The Eiffel Tower

By Eloisa James

The Barnes & Noble Review is proud to present Eloisa James’s original introduction to Paris in Love, along with an excerpt from the book. Enjoy!

A couple of years ago, in the aftermath of a crisis in our personal world, my husband and I sold our house and cars, rented an apartment in the 9th arrondissement, and took off for Paris, children in tow. Paris in Love is about that year, a year I expected to be exotic (and to be sure, there was some culture shock all around), but that turned out to be surprisingly domestic—and joyful. I wrote this book so that I wouldn’t forget the year we ran away from home, but I also wrote it in the hopes that it would inspire some readers to escape from their daily lives: if not for a year, then for a month—or even a day.

When we left for France, we had no grand plans for cultural enrichment. I did know that I might have to commit infanticide if my children started wearing nothing but black and using French as a verbal tic: “That movie was an agony, like…like winter…and night, n’est pas?”  I need not have worried.

For her birthday, we took our daughter Anna ice-skating on the Eiffel Tower’s observation-deck rink (188 feet above the ground!); after about five minutes she grew surly and cold, and began loudly insisting that Minnesotan ice was “way better” than its French counterpart. Our son Luca and his group of disaffected friends took to sprawling on the grass under the shadow of the Tower—because it was close to McDonald’s. The day we at last made our way to the top, we forgot to soak in the view, because we were too busy howling with laughter at my husband, who had flattened himself against the wall, convinced that a breath of wind would result in a family swan dive.

It is not for nothing that the Eiffel Tower has become virtually synonymous with the city of Paris. Unconsciously, perhaps inevitably, it became a recurrent emblem of our year.  As soon as we settled down, everyone from close blood relations to my eighth-grade boyfriend began showing up for a visit. The most popular hostess gift, hands down, was some small-scale version or other of the Eiffel Tower. We were given magnets and a mousepad, a cheese grater and a bottle opener. We received edible, drinkable, and wearable Eiffel Towers. Another day, another Tower! (In case you ever wondered, the Eiffel Tower’s resemblance to a certain private part has indeed been noticed—and merchandised—by the French.)

We gave away a great many of our possessions before we left for Paris. We came home with a suitcase full of miniature Eiffel Towers. In chocolate, in silver, in photographs. In our memories.

It seems a fair trade.

As an introduction to Paris in Love, I offer here an excerpt about the Tower, followed by a handful of bite-sized vignettes—tiny bursts of experience—which largely comprise the book. Taken as a whole, along with interspersed essays, they form a chronicle of our year.  I hope you find it as irresistible as an (Eiffel Tower-shaped) bottle marked Drink Me.

From  Paris in Love: A Memoir

One October day we picked up Anna and her new friend Erica after school and walked to the Eiffel Tower. The girls ran ahead, zooming here and there like drunk fighter pilots showing off. Alessandro and I tried to imagine why the French ever planned to demolish the tower after the 1889 World Fair. It’s such a beautiful, sturdy accomplishment; destroying it would be like painting over the Mona Lisa because of her long nose. Smallish bateaux mouches, or tourist boats, moor in the Seine near the foot of the tower, or so my guidebook said. We wandered beneath the lacework iron, the girls skittering and shrieking like seagulls. Down by the water we paid for the cheaper tickets, the kind that come without crepes and champagne. With twenty minutes to wait, we retreated to an ancient carousel next to the river. A plumpy woman sat huddled in her little ticket box, shielded from tourists and the rain, although as yet neither had appeared.

Anna and Erica clambered aboard, but still the operator waited, apparently hoping that two children astride would somehow attract more. The girls sat tensely on their garish horses, their skinny legs a little too long. At ten years old, they’ll soon find themselves too dignified for such childish amusements. But not yet.

Finally the music started and the horses jerked forward. A crowded merry-go-round on a sunny day is a blur of children’s grins and bouncing bottoms. But as the girls disappeared from view, leaving us to watch riderless horses jolt up and down, I realized that an empty merry-go-round on a cloudy day loses that frantic gaiety, the sense that the horses dash toward some joyful finish line.

