When the City of Ro­mance fails to live up to its name.

Two Paris trips. 20 years apart. One irk­some quirk.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY MARY NOVARIA travel@wash­post.com Novaria is a Los An­ge­les-based writer. Her web­site is maryno­varia.com. Find her on Twit­ter: @MaryNo­varia.

The first time I went to Paris, I was a new­ly­wed. The last time, I was a mother. Both times, I was dis­abused of any no­tion that Paris is the most ro­man­tic city on earth.

When my hus­band John and I went to Paris two years into our mar­riage, I thought it would be like a “real” hon­ey­moon, our first hav­ing been just two gray days in Chicago.

For weeks lead­ing up to our de­par­ture, I hummed a cal­liope of French movie themes while slow-mo­tion im­ages flick­ered through my mind: John and I strolling hand-in-hand along the Seine . . . gaz­ing into each other’s eyes, whis­per­ing “je t’aime” over ro­man­tic din­ners in can­dlelit bistros . . . sip­ping cham­pagne atop the Eif­fel Tower as the sun set and the city lights twin­kled be­low.

In ev­ery scene, I wore a lit­tle black dress. My lips were pouty, plump and red, and my hair was swept into an el­e­gant chignon. I weighed 15 pounds less and glided down the Champs-El­y­sees in an ethe­real cloud of Chanel No. 5.

I awoke from my rev­erie when re­al­ity whacked the nee­dle on the imag­i­nary record player in my head. The theme from “A Man and a Woman” scratched to an abrupt halt and my fan­tasy film snapped and flopped round and round on the reel like a bro­ken pro­jec­tor in a dis­count movie house.

In my Paris di­rec­to­rial de­but, I’d for­got­ten about a ma­jor char­ac­ter: I’d left my mother-in-law on the cut­ting room floor. C’est vrai. My hus­band and I were spend­ing Christ­mas in the most ro­man­tic city in the world. With. His. Mother.

But my mother-in-law had of­fered to take us and, well, who turns down a free trip to Paris? Be­sides, it wasn’t like the three of us would be shar­ing a room. I wasn’t quite ready to let go of the myth that Paris is for lovers.

Un­like the ques­tion­able truth of a ro­man­tic Paris, once we ar­rived at our ho­tel on the Rue de Rivoli, I learned that it is true that the French de­spise us. I also found out why. It’s be­cause of my mother-in-law, who — no mat­ter where in the world she was — would never un­pack her Louis Vuit­tons in the first room as­signed by the front desk.

She was an ad­ven­tur­ous trav­eler who once ac­cepted strangers’ in­vi­ta­tion to en­ter their home on a side street in the cap­i­tal of Ye­men. She took a train across China and thought noth­ing of rid­ing an ele­phant in Nepal or a camel in Egypt. She was a good sport about all of it — as long as she could stay in a five-star ho­tel that night.

“This just doesn’t suit,” she told the clerk as we tramped up and down the stairs look­ing for a room that met her ex­ceed­ingly high stan­dards.

Here was a woman who trav­eled with a can of Lysol to san­i­tize even the most im­mac­u­late bath­rooms. Con­vinced that the ma­jor­ity of ho­tel house­keep­ers were “on pot” and, con­se­quently, that most ho­tel linens reeked of mar­i­juana, she never left home with­out her own Egyp­tian cot­ton pil­low­case and a top sheet to cover the in­fused ho­tel bed­spread.

My mother-in-law was not in­tim­i­dated by the desk clerk’s eye rolling and heav­ing sighs as she un­locked one door af­ter an­other for in­spec­tion. “I’m sorry . . . . Isn’t this your job?” she asked with the kind of smile on her face that told you it was not a friendly ques­tion. John and I cringed and fol­lowed along obe­di­ently, like poo­dles.

Fi­nally, my mother-in-law found a room that did suit her — a lovely, large cor­ner suite with a king-size bed, a bal­cony over­look­ing the Tui­leries Gar­den and a view of the Eif­fel Tower be­yond. Mean­while, in a tiny room down the hall, John and I pushed our lumpy twin beds to­gether. I guess it was ro­man­tic in a “Bare­foot in the Park” sort of way.

Hon­estly, I was knack­ered by jet lag for most of the trip. I didn’t sleep well and, most days, I was spent by midafter­noon. Then, as my bio­rhythms wreaked havoc, I was wide awake in the mid­dle of the night, sit­ting in an empty bath­tub read­ing and do­ing crossword puzzles in a lacy ro­man­tic night­gown while John slept — alone.

