidays. I found the circus website and the jobs were all still there. And there was even an admin position available – assistant to the tour manager. I spruced up my resume and sent off my application and tried not to get my hopes up.

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1. My cousin, who is a dozen years older than I am, was a punk when she lived with us in the early ’80s. I remember sitting on the back deck of the house I grew up in, watching her earrings swing as she chatted with my mom. The earrings were so long the bright silver bobbles on the dangly ends brushed her collarbones. She was the coolest thing in the world when I was four. Her hair changed shape and colour regularly – first long, then short and spiky, scarlet red, half black/half white.

When I moved in with her that fall, decades later, her hair had been its natural colour for many years, she was a mother, she was putting herself through university, but her wild streak still showed through in her choice of vehicle. I kind of loved that van. (BACK TO POST)