Some save up for the high life in Paris, complete with swish hotels and posh seats up in the clouds. Photo / 123rf
How many times have you daydreamed about throwing caution to the wind and blowing a stack of cash – imagined or otherwise – on a dream trip to a dream destination? Ashley Couto did just
that and she has zero regrets.
I’ve visited Paris three times and without fail, I end up in tears. You’d think I’d try somewhere new, but it’s my favourite city in the world. My family watched Fashion Television on Saturdays during seafood dinners in my childhood — every microsecond that Paris flashed on the screen, my heart fluttered.
So when I told my hairdresser I wanted to return during our regular six-week check-in and my 66-year-old aunt chirped that she’d love to come with me, I was annoyed.
Paris was my place. I was finally going to see it the way I’d dreamed of in 2014 when I wrote in tears in my journal about what I wanted to achieve in life, while sitting on the grass at Sorbonne University in the sweltering August heat, completely lost in the middle of Paris.
Almost nine years later, most of what I wrote was now real — the spacious factory conversion loft, designer handbags, first-class flights, top management job.
After that brief selfish moment, I remembered the point of working 60-hour weeks and feeling like an elephant was sitting on my chest at all times due to work pressures: giving my best friend an experience like this.
We’re an odd pair, that’s for sure — a 30-something art-loving writer and a retirement-age medical secretary. But there’s no one I’d rather spend time with. Starting in my late 20s, my aunt and I lived together for five years before I moved to Toronto in 2021 for work. We fought maybe twice in five years for less than a day. She’s the person I call when something happens, good or bad.
If I would share my city with anyone, it’d be her.
So I didn’t think twice about spending thousands of dollars on two business-class seats and the swanky Hotel Le Pradey next to the Jardin des Tuileries and a stone’s throw from The Louvre. Since this was a luxury for me, too, I even bought a new YSL bag and neutral basics, so I didn’t look like a gauche Emily in Paris wannabe in my usual bright neon everything.
Little did I know, as I dropped a cool CAD$15,000 ($18,000), that I was two months away from quitting my job on a whim.
But I don’t regret it.
Okay, okay. Maybe there was a hot second after the words “I’m putting in my two weeks notice effective immediately” came tumbling out of my mouth that I did think ‘What a terrible time to have just blown 15 grand.’
But it was a quick second. Quick Minute. Quick 15-minute full-on freakout.
Then, after taking a double dose of my doctor-prescribed anti-anxiety meds because I’d just quit my job without a backup plan, I remembered the smile on my aunt’s face after seeing a Vincent Van Gogh painting that she loved at Musee d’Orsay.
And the sparkle in her eyes upon seeing the real Eiffel Tower and not the half-size reconstruction in her usual vacation spot in Vegas.
She came alive in Paris.
My aunt is the kind of person who needs multiple opinions about everything. She follows the same routines day in and day out. Her living room has a whopping 33 knick-knacks and has photos of where everything goes so she can put everything back exactly the way it was after the holidays. I love her so much.
But in Paris, she was a woman with no agenda. She was the kind of woman who went shopping and wandering the streets on her own. She made friends with locals and shop assistants.
When we got scammed in a bike taxi that cost us €50 for a less-than-five-minute ride, I was ready to turn into the She-Hulk on rue Saint-Roch in the 1er arrondissement — the Tuileries gardens were in my peripheral vision, so I was already seeing green anyways.
But my aunt? She was the picture of French-girl cool, even though it was her turn to pay. Transportation and food were the only things I let her split.
The ham and emmental sandwich I had sitting across from her in the cafeteria at Musee de L’Orangerie is the second-best sandwich I’ve ever had. The best was a prosciutto and ricotta sandwich with two warm slices of focaccia at Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale cafeteria. I’m realising maybe I’m just blown away by cafeteria food that doesn’t take like cardboard because that’s what I’m used to in Canada.
Sadly, those are some of my only memories not sullied by the relentless nagging in my brain to check my phone to see what was happening at work. After all, the company didn’t stop running because its number two was across the ocean. What if there was a fire? What if the founder had some kind of catastrophe and couldn’t fill in for me? What if having to take over my exorbitant workload proved to be too much for her?
I felt guilty for enjoying myself and living my life even though, after almost three years of her begging me to move to Toronto so we could work in closer proximity, she announced 10 days after my arrival in Toronto that she was moving to The Bahamas. She was certainly living her best life with a coconut in hand.
The afternoon my aunt spent on her own wandering the streets, buying chocolate, baulking at thrift store prices, and listening to the unforgettably horrible noise of French sirens that still strike nostalgia into our hearts, I logged into work. I spent four hours working while a random French singing game show played in the background of the hotel room.
It took until our last day, when we spent 10 hours at The Louvre, for me to realise just how abnormal my experience was. I was standing in front of Andrea Mantegna’s Madonna of the Victory, a painting I’d spent four months studying in an art history seminar room at The University of Toronto once upon a time, feeling anything but victorious.
Why couldn’t I disconnect from my phone? Why was the buzzing in my purse making my heart beat a thousand miles a minute? Why couldn’t I spend two minutes looking at every last brushstroke without feeling guilty?
Cue the waterworks. Paris has a way of pushing me to grand emotional revelations. There’s no more humbling experience than wanting to bawl in front of an Italian Renaissance painting and having to keep it together because you don’t want to be that weird girl crying in The Louvre in someone else’s travel stories.
I cried silently to myself, knowing I’d become a Hallmark movie girl. The big-city gal with the high-powered job looking out her floor-to-ceiling glass windows in a slightly dated power suit. She sighs deeply in the first two minutes of the movie when her mother calls mid-meeting to let you know that you’re watching a sad, lonely woman who needs to readjust her priorities in her tiny hometown.
I used to make fun of that girl. How had I become her? I was in the city I love, too distracted to enjoy myself.
I don’t want it to sound all doom and gloom. I still had the time of my life with my aunt while my North American colleagues were asleep, and I would happily pay any amount of money to see her as lit up and on fire as she was during that trip.
I will never forget the laughs we shared, or our sheer bewilderment at how much better the McCafe at the Champs Elysees McDonalds was than we had back home. Yes, we went to the Champs Elysees McDonalds because it’s the McDonalds from Emily in Paris. Yes, the €2 macarons we had there were better than the €10 macarons from Laduree on the Champs Elysees and isn’t that what makes the best travel memories? Doing slightly cringeworthy things with the people who matter most to you? So, I think we nailed our holiday.
On the plane ride home, I thought the whole time about a random bit of dialogue from the audioguide on the Paris tour bus we’d taken at the start of our trip: “People believe the French are rude and picky, but we simply stand our ground and aren’t afraid to say no or speak up about things that compromise our quality of life.”
Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean on that flight, my heart became a French National. On my return home, I quit my job and now I spend most of my time travelling the world and writing about it. La belle vie!
For more things to see and do in Paris, visit france.fr/en