These horses could have been objets trouvés, discovered on a dustheap and pressed into service. The steed behind Anna’s was missing the lower half of his front leg.

They arched their necks like chargers crossing the Alps on some military crusade, battle-scarred and mournful. Every chip of gold paint dented by a child’s heels stood out, stark and clear. With nowhere to go, and nothing better to do, the operator let the girls go around and around. Finally, though, the music slowed, the last few notes falling disjointedly into the air. I decided there is nothing more melancholy than a French carousel on a rainy day, and wished we had paid for champagne and crepes.

***

On the Métro heading to school, Anna launched into a wicked impersonation of her enraged English teacher stamping her foot: “Shut zee mouths! Zit down! Little cretins!” The entire subway car was laughing, though Anna remained totally unaware of her captive and captivated audience.

***

Alessandro brought home a very successful makeup present after the non-flowers: a heart-shaped cheese, sort of a Camembert/Brie, as creamy as butter and twice as delicious. We ate it on crusty bread, with a simple salad of orange peppers, and kiwis for dessert.

***

I just came across a list Luca created on a scrap of paper. At the top of the sheet he wrote (in cursive) “The End.”

The list is entitled “Several Problems”:

–Can’t write in cursive script

–Can’t write in Italian

–Don’t think I copied the math homework down correctly

–Screwed up on the Italian writing evaluation

–Have French essay for Monday

–Need my books by tomorrow

I feel terrible. What have we done, bringing him here? I have ulcers just reading the list.

***

 

My sister mentioned before we left for France that a relative on our mother’s side had published a memoir about living in Paris. I’d never heard of Claude C. Washburn, who was one of my grandmother’s brothers and died before I was born. But today the post brought Pages from the Book of Paris, published in 1910. From what I can gather, Claude was born in Duluth, Minnesota, and moved to Europe after getting his undergraduate degree, living in France and Italy. At some point after his year or so in Paris, he married a woman with the unusual name of Ivé. I’m not very far into the book, but so far he has characterized marriage as “an ignominious institution” and boasted of his “increasing exultation” at remaining a bachelor, steering clear of “the matrimonial rocks, that beset one’s early progress, toward the open sea of recognized bachelordom.” Ivé must have scuppered his vessel before he could steer clear of her rocks.

***

 

It started to pour while we were out for dinner, so hard that a white fog hovered above the pavement where the rain was bouncing. We ran all the way home, skittering past Parisians with umbrellas and unprepared tourists using newspapers as cocked hats, the water running down our necks, accompanied by an eight-block-long scream from Anna.

***

Today I went to my favorite flirtatious butcher and pointed to some sausages. He coiled up seven feet of them and put them on the scale, saying, “The man who is married to you needs to eat lots of sausages.” One problem with my French is that I require time to think before replying, so I ended up back out on the street with far too many sausages and spent the next hour unsuccessfully trying to come up with French ripostes that I will be able to use in my next life. The one in which I am fluently multilingual, and never at a loss for words.

***

 

Anna had to stand against the wall twice during one class period yesterday. I asked her why, and she told me that she couldn’t remember, and anyway, she wasn’t as bad as the boys. I can’t wait for parent-teacher conferences. “She’s a bad American” keeps running through my head to the tune of “She’s a very pretty girrrrlll . . .”

***

 

My favorite of Paris’s many bridges is Pont Alexandre III, and my favorite of its many statues is not one of those covered with gold, but rather a laughing boy holding a trident and riding a fish. Although just a child, he’s bigger than I am, his huge toes flying off the fish as he twists in midair. But he’s a boy still, with a guileless smile—caught in a moment when he is big enough to ride the back of a fish but not yet acquainted with the world’s sor- rows and deceits. On the far end of Pont Alexandre III, opposite the merboy, sits his twin sister. She seems to have just left the water; she holds fronds of seaweed in one hand, and in the other a large seashell to her ear. Her face is intent as she looks into the distance, listening carefully. I imagine that she is listening for the rushing sound of waves, the sound of home.

