Paris in the spring. Such delicious words, for so many reasons: radiant flowers; Monet; mouth-watering pain au chocolat; moonlit walks along the Seine. It's the stuff of dreams, life in the City of Lights. But you could have all of that, and a Paris vacation - for me - would still not be a Paris vacation without Madame Brion.
Who? Don't bother to open your Fodor's, because Madame Brion isn't in there. She is not a 19th-century novelist whose home is now a museum, nor is she the subject of the latest retrospective at the Grand Palais. Madame Brion is simply the kindest, most loving, sweetest, hippest woman I have ever met. [Note to editor: Please delete that last sentence in the copies of the paper delivered to my mother, grandmother, and wife.]
Madame Brion is married to Prof. Serge Brion, and together they live in a cozy two-floor apartment on Rue Lafontaine in Paris's 16th arrondissement. Madame Brion has two sons, one daughter, four grandchildren, and countless nieces and nephews. She cooks a steak, escarole, and pomme-frites (French fries) dinner that is to die for.
She loves bridge and takes art classes at the Louvre. She dresses chic, loves dogs, and will gladly let somebody she has just met stay for free in her apartment's service quarters, so long as he or she really needs the place - even if it's for four years. (She did this.)
I got to know Madame Brion 10 years ago in college, when I lived with her and her husband from January through May during a semester abroad. Our meeting wasn't a fluke. A classmate had studied in Paris the year before and had stayed with the Brions. He told me that the most important thing I had to do in making my plans to study abroad was to secure living quarters with the Brions.
I'LL never forget when we first met. It was the middle of January, about 9 o'clock on a typical Parisian winter morning - cold, foggy, drizzling. I and about 30 other students had landed at Charles de Gaulle airport at 7:30. After a bus ride into the city, we were in front of a hotel being paired up with our new host families.
"Richard Lipsey!" a voice yelled. "Your mother is here." Groggy and lugging my overstuffed backpack and suitcase, I stumbled over.
"Bonjour, Richard," said Madame Brion. "Allez-y, allez-y!" (Let's go!)
Next thing I knew, we were in her itty-bitty dark-blue Renault weaving through Paris, speaking French, and acting as if we'd been friends for years. After arriving at the apartment, Madame Brion led me up to my room, which was immaculate.
I slept for a while, and then got up and sheepishly walked downstairs. Madame Brion was patiently seated on the living-room couch, waiting for me. We went into the kitchen, and over a steaming beverage and baguettes, chatted for an hour.
Madame Brion and the professor took me in as if I were one of their own. They gave me the run of the house, even the phone. (Several of my friends lived with families that put locks on the phones.) The Brions included me in family gatherings, let me walk the dogs, and stayed up late talking with me about everything from "Little House on the Prairie" (Madame's favorite TV show) to Franco-American relations. They even let me use their ski house in Val d'Isere in the French Alps. All of this seemed extraordinary at the time, but I have since learned that it was par for the course.
My wife and I now visit Paris every couple of years, and we always spend an evening with the Brions. Our latest visit was last month. When we arrived, Madame Brion put her arms out and hugged both me and my wife at once. Her warmth was palpable, but what was funny was that it felt as if I had never left. Madame and professor looked as hale as ever, and I whiffed the sweet aroma of escarole cooking. We spoke French, and, to my pleasant surprise, I could still carry on a conversation without stumbling. What's more, the house hadn't changed an iota.
Joining us for dinner was Fabrice, one of the Brions' sons. He had lived in the bedroom adjacent to mine and was now a physician. There was also an American student, Justin, a junior in college. He spoke glowingly about his stay with the Brions.
"Such kindness," he said.
"Wow, are you fortunate to live here," I said.
"You bet," he replied.
Since my stay chez Brion, every semester, including summer sessions, Madame Brion has invited an American student (sometimes two) to live with her and her husband. Unlike many families in Paris, the Brions don't host for the money.
They do it, Madame Brion says, "because we like to share."
The affection is mutual. After dinner, we moved to the living room, and Madame pulled out a scrapbook. It was a big leather tome filled with memorabilia given to her during and after their stays by the students she has hosted. I was in awe. Every student guest had a few pages devoted to him or her. The mementoes included pictures, postcards, holiday cards, letters, even wedding and birth announcements.
One student had written a page-long poem of gratitude. Another had written a song, which she'd sung to the Brions on the day of her departure. Another had made a mock front page of a newspaper, declaring that the Brions were the best family in Paris.
Sadly, Madame said that Justin will be the last student they will host, at least for a while. "Professor and I need a break," she said. "We would like to take a rest, travel, maybe even go to New York."
WITH the time nearing midnight, my wife and I said we needed to go. Our flight home was scheduled to leave early the next morning.
"Wait," said Madame Brion, who signaled to the professor to get the car keys.
"Oh no; we'll take a taxi," I said.
"No chance," she said with a smile only a grandmother could have. "We will drive."
With the professor at the wheel and Madame at his side, my wife and I were chauffeured to our hotel in the Latin Quarter. The Brions had made the same kind gesture the last time we'd visited.
"Same hotel?" Madame Brion asked.
"Bien sr," I said.
Paris at night is spectacular, a real-life movie. But on this tour I had mixed emotions. I was thrilled by the illuminated sights - the Eiffel Tour, the Louvre, the Place de la Concorde. But I was also sad, knowing that there would be too many nights until our next evening with the Brions. When we arrived at the hotel, it was eerily quiet outside. The city was asleep.
We all got out of the car, hugged, and said our goodbyes. At dinner, my wife had told Madame that we had been invited to a wedding in the south of France in September, but that we were not sure if we would come back to France so soon.
"I expect to see you this fall," Madame Brion told us as we we stood outside the car. "You will stop in Paris on your trip and stay with us."
Suddenly, I was smiling wide. Madame Brion will have a couple of students at her home next semester after all.