“I hate Paris. There’s nothing to do and everyone smokes.” Sorry words from my first-born’s lips mingled with tears of frustration and disappointment. Suddenly Paris in December at the brink of the new Millennium seemed like the wrong place to be.
“Joey and Hannah’s parents took them to Disneyland for Christmas and we’re stuck here!” Stunned and remorseful, I grappled with the realization that my beloved regal city of romance and light, had let me down.
Both girls were in disconsolate accordance. A ride on Pirates of the Caribbean was far more enchanting than a walk down the Champs Elysees, which according to my younger daughter, is merely a wide street with lots of people and McDonalds.
It was a journey planned with joy and care, so exhilarating was the prospect of laying the splendor of Paris at the feet of my two adolescent girls! Unfortunately, their feet were too cold and wet to enjoy any of it.
The flight from LAX to Charles de Gaulle Airport went mercifully well, thanks to the brilliance of being able to exchange mileage for business class seats. I was grateful to be able to recline sufficiently for sleep, in a position that did not require immediate chiropractic attention upon arrival. In retrospect, the plane ride to Paris was the highlight of our vacation, for the normally pedestrian task of getting to our hotel marked the beginning of a nightmarish experience we always refer to as “Our Escape From Paris”.
We were painstakingly shuffling forward towards the front of the taxi line, hatted, gloved, defending ourselves against what can only be described as an eyeball-stinging frozen fog.
“I’m too cold, mommy.”
“I know. Aren’t you glad I brought your long underwear?”
Eavesdropping upon the conversation in front of us, I learned that the whole of France was bracing for the predicted and imminent storm of the century, La Tempete. Distracted and relieved that my children did not understand a word of French, we were hustled towards Raoul, the driver, and his car.
Angry words between Raoul and Monsieur LeGrand, the Taxi Concierge, attracted the attention of everyone in line.
My husband turned cranky and demanded translation. “What the fuck is going on? Should have arranged for a car.”
As Raoul attempted to cram our four very conservatively sized roll-ons into the smallish trunk of his smallish car, he furiously gesticulated and complained that he was required by law to transport a maximum of three passengers and no more.
“One may occupy the front seat”, suggested Monsieur LeGrand, the Taxi Concierge, at which point my gaze alighted upon a passenger seat piled high with lunch wrappers, newspapers, fingerless gloves, maps and gum.
“Ooh, la la!” Raoul’s blood pressure was rising. “S’il vous plait, Madame.” He swatted the pile onto the floor and held the door for me while my husband and the girls nestled into the back seat, satisfied with the outcome.
Let the magic pilgrimage begin…or not.
“Where do you going?” he asked.
With great pride, in halting but well-articulated French I conveyed our intended destination, “Hotel Intercontinental, Rue de Rivoli, Paris.” The tantrum this news provoked was prodigious, magnificent, decisive.
“Le centre de Paris, impossible!” No translation was necessary. With one dismissive flick of the wrist the trunk was popped and our luggage was ejected from the vehicle along with an invitation for us to alight as well. Big storm coming, won’t drive to the center of Paris at rush hour, no snow tires, blah blah blah.
At that very moment, as my husband was getting ready to punch this guy’s lights out, Monsieur LeGrand secured another vehicle for us, stowed our bags and whisked us into a spacious Mercedes sedan with room enough for four in the back.
“I get nauseous in Mercedes”, declared my youngest.
I begged her, “Try not to throw up until we get to Paris!”
Do women still have nervous breakdowns?
WELCOME TO PARIS
The Hotel Intercontinental on the Rue de Rivoli is perfectly situated, a short stroll or metro ride away from everything I love in Paris. As the bellman showed us to our adjoining rooms, he informed us of the rather unfortunate timing of our arrival. This is what we learned in the time it took us to get from the elevator to rooms 4001 and 4002:
1. Most Parisians go on vacation the week between Christmas and the New Year. The hotel is currently understaffed by thirty per cent and the number is expected to rise, as workers who live outside of the city, try to get home to their families before the big storm.
2. Preparations for the Millennium celebration on New Year’s Eve have pilfered whatever remains of the Parisian workforce, trains and buses are running on reduced schedules and many businesses are simply closed.
3. No dry cleaning or laundry service is available at the moment and delivery time for room service is approximately two hours.
“Oh!” I beckoned, “Come see our charming terrace overlooking the Tuileries.” As I lifted the ornate brass door handles to step out onto the balcony, a ferocious gust of wind tore the doors wide open and I was pelted with bits of debris mixed with hail.
“Oh, my God, mom, shut the doors!”
This was some serious weather. If it were summertime in Key West, Florida, it would be called a hurricane.
“Well, let’s go out and grab a bite before it gets worse.”
Anxious to dispel the aura of gloom hanging over us and to display my knowledge of local cuisine, we headed out on foot to a time-honored bistro highly recommended by Patricia Wells in her Food Lovers Guide to Paris.
“Why couldn’t we just order room service?”
“Because it takes two hours.”
“Can’t we take a cab?”
“What’s there for us to eat?”
“Don’t know. I’m sure you’ll find something. Duh, we’re in Paris.”
Water was leaking into my shoes. Our umbrellas were turned inside-out and rendered useless and I wished that I had bought us all raincoats with hoods and zip-out linings. Our woolen coats were beginning to smell like country dogs.
“It’s right around the corner.” I promised and prayed.
Standing dumb-struck in front of the darkened restaurant, dripping like wax off candles, we read the sign in the window. HAPPY NEW YEAR. SEE YOU IN THE NEXT MILLENNIUM.
Headlines were flashing across my forehead. “Christmas ’99…Family Perishes From Starvation and Hypothermia on the Streets Of Paris!”
