We flew to Paris above the clouds, sipping wine, stunned by the never-fading starlight swirling outside the window, the sudden turn of events in our lives.
A trip across the pond was first mentioned in February, when Damon returned from work in downtown Seattle and hastily muttered, “I have to go to Europe in a few weeks. For work. Paris. Amsterdam. London. Please don’t leave me.”
As usual, I summoned all my grace in stating that he better figure out how to cart me along as ‘baggage’, or there would be no guarantee of my presence upon his return (see Sea Turtles).
Weeks and weeks passed in which a tense little cloud settled stubbornly over our home. It was quite uncertain whether logistics would align for me to go along; if we could really afford it, financially (thank you Grandpa Nathan, Grandpa George, and Grandma Mary!); just who would bravely watch all these children (thank you Grandpa Nathan, Uncle Mark, and Aunt Lorraine!)…and then, not even two weeks before his departure date, Damon went online, willy-nilly, clicked a few buttons and voila – I had a ticket. To Paris. A land where, as Edith Wharton explains in ‘French Ways and Their Meanings’, “When one steps from one’s apartment and out onto the sidewalk, the responsibility begins: The costume must be appropriate. The beauty of the city of Paris itself is overwhelming, and those who enter that setting pay homage to it with their appearance.”
Oh my! The pressure of trying to prepare for such a trip in such a short time was enormous. I suffered from low expectations of Paris, high expectations of myself. “How beautiful and sacred can one place be, after all?” I thought skeptically. The bigger question was - how would I – a frumpy, middle-aged, American mom of five – become a world-traveler worthy of being out and about in the world?
Frantically I booked an appointment at an upscale hair salon. I asked them to schedule extra time for me, place me within the hands of their most gifted hair sculptress. Please! The day of the appointment, I practically jumped into the leather swivel chair. I stared nervously at my pale, puffy-cheeked, wrinkled twin in the mirror; tugged at the floral, button-up, large-lady shirt that suddenly seemed garish even to me; and said with a distinct wobble in my voice – “I’m going to Paris in two days time. Can you help?”
The hair stylist – a young, impossibly hip man with shiny ringlets and a nose ring - paused mightily, then said with an air of candor that I greatly appreciated, “Frankly, dear, your hair is wonderful as is, and will fit nicely in Paris if you keep it brushed and pulled back from your face like this…French women show off their faces, you know! Or perhaps you’d want to swoop it up like this, eh? So let’s move on. Donc, donc…what is the plan for your wardrobe and accessories? I think that is where our greater focus should lie.”
Like a chastised four-year old my eyes welled with tears. Obviously my shirt was in poor taste. “Yes, yes, of course…” I muttered, already feeling I had brought shame to Paris, pre-visit. My hairdresser swiveled me around to face him and his shiny, silver nose ring that sprouted like a tiny mushroom from atop his left nostril. I found it impossible not to stare. “For you, my dear, I’m going to suggest - in the strongest and simplest of terms – all-black. Stick to that, and you will be fine, I think!” With his fingertips he dabbed bits of pomade from a lime green jar straight across my hair-line. The blotting away of years of complacency had begun, it seemed. “Add a bit of color in your scarf, of course, and with your lipstick.” Here he twirled me back towards the mirror dramatically. “You need lipstick, definitely. You do wear lipstick, right?” He bent to stare at me encouragingly, as you would a child, his ringlets bouncing up and down in bodily agreement. “Have you been to the make-up counter at Macy’s? That would be a good beginning. They’re very helpful there, you know.”
And so I left the hairdressers without getting my hair cut or crafted, only shined, and took to the skies, wearing all black, and with a different colored lipstick tucked into every possible crevasse on my person. And wouldn’t you know…I felt like a much more sophisticated me, swooshing through the clouds. I didn’t have to yell at anyone, only myself! I didn’t have to worry about anyone’s bathroom needs but my own! Tres magique!
When they passed out ‘complimentary’ wine at 30,000 feet, I knew I had entered enchanted airspace indeed. A land of fairy tales. Castles, crepes, cathedrals…entire meals served in custom cocottes! Svelte people in long, black coats began to whoosh past me on mopeds, wrapped always in scarves of classic colors, their aquiline noses pointed high in the air, their words hushed, rapid, lyrical. It felt like I’d entered a James Bond movie. It looked like I’d entered a James Bond movie! Everywhere I turned there were cobblestone streets; black-iron street lanterns; the smell of cigarettes and baguettes and cream heavy in the air; unattainable luxury and intrigue draped behind spiraled stairs and iron doors; row after row of terraced windows.
Damon and I wandered along the Seine like Hansel and Gretel, lost yet enlivened by this strange, candied path we suddenly trod. We couldn’t understand what was said, or where we were headed, but we didn’t care, we were ‘window lickers’ here, content to paw at the beauty aligned along every alley way – secret, hidden gardens tucked behind calligraphied walls; pastries so fluffy and light they crumpled in your hands; massive, magnificent buildings that stretched blocks at a time, where every corner, every soffit, every eave under which one gaped appeared fluted, flourished, festooned in finery of the most fairytalish sort.
In the darkness, under the stars, on the ceiling of our hotel orange and crimson papillons danced, while I, curled under their golden wings, seemed at long last privy to the party known as ‘Paris’, yet utterly removed from it, too, exhausted and enchanted by turns.
Walking around Paris that first night in a wine-induced, jet-lagged stupor, I realized this was a place I’d heard of my whole life, but didn’t really believe existed. The Paris of legend, of lore, had never intrigued me that much. But in person it felt magical - almost too grand, too classically beautiful, too unsullied by time or advertising or even convenience to believe. “Why would anyone live anywhere else?” I thought almost immediately, wrapping my long, black jacket around me haughtily, my nose suddenly pointed in the air. Damon leaned on a Citroen 2CV parked in the street and paused with an audible ‘Tut, tut’ and he felt it, too, I could tell. Even the cars looked better here!
Back home in America, while growing up, I had been a supremely picky eater (which is odd, in that my family ate very mild, unoriginal food). Yet my brother, sister, and I determined to consume nothing but white bread and pancakes for most of our formative years. Which worked well enough in our household, unless it was a holiday, when guests gathered, proffering the typical American fare – turkey or ham, mashed potatoes, cooked carrots, perhaps some deviled eggs, and of course pies. Lots and lots of pies.
Well, I didn’t like pie. I don’t know why. I just remember being a very small girl and wrinkling my nose at it vehemently. No, I didn’t like it! No I didn’t want even a bite! Honestly I don’t think I knew what pie tasted like…I had never tried any that I could recall, yet still I protested. Then, when I was a teenager I flew to Australia to visit a friend, and her neighbors baked an American Apple Pie which