A taxi ride with a snobbish driver, playing in a fountain on a hot day, buying beautiful paper, and my sister lost on the Eiffel Tower. My first trip to Paris.
As an adolescent, my family lived in Brussels, Belgium for several years; we had adventures most Americans don’t experience till adulthood. My parents knew of our fortune and took the time to haul us kids to every major city, and as many countries as they could. I was too young to understand this was exotic and glorious. At the time, it just felt like another long ride in a minivan full of kids. Oh wait, it WAS a lot of rides in a minivan (a 1993 Espace) full of kids. In fact, it was this van:
Even through the impossible to impress lens of adolescence, I remember Paris was special. For starters, it’s not that far from Brussels so by the time we climbed out the minivan, our nerves weren’t stretched to breaking. We’d already lived in Brussels for long enough that I was mostly fluent in French (it’s so much easier to learn languages when you’re young), I wanted to be turned loose and let to explore Paris by myself.
See, my dad’s idea of a ‘good time’ in a new city is to walk. And walk. And walk. Stare at old buildings, stop so he could get the perfect picture of oft photographed monuments, start walking again. My dad walks with a steady, brisk gate (with a little more bounce than saunter), he takes little notice of those around him. Looking back, I’ve decided my mom should be sainted for keeping up with him with SIX KIDS. To my mind as a child, it was just boring. (Let me confess now that the last time I was in Paris I walked. And walked. And walked. I would stop to stare at old buildings, taking my own version of common photographs, and started walking again. And it was awesome.)
Paris was hot. They were having an unusual heat wave and there was no way to find refuge from the heat. If you ducked into a store hoping for the AC, you were disappointed. Most places don’t have AC, store insides were even hotter and muggier than the outside.
This day was over 20 years ago so you’ll have to pardon that I can’t remember the exact sequence of everything, but I remember walking down this path in a park, feeling the cool shade of the trees.
It was still early in the day when we saw this fountain, full of partially dressed children. I don’t remember a time when this could have happened in the States, that people would allow children to play on a historical monument or that city officials would stand by smiling while citizens jumped into a fountain. My siblings and I kicked off our shoes and joined in. (Adolescents are a funny mix of adult sophistication and innately playful child- it would be years before I grew into become the type to stand by the fountain and watch). Searching online for pics of Parisian fountains, I recognized this as the one we played in:
(I know my dad has a picture of us in the fountain, but I was wearing denim overalls so I didn't try too hard to locate that pic...)
Getting back to our walk, letting our clothes dry in the heat, we trod through common tourist areas. Though I don’t know the districts we were in, souvenir stands crammed the side walks, vendors calling hello to us awkward, still slightly damp, Americans. I was walking next to my dad, in conversation we had put our arms around each other to best hear one another and not get separated in the crowd. One rather persistent street artist stopped us, offering to do a charcoal drawing of us together or of me alone. My French was pretty solid by then but it was confusing, he referred to me as ‘the lady,’ and ‘your love,’ and I thought I was misunderstanding him- I mean, I was with my dad. Walking away from him, I thought over his words, trying to puzzle what he said. “Um dad, what was that guy saying…”
He explained, “You don’t look like a teenager, and it’s France.” (It was years before I connected the dots about that one!)
My parents well understood the thrill of looking over the pretty keepsakes at souvenir stands and usually let us pick out something small from cities. There were miniature Eiffel towers, small fancy pill boxes I loved collecting, cheap scarves to give touring women a dash of French je ne sais quois, and my favorite, stationery paper. Small sets of envelopes with matching sheets of paper, sometimes with stickers to seal the envelope. I chose a set of light blue paper with a border of Monet’s Water Lilies. I hoarded that paper and sent only the most special of notes on it to those dearest in my life. I think the last letter I sent on that stationery was when I was a senior in high school.
Somehow, I convinced my parents to let me explore Paris alone for a bit. I’m serious. I was 13 or 14 years old and struck off on my own in a foreign city. In defense of all of us, it was a different time, children had more freedom, and I was excessively responsible. I’m sure I was also persistent as heck about wanting to be alone (and not much has changed into adulthood). We set a meeting point and time, and I headed off toward my own adventure. I wish I could remember where I went or what I did, I only remember the cab ride back to our rendezvous. Taking a taxi seemed an easier choice for me to handle on my own, and I had the franc for it (ah yes, the franc, those days before the Euro! It was about six franc to the dollar and my pocket full of coins felt like true wealth). Sliding into the cab, I gave the address: street number 75 in my near flawless Belgian French accent (but I can’t remember the street name!). “Je suis désolé mademoiselle, mais je ne parle pas Americanne.” I’m sorry miss, but I don’t speak American.
What?! Really?? I said “75” again, slowly in English, he nodded and zipped into Parisian traffic. Apparently he did speak American, just not Belgian-French. It was another thing that took years to make sense of. Belgian French uses slightly different vocabulary to say numbers, couple that with some old fashioned defensiveness about the purity of their language, and my Belge rhythm with “wrong” numbers was a much worse offense than just speaking English. If I were in Paris today I’m sure I could get by in simple conversation but I’d fumble the numbers, I never quite got the hang of how to say 70-something in French.
After dinner, we set off for the Parisian experience we saved for last- a climb of the Tour Eiffel. There were elevators to take to the top but my parents like AUTHENTIC ADVENTURES. Dad and I had recently raced up the steps of Waterloo and this looked like the perfect place for that same challenge. Just one level in and I was huffing and puffing- I have no idea how my dad kept up with me. I’m now about the age he was then and trust me, I’m not about to race up the Eiffel Tower. We took in the view, oohed and awed as much as a bunch of people afraid of heights could enjoy being up so high, and headed back down. Half a flight down, my parents stopped me, “Where’s your sister?” Uh….good question. Where indeed? My six year old sister was somehow separated from us in the crowd. (Thinking back on that, I would be in a red hot panic if my six year old was out of sight…but don’t forget this was back in a time a 13 year old spent time in Paris alone and we were all cool with it. ) My sister was- and still is- a very high spirited person. “Go find your sister, we’ll wait on the next level below. So I went back up, ran around the level we were on, didn’t find her, and ran back down. “Is Rachel here?” “Nope, she didn’t make it back down, go back up and keep looking.” I was young, but running up and down the steps of the Tour is tiring for anyone. Up to the level we were on, passed it, and kept going up further. “Rachel? Rachel?” Nope. Ok, I went back to check in with my parents, down two levels and I saw her on the last step, hopping down and running to mom and dad. “Where were you??”
“I don’t know, where were you?” (ok Rachel, we’re all adults now…where were you??)
Gathered up, we walked down the last flight and started the long walk back to our car. Past the Seine, old cathedrals, through a corner park, I was tired. I’m sure we were all tired. When we were almost at the car, my younger brother, old soul that he is, said to our dad “Well, thanks for taking us to Paris. It was a great experience but I’m sure we’ll all forget it someday.”
And perhaps, just because he said that, we’ve never forgotten our first day in Paris.