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We'll Always Have Paris
A Mother/Daughter Memoir
By JENNIFER COBURN
Sourcebooks, Inc. Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Coburn
All rights reserved.
"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. In twenty minutes, we will be landing at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris where the local time is now 7:10 a.m.," a calm disembodied voice announced. Then the flight attendant repeated the information in French. At least I assumed she was repeating the information. For all I knew, she could have been saying, "On our flight this morning is a clueless American mother and her eight-year-old daughter who is counting on her to navigate their ten-day stay in the City of Lights. Good luck with that."
I looked at my fellow passengers, noticing I was the only one awake in the cabin, which always seemed to be the case on these red-eye flights. William was back home in San Diego flossing his teeth. In a few minutes, he would look at the clock beside our bed and realize that Katie's and my flight was landing. Twenty seconds later, he would be snoring. As a lifelong insomniac, I try to remember that he isn't purposely taunting me when he goes from sixty to snooze in less than a minute. Still, there are times at night when I stare at him in amazement, wondering how he can let go of consciousness so easily.
I heard the clap of lifting window shades and watched light pour into the cabin like spotlights onto a stage. Good night, William, I thought. Good morning, Paris.
Katie can sleep through earthquakes, so neither the noise nor the plummeting descent of the plane bothered her. Her brown hair was still pressed into her Eeyore neck pillow, and her white Stride Rite sandals were nestled in the space between our seats. Katie didn't even seem to notice when the flight attendant abruptly pressed the button that snapped her seat into its upright position. My daughter's delicate eyebrows lifted quizzically; she shifted her position slightly and continued sleeping.
"Katie," I whispered. "We're landing in a moment. You need to wake up." She blinked open her bleary green eyes, trying to register who I was, where we were, and what I was saying. "We'll be in Paris in a few minutes," I said, wondering if I sounded as relaxed as I hoped I did.
As the plane continued to land, I felt a slow panic rising.
Katie yawned. "Are you excited, Mommy?"
"Oh yes, Katie. I'm very, very excited," I replied, imitating the voice of a yoga instructor. "And how are you?"
"Good," she chirped.
I resisted the urge to say anything else, lest Katie know how absolutely, positively freaked out I was.
Weeks before we left, I asked Katie if she was looking forward to our trip. "Do you understand how lucky we are to be going to Paris? I mean, do you get it?" She was just finishing up second grade, and her teacher was very focused on the students' comprehension of the words they read. So Katie brought Mrs. Lunsford's lesson home.
"Well, Paris is the capital of France, and people say I'm lucky to be going, so I know it's special, but since I've never been there, I don't really understand why it's so great." Katie scrunched her mouth to the side, pondering the tough question. "So I understand it, but I guess I don't get it."
* * *
On the ground, I cursed my friend Maxime for telling me that Katie and I should take the train from Charles de Gaulle Airport, then delve into the Paris Metro system to find our hotel. "Eet ees easy," he told me weeks earlier as we sat at the Souplantation in San Diego. Easy for him because he is, in fact, French.
"Deed you study the vocabulary words I gave you last week?" He looked disappointed when I told him I hadn't. Sure, he was encouraging, always telling me my accent was très magnifique, but the French are known for being rather finicky about foreigners speaking their language imperfectly. The prospect of speaking French on their home turf was more than a bit intimidating. Maxime assured me that if I just gave it a try, they would appreciate my effort. "So," he continued, "all you know how to say ees what?"
"Hello, please, and thank you."
My friend sighed. "A writer with no words." Maxime began scribbling on a piece of paper. Writing the French words for "I have" and "I am," he begged me to try harder. He handed me a phrase book, which covered all of the basics, such as how to ask for directions, prices, and food. There was also a page on flirting. Here I was, a happily married mother on the cusp of middle age with an eight-year-old in tow. I hardly thought I'd need to know how to accept a man's dinner invitation. Still, I was charmed by the idea that pick-up lines were considered essential phrases in French. "How long will you be staying in Paris?" I read in French to my friend.
"Ooh la la," he said, raising his eyebrows. "You have a knack for languages," he told me.
"How can you say that? I only speak English," I reminded Maxime.
"I am a French teacher. I can tell when someone has the ear."
Weeks later, with my suitcase stuck in the Metro turnstile, I panicked. Katie tried to pull the case through, an effort that promptly left her on her behind. I remembered Maxime's notes in my purse and vaguely recalled that some words, like "problem," just needed a French accent to translate. "Please," I called out in French, "Je suis un problème." A group of maintenance men began laughing and rushed over to help. One smiled gently and corrected me. Apparently, in my haste, I'd mixed the phrases and announced to the commuters not that I have a problem, but that I am one. Was it possible to have a Freudian slip in a foreign language?
