France Notre Dame Fire

View of the scaffolding and damaged Notre Dame cathedral after the fire in Paris, Tuesday, April 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Last autumn, my wife and I traveled to England and France for our silver wedding anniversary, a trip we almost didn’t take. There were a hundred reasons not to go, but we went anyway, and we’re glad we did.

A year later, a global pandemic has made such trips all but impossible. Largely homebound like so many others this year, we’ve sustained ourselves with memories of where we went and what we saw.

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In Paris, a travel guide handed us a map of the city’s iconic destinations, lifting a pen from his pocket and casually crossing out a picture of Notre Dame. Damaged by a massive fire, the ancient cathedral was off-limits to tourists. His gesture suggested a sense of acceptance that struck me as very European.

Grounded in centuries of history, our neighbors across the sea often seem more aware of how quickly things we take for granted can change, a reality we’ve confronted on many levels in this strange year. With a stroke of his ballpoint, the Frenchman was reminding us that anything — even a landmark that had stood since the 14th century — is subject to the whims of circumstance.

I was disappointed about not being able to see Notre Dame, which I had first visited in 1991. Even so, I was consoled by a thought that President Theodore Roosevelt’s Uncle Robert shared in a family letter in 1851. Blessed with wealth, the Roosevelts could travel widely. But the wonders of a foreign landscape weren’t the best part of travel, Robert Roosevelt wrote back then. It was the people you see along the way.

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I felt that way in London when we visited St. Martin in the Fields, the grand old church off Trafalgar Square, for a choral program drawn from Handel’s “Messiah.” Delayed by heavy traffic on a wet, gray afternoon, we arrived late to packed pews, but congregants on the back row graciously squeezed closer to welcome us in. The Hallelujah Chorus was made all the more beautiful because we were sharing it warmly with listeners we’d just met.

That kind of intimacy has been the most glaring casualty of this year’s pandemic, as social distancing limits our ability to see new places — and keeps tourists from seeing us. On our long flight home, we sat next to a British woman who was looking forward to visiting Louisiana for the first time. She’d traveled around the world, yet sensed that our home state would offer something truly unique.

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The best we can offer each other, as tourists or hosts, is ourselves, and we’ve missed those connections as the world weathers COVID-19. Luckily, the contagion won’t last forever.

That’s why a couple of Saturdays ago, on a cool afternoon when the coming of fall promised the turning of a page in a troubled time, my wife and I sat on our patio and talked about where we’d like to visit next.


Email Danny Heitman at danny@dannyheitman.com.