Americans in Paris, or, Are we having fun yet?
I WENT, I suppose, because it was Paris, and who ever turned down Paris even if it meant going with Mom and Dad? Even if it meant going with Mom and Dad, two sisters and a brother-in-law. I mean, I was over 30. I had already done France as a foreign exchange student, which was like doing Bergdorf's as a bag lady. I had even managed a business trip when my life later attained a certain yuppie quotient. But I had never done Paris the right way - with a friend and with a tabula rasa for a credit card balance.
``Paris? In April? How fabulous!'' friends gushed at my impending travels. So great was their enthusiasm, nay envy, that I couldn't bear to bring up what was rapidly becoming the trip's most salient fact: I was going to Paris as an au pair to my parents - two English-only speakers whose idea of a vacation was the annual car tour of the Great American West.
On this Parisian foray, I was elected tour guide by virtue of my linguistic prowess, a facility that was, truth to tell, about as de facto as you could get. My dad had only left America to attend the Korean war and mom had exhausted her quiche and croissant vocabulary some magazine subscriptions ago.
Plus, I must confess, they bribed me: free food and lodging for the entire 10 days if I came along as translator-in-residence. The Paris dream vacation would have to wait. Three weeks to the day, I was barreling down the autoroute in a rented Renault, squashed between siblings and could you get that Filofax out of my ribs and on your side of the car? Plus ,ca change, I thought.
It wasn't that Paris got the best of us right away. No, the daylong drive from Amsterdam to Paris was as merry as any French 101. Cries of ``What's the word for...'' and ``How do you say...'' filled the car, barely straining my Cook's tour credibility.
Besides, I was feeling real warmth for our intrepid group - a flush of camaraderie that was compounded whenever my dad snapped his credit card to a counter and waved off my feeble attempts to help out with the tip. Perhaps plus ,ca did change.
But our first night in Paris found our conjured bonhomie beginning to crack. It's tempting to blame transatlantic travel arrangements and Parisian hoteliers - ``Non, non, monsieur, we nevair received a deposit'' - for laying to waste our Emily Post politesse. It's even more tempting to blame a too-long tradition of those family car trips. But it was most tempting to blame Paris itself - its silken sophistication, its icy populace, its confounded language.
All heads swiveled in my direction at the first sign of trouble at the registration desk. I was beckoned to the tribunal. Everyone smiled expectantly and Dad looked as if he had just played his trump card. I smiled wanly, unclenched the credit card from his hand, and plunged in. As it turned out, laws of economics mattered far more than my rusty command of the tongue. Dad's command of an impressive credit card was what ultimately held sway.
Still, we didn't get rooms overlooking the courtyard. And my ability to defend the group on foreign soil was shown to be a sham. Everyone was thrown on his own resources - tried and true methods of Getting What You Want When You Want It.
For example: One sister refused to remove her Walkman. Ever. She toured Versailles to the accompaniment of Parisian disc jockeys and dismissed Louis XIV as having a ``haircut that predates M"otley Cr"ue.'' Another sister, the Los Angeles one, asserted her independence by declining to eat anything made with butter, salt, or heavy cream. Her husband, the California native, spent the week bemoaning Paris's dearth of Mexican food and car dealerships.
``Just because it's France doesn't mean I have to love it,'' he said, giving Notre Dame a quick once-over before heading off for some nachos or '87 Citro"ens, whichever came first. Dad was busy rejecting any bistro not featuring oversize hot fudge sundaes, while Mom maintained that travel was a leisure activity and vetoed any outing that didn't include a taxi or other wheeled transport.
I, for no other reason than lack of alternatives, gamely clung to my schoolgirl French as our family's last hope. After all, I did speak enough to get into a museum, hail a cab, and buy things in better department stores. As a result, wherever I went, at least one family member was sure to follow. The Walkman sister accompanied me to the Mus'ee D'Orsay. The California twins came along on the Left Bank shopping expedition. Mom and Dad rallied for the taxi ride to Montmartre.
Unfortunately, my pidgin French simply buckled in the face of what was rapidly becoming our Waterloo - the We-Are-Not-Amused gar,cons encountered at every meal. Let's just say we began to eat a lot of what was pictured on menus. Which also tells you a lot about the restaurants we frequented.
After four days of room service and McDonald's, we did the only sensible thing - we fled.
As the gray spires of Paris yielded to the verdant rusticity of Normandy, we visibly relaxed. The man who had unearthed those hidden Colorado treasures years ago was back in charge. He had booked us into a ch^ateau that took tourists on just this kind of emergency basis. I couldn't have been happier.
Le Moulin de Connelles turned out to be an enormous half-timbered mansion in, oh who cared where, just so long as it wasn't Paris. And the landlady's welcome - a full flinging open of French doors and a torrent of accented but comprehensible English - so emboldened us that we booked a table for dinner.
The meal went swimmingly. With the murmur of French country voices all around us and the candlelight flickering across our faces, we regained our footing. Dad was recovering the gloss of the American Express cardholder. Mom was purring with the thought of several days' drive to come. Even the California kids gave in to the ris-de-veau glistening under a butter-rich Bordelaise. But it was the Walkman sister, now minus the earphones, who really put the starch back in our spine.
During the cheese and nut course she inserted a walnut in her nutcracker and began to lip-sync the half-opened shell to the tune of ``Gimme Shelter.'' She was just rounding the second verse when the nut exploded, sending shells sailing across the white linen hush of the dining room. The We-Are-Not-Amused swiveled in our direction. Too late. For once, we were too amused by our own family faux pas to be cowed by stern gazes and muttered criticism: ``Les Americains nevair know how to behave.''
They were right. We couldn't and it was great.