Katie and I exited the station and stood on the grim-looking sidewalk. With a steely ceiling of overcast, this was not the Paris I had envisioned. People rushed past us, mainly tourists with maps in hand and a few locals heading to work. No one wore a beret; no one was painting at an easel. I knew it was naïve to expect such a threshold into Paris, but I'd hoped for something a bit more visually appealing.
I stood frozen, staring at my map without a clue of which direction to walk. An elderly woman wearing a floral scarf on her head noticed that Katie and I looked lost and stopped to ask if we needed help. I shot her a pathetic look and handed her a piece of paper with the address of our hotel written on it. She grabbed my hand and patted it. "Ees close. I take you there." I heard my mother's voice warning me not to fall prey to kidnappers who would sell Katie and me into slavery, but I was pretty certain we could outrun this woman. My eyes darted in search of vans with blackened windows, but I saw none. Three blocks later, she delivered us to our hotel, kissed both of my cheeks and pinched Katie's. She said something to us in French that sounded warm and buttery.
"Mrs. Poltorak told me that French people were snooty, but I think they're really nice," Katie said, recalling the student at the airport who helped us buy train tickets and the father who commanded his sons to carry our suitcases up the Metro steps.
This was one of the many reasons I brought Katie overseas. I wanted her to experience different places and people and make her own assessments. I mentally checked the box with this life lesson jotted beside it. We had been in France for less than two hours and already my child had learned something: don't listen to Mrs. Poltorak.
I also felt that taking Katie abroad young would give her greater confidence to travel on her own someday. When my friend Laura invited me to visit her in Rome for a month during summer break in high school, I declined. The language was different. I didn't understand the money exchange. It seemed overwhelming. If Katie started traveling young, she wouldn't find international travel intimidating. She would never doubt her ability to navigate her way through the world the way I still did.
The concierge at our hotel told me that our room was not ready yet and asked if we could return in an hour. My body felt like it was midnight, and yet the clock on the wall insisted it was nine in the morning. Okay. I steeled myself. One more hour. Sixty more minutes and then even I would have no problem falling asleep. Katie shrugged and said she was fine. She'd slept on the plane and only felt "a little floopy." I, on the other hand, hadn't slept a minute, and I felt as though I had been whacked on the head with a brick and the ground had transformed into a giant waterbed.
Soon Katie and I were seated at a small, round table in a café with textured black and mocha striped wallpaper and funky hot pink chandeliers. Small black-and-white photos with gold rococo frames graced the walls with an unevenly chic flair. A bored brunette wearing capri pants and five-inch stilettos handed us menus, saying nothing. Her pouty lips conveyed that she hoped to be Europe's next supermodel, but until then she would deign to serve coffee.
"What does this mean?" Katie asked, pointing to the menu. It was a picture of a coffee mug with steam coming off the top. Beside the image were French words, including chocolat. I confidently announced that it was hot chocolate and suggested we each have one and share a croissant. Inside, though, a certain reality sunk in: this child trusted that I knew what I was doing. She thought I understood what things meant and how they worked. I was the adult here. That couldn't be good.
Desperately wanting to assure Katie that I was in control of the situation, I boldly thanked our coltish server. "Merci, mademoiselle," I said as she set down our cups.
Fuck you, appeared to be her reply. Body language always translates perfectly.
Twenty minutes later, I got my second dose of reality. Katie and I walked to the Tuileries Gardens and spotted a Ferris wheel. Taking a ride seemed like a fun, carefree thing to do, but it had the opposite effect on me. As the cart rose, the Eiffel Tower came into view. I gasped, not with joy, but sheer terror. This was not a photo of the Eiffel Tower; it was the real deal. We were unquestionably, undeniably, irreversibly in Paris. What had I done?
What did you think was going to happen when you got on a plane to Paris? Of course the Eiffel Tower is here; of course the menus are in French. What part of this is unexpected?
By the time Katie and I arrived back at our hotel, it was two in the morning San Diego time. On the way from the café, I managed to get thoroughly lost, and our grandmotherly guide was nowhere to be found. When we finally arrived at the hotel, we rode up a small elevator, and I held onto the wall for balance. The bellman opened our door, showed us in, and I promptly ran to the toilet and vomited, then collapsed on the bathroom floor. As I was throwing up, I worried that the bellman was annoyed that I hadn't tipped.
Katie rubbed my back and suggested that we take a nap. My eyes were filled with tears and my nose was running from the violent return of breakfast. Feeling the cool tiles of the bathroom floor pressed against my cheek, I hoped to God that the maid service was thorough. "It's going to be okay, Mommy," Katie offered. "I have a good feeling about this trip. I know we're going to have a lot of fun."
She smiled and nodded.
"Based on this?"
* * *
I used to comfort my mother in the same way when we were living in a studio apartment in Greenwich Village in the seventies. My parents, Carol and Shelly, had the most amicable split in the history of divorce. Even after their break-up, my father drove my mother to events in whatever five-hundred-dollar car he owned at the moment. My favorites were the tomato red Ford Pinto that demanded chilled water every few hours and the mustard yellow AMC Gremlin with cardboard floor mats. He named the first vehicle Princess Ragu, which was also his pet name for my mother because of her highbrow aspirations. In turn, my mother tolerated him bathing in our tub when the water was shut off in whatever shithole apartment he was currently renting.
As my mother describes it, during their brief marriage, my dad just wanted to get high, stare at the fish tank, and have rambling philosophical conversations with other musicians. My mother, on the other hand, wanted to go to the ballet, finish her degree at NYU, and put down wall-to-wall carpet. Each confided in me that the other was a genuinely good person, but a little bit crazy. Both were right.
Though my mother landed a secretarial job almost immediately after the divorce, the move to our new apartment left her short on funds. She always said that if my father had a million dollars, he'd give us $950,000 of it, then blow his fifty grand on drugs. The problem was that my father never had more than a thousand dollars to his name, and my mother was worried about the rent. After I'd go to bed, I could hear her weeping at the kitchen table. At the sight of her six-year-old daughter, my mother stifled her tears, embarrassed she had been caught. "Don't worry, Mommy," I told her. "I'm going to help." Far from comforting her, my declaration only made her feel worse, though at the time I couldn't understand why.
The next day, I set out a blanket in front of the Quad Cinema across the street from our apartment building and sold everything I deemed unnecessary in our home. I got a dime for a copy of The Stepford Wives, fifty cents for our salt and pepper shakers, and three dollars for a pair of my mother's leather boots. I sold half-filled bottles of alcohol to the three winos who lived in the doorway across the street. A nice woman discreetly advised me against selling my mother's diaphragm.
My mother quietly accepted the money I earned, but the effects echoed through our apartment for months as she would notice things missing. "Where are the ..." she would begin to ask before remembering that I had sold the teacups. It was years before we ever had a full set of dishes. It was even longer before I witnessed her shed a tear again.
The week after my gypsy garage sale, basking in oblivious pride, I informed my mother that I had earned forty dollars selling raffle tickets in our building. "Jennifer, honey," my mother said tentatively, "what kind of prize are you planning to give away for this raffle?" When I looked at her quizzically, she explained that I couldn't just sell raffle tickets. There needed to be a drawing and a prize as well. I assured her she was wrong; no one had asked a thing about a prize. She insisted we go to the five-and-dime, buy a glass figurine, and give it to someone who had purchased a ticket. Since there were no ticket stubs, I had to draw from memory. We delivered a frosted glass swan to the guys in apartment 2G.
The following week, my mother and I were walking through Times Square when I noticed a skeletal black man in a green fedora engaging a crowd. A dozen people gathered around his table fashioned from a cardboard box, watching his fluid hands move three cards around the surface. The cards, all face down, were switched from one spot to the next and then another. The man's voice was hypnotic, promising that players who kept track of the queen of hearts would win fifty dollars. It looked so easy. The payoff was huge. "Let's play!" I urged my mother who held my hand tight.
"No one ever wins that game," my mother explained. "At the end of the day, that guy walks off with everyone's money."
I turned to her eagerly. "Then let's watch how he does it!"
"We're going to be late," my mother clipped and quickened her pace. As we turned the corner, she smiled brightly. "Did I mention that I got a raise at work?"
"Yes, a very big raise, so I've got us covered from here."
* * *
Katie and I woke up fresh and ready to take on Paris. Unfortunately it was 11:00 p.m. We went downstairs to get dinner, but because we had been so lost earlier, my confidence was low. I was determined to stay within a block of our hotel. On the street corner, a woman who looked to be at least a thousand years old with a humped back greeted Katie and me. Her chin sprouted hair and her nose looked like a pickle. She wore a black hooded cape and held out knobby fingers that were made for delivering poisoned apples. I had no idea what she was saying, but she was clearly begging for money. She was telling her story with dramatic flair, her voice fluctuating brilliantly for effect. She wept; she beat her own chest.
I wondered where her breaking point was. Had she been born into the life of a street urchin and never managed to escape? Or did she once live on a quiet street and host ladies' bridge games? What went wrong? My heart beat faster with the realization that most of us were a few strokes of bum luck away from her fate. This woman was a few bad weeks away from the grave.
"Give her some money," Katie said, breaking my trance. "Stop staring and give her some money."
"Oh, right, of course," I jolted, then reached for my wallet.
The old woman thanked us with even more drama. She beat her chest again and moaned with gratitude.
After a few steps, Katie broke the silence. "That was really sad."
Excerpted from We'll Always Have Paris by JENNIFER COBURN. Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Coburn. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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