My husband came to the rescue. “Across the street. That café’s open. Can I interest anyone in steak frites?”
Day two began with a glimmer of hope. Oh, Paris, if we could savor but a morsel of your resplendence, mommy would be spared the guillotine. With this in mind, I led my family directly to Laduree, on the Rue Royale.
Never has a baker produced a flakier, more exquisite croissant. And beware of café au lait so potent, it causes one to make brash statements such as, “I want to do the Louvre, see Notre Dame, climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and after lunch…”
I was now feeling more confident in my ability to mastermind a great day in Paris. First it was off to a charming area known as the Marais, and the Picasso Museum. Upon entering the museum, my oldest daughter dropped herself across a bench and asked to be collected on our way out. From this I deduced that the coin and medallion collection at the Musee de Monnaie should most likely be scratched off the itinerary and replaced with a shopping excursion to my favorite department store, Printemps.
Happiness prevailed, but alas, it was fleeting. For shopping is great until you have to schlep the shopping bags, swinging and banging against hips and slipping off aching shoulders.
But we had made some glorious purchases and just in the nick of time according to our stomachs, we went happily swinging and banging our way across the threshold of my beloved Café Aux Deux Magots.
Staking claim to a brilliant piece of real estate, Deux Magots is much more than a purveyor of food and drink. I do vehemently opine, that the sandwich jambon served here goes far beyond the expectation of a ham sandwich. In fact, it is almost not a ham sandwich at all. The complex texture of the baguette, the most delicate slivers of rosy pink ham, bonded together by a silky swath of sweet butter, defy comparison.
A coveted seat on the glass-enclosed terrace across from the oldest surviving abbey church in Paris (St. Germain-des-Pres, 1050 A.D.), well, this is my Heaven on Earth.
I wasn’t asking for a miracle or a huge slice of Heaven that day. It was more akin to a dog waiting for his master to throw him a bone.
“Monsieur, we can seat you within an hour.”
Not comforting news. “Can we sit on the terrace?”
“Sir, it is raining on the terrace.”
Cigarette smoke swirled around our faces. Diners sitting shoulder to shoulder blew puffs of noxious vapors which mixed with the odor of grilling beef and wet outer garments.
“Daddy, I’d be happier with a pizza.”
This triggered a hasty departure and a desperate search for a pizza parlor on the Left Bank.
MUSEE DU LOUVRE
Our bellies filled with mozzarella and I declared, “One last activity on our agenda today, kids!” There was a rolling of eyes but I remained convincingly upbeat.
I purposefully ignored the whining prompted by the relentless winds plastering hair sideways across our cheeks. On a sunny day in June, the leisurely stroll across the Jardin des Tuileries (laid out by Louis XIV’s royal gardener, Andre le Notre), through the Arc de Triomphe du Carousel, and on into the Musee du Louvre, is masterful. First constructed as a fortress in 1190 by King Philippe Auguste to protect Paris against Viking raids, today’s site is the cumulative result of four centuries of expansion by French rulers.
During the reign of Francois I (1515-1547) many of the Italian paintings we treasure today were purchased, including the Mona Lisa (La Giaconda).
“If we are going to see more paintings, I’d rather go back to the hotel and play Nintendo!”
“No paintings, my darling. No Da Vinci, no Rembrandt, no Goya, no Fragonard. We are about to visit the private apartments of the Emperor Napoleon III.”
“Oh, way cool!”
Like pilgrims being catapulted towards mecca, we clutched our bags and sought refuge inside the main entrance to the musee, the I.M. Pei Pyramid. Down the escalator we went, shaking off the moisture, unraveling scarves, until we came unexpectedly up against the barrier. Holiday hours were sabotaging our holiday.
A very petite French girl in a museum jacket scrunched her eyebrows together and assumed an air of sincere apology. “Sorry to say, Madame, the museum closed fifteen minutes ago.”
When in France, one should be allowed to choose between the guillotine and being burned at the stake.
That night we let the children rack up one hundred dollars in Nintendo charges and we ordered room service at six, which arrived at seven-thirty, ahead of schedule. At ten p.m. we noticed a significant increase in the wind. According to the news, roofs were being blown off farmhouses and the Seine was overflowing its banks. At eleven p.m. there was a knock at the door.
“Housekeeping!” We were advised to secure the doors to the terrace and close the drapes to guard against breaking glass.
One a.m. found the four of us in the same bed. While the gale was hurling gargoyles from the flying buttresses of Notre Dame Cathedral, bits of masonry went crashing through windshields on the street below, setting off car alarms. As day broke we peeked through the drapes and were horrified to discover that the ancient trees across the boulevard in the Jardin des Tuileries, were lying on their sides, like fallen soldiers.
My husband was on the phone, orchestrating our departure. With a sense of urgency we did not question, he instructed us. “Pack up your stuff right away. We need to get out of here.”
We brushed our teeth, pulled sweats on over our long-johns and were in a taxi dodging tree limbs, shards of brick and stone, careening towards the Gare du Nord within ten minutes.
“There is only one Eurostar leaving Paris today and if we’re not on it, we don’t get to London. And if we don’t get to London, we don’t fly home tomorrow.”
Everyone was talking about the fury of “La Tempete”.
I had never left Paris before this trip, without feeling like I was being torn from the bosom of my mother. Once home, just looking at the photos could send me into a Francophile depression. It was like being weaned from the milk of Life. Going cold-turkey, condemned to wander aimlessly through the Century City Mall, yearning for cobblestones and chocolates.
We pulled down the jumpseats in our London taxi and our turbaned, expansively gracious, smiling driver from New Dehli asked, “So where are you stylish young Americans coming from?”
In unison we replied, “Paris” and it sounded like that was a bad thing. Raju folded his hands in front of his heart. “Welcome back to civilization.”