***

Every Peter Pan has his Hook, Harry Potter his Malfoy . . . Anna’s nemesis is Domitilla, the young lady who slapped her on the playground. Domitilla is a talkative Italian with a propensity for hogging the spotlight (which Anna prefers to reserve for herself). “She is devilish,” Anna told me, very seriously, this morning on the way to school.

***

“We’d like white wine,” Alessandro tells our wine seller, Monsieur Juneau. “What are you eating?” M. Juneau inquires. “Fish.” “What kind of fish?” “Halibut with mint and lemon,” I report. “And on the side?” “Potatoes.” “Small or large?” asks Monsieur. (Who knew that mattered?) “Small.” Our menu rolls off his tongue, sounding like the carte du jour at a three-star Michelin restaurant. “The wine for you,” he says, lovingly plucking down a bottle. At home, the fish is disastrous, but the wine, a revelation.

***

Luca has caught a virus, and declared pathetically this morning that there was only one thing in the world he could bring himself to eat: Froot Loops. I picked up Anna at school, and we detoured to a small store called the Real McCoy, which caters to homesick American expats. Jackpot! We bought brown sugar, marshmallows, and Froot Loops. Luca ate three bowls.

***

Ballerinas fall out of the conservatory on our street, eager for a smoke. They cluster around the steps, hip bones jutting. Today, two of them are resplendent in pink tutus, absentmindedly stretching their hamstrings.

***

I worked hard this afternoon on A Kiss at Midnight, my reimagining of Cinderella. My heroine is flat-chested, poor thing, and part of her transformation involves a pair of “bosom friends” made of wax. These accoutrements are thoroughly historical, and great fun to write about. I gave her so many misadventures that I felt very glad to have gone through with reconstruction surgery, so I don’t have to walk around wearing a wax tata.

***

Today Alessandro had his first meeting with a Frenchman from the “conversation exchange” website. His name is Florent, and he wants to learn Italian because he bought a plot of land in a tiny village near Lucca, in Tuscany, and he plans to build a house there. But mostly because he is in love with a waitress he met in the village. Apparently she is very, very shy and reserved.

***

We woke this morning to a sheet of rain pouring into the street, with the kind of concentrated intensity that made me think, drowsily, that our bedroom could be behind a waterfall: a dim and cool cave, our big windows a pane of moving water.

***

Today Anna was kicked out of her math class and sent to the hallway to “think about herself.” I asked her what she thought about. In lieu of self-examination, she planned a new Sims family, but admitted that she was afraid I would kill her before she got to make it.

***

A concerned friend has just written from England to inform me that her son’s economics reading included the fact that 650 Parisians are hospitalized every year due to dog poo-related accidents. After living here for almost two months, I am not surprised by this datum. The good news is that we are not (yet) among the fallen.

***

I walked home at dusk, and everyone I passed was munching a baguette. The pavement looked as if hundreds of lost children had scattered crumbs so they could find their way home again.

***

Anna’s archrival, Domitilla, just returned from her grandmother’s funeral in Italy. Apparently Domitilla glanced above the coffin and saw Jesus suspended in the air. Anna’s comment: “I was pretty surprised to hear that.” But another classmate, Vincenzo, chimed in and said that he knew about a boy with no legs at all who went to church and prayed, and after seeing a white-bearded man in the air, got up and walked. “So that was better than just seeing Jesus,” Anna pointed out.

***

My publisher is in town on her way to the Frankfurt Book Fair, and she took me to lunch at Brasserie Lipp, where Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre used to lunch every day. I had a dark, delicious fish soup and too much wine; we talked about food writing and life before children.

***

People kiss all the time here: romantically, sadly, sweetly, passionately; in greeting and farewell. They kiss on the banks of the Seine, under bridges, on street corners, in the Métro. I hadn’t realized that Anna had noticed until yesterday, when I suggested perhaps a single-mother situation in her classroom could be explained by divorce. Anna didn’t agree. “They don’t get divorced over here,” she reported. “It’s ’cause they kiss so much.”

***

Very early in the morning, the only light comes from tightly closed bakeries. Chairs are upside down on top of the tables, but the smell of baking bread feels like a welcome.

Click here to pre-order Paris in Love: A Memoir.

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