For some, a love af­fair with Paris is strictly about the shop­ping, which is said to be the best in the world. And it is, if money is no ob­ject. I was in­tim­i­dated by the likes of Her­mes, Chanel and Saint Lau­rent. Mean­while, my mother-in-law was like Eva Ga­bor shout­ing “the stores!” in the “Green Acres” theme song.

There were silk blouses and French per­fume; she even dragged us to a cou­turier and was fit­ted for a cus­tom-made, red leather suit. Later she bought four purses — one al­li­ga­tor, three os­trich. I treated my­self to a $5 scarf from a street ven­dor.

Twenty years later, I was in the City of Re­tail — rather, ro­mance — again, as a chap­eron for my teenage daugh­ter’s advanced place­ment Euro­pean his­tory class.

There were 39 high school ju­niors and we only lost a kid once, a princess-y lit­tle fash­ion­ista who went rogue on the Champs-El­y­sees.

Come to think of it, she may have been the rein­car­na­tion of my now-de­ceased mother-in-law be­cause when she re­joined the group, Ash­ley was laden with so many de­signer shop­ping bags that she had to buy an ex­tra suit­case to lug home all her loot.

Me? I picked up more $5 scarves.

When you’re trav­el­ing with a bunch of teenagers, the most fre­quently asked ques­tion — af­ter “Where’s the ATM?” and “When are we go­ing to eat?” — is “Where’s the bath­room?”

On that long-ago trip with my mother-in-law, we had vis­ited a ghastly re­stroom near Bar­bizon that was lit­er­ally a hole in the floor. It was called a pis­soir. To­day, the toi­lettes in Paris are fairly mod­ern, and, in case you’re go­ing any­time soon, I can tell you that the best pub­lic re­strooms in all of Europe just might be at Paris’s Auster­litz train sta­tion — well worth a half-euro for pretty sinks, clean­li­ness and toi­let pa­per, which seems to be in short sup­ply across the pond.

The ho­tels all had bidets of course, much to the ba­nal amuse­ment and con­fu­sion of the ado­les­cent boys in our group. They may have missed a few French classes, or else the ho­tel house­keep­ers were still “on pot” and had for­got­ten how to make a bed be­cause one of the kids in­formed me that his bath­room had a du­vet.

I feel like it’s po­lite to at least try to speak a few words of the na­tive tongue when you’re vis­it­ing a for­eign coun­try, although, the French don’t nec­es­sar­ily agree. It took me two days to fig­ure out how to ask for postage stamps: Avez-vous des tim­bresPoste? Only to have the in­sulted store clerk re­spond to me in dour English: “No, I do not sell stamps.” Merde. On that first trip to Paris, as we piled into a cab on Christ­mas Eve, I spoke to the driver: “45 Rue La Boetie, s’il vous plait.” “Ah, oui madame. Par­lez-vous Fran­cais?” he said. “Un petit peu,” I an­swered. “Un petit petit peu,” my mother-in-law mocked me, lest three measly years of high school French go to my head. Granted, ear­lier that day I had ac­ci­den­tally or­dered kid­neys at a cafe at the Place de Vos­ges. I bit back a “fer­mez la bouche” and re­al­ized I was in se­ri­ous dan­ger of los­ing my joie de vivre.

But you know who did have joie de vivre? Those 39 high school stu­dents. They em­braced Paris with gusto! My daugh­ter’s class­mates climbed atop ev­ery avail­able statue. The girls ate ice cream and crois­sants ev­ery day. They changed out of their short shorts and donned flow­ery dresses be­fore strik­ing cheeky Au­drey Hep­burn poses in front of the Moulin Rouge.

The boys started an im­promptu flash mob and danced with beau­ti­ful strangers along the banks of the Seine. There were a cou­ple of love tri­an­gles and heartaches as some of the kids paired off into cou­ples, hand­hold­ing in the Lou­vre and snug­gling up to each other on the tour bus to Ver­sailles, French kissing at twi­light, while the moon rose over Mont­martre, fall­ing in love with each other and, even more so, with Paris.

And, un­like moi, they ac­tu­ally did sip cham­pagne atop the Eif­fel Tower be­cause, ap­par­ently, 17year-olds know more about find­ing ro­mance in Paris than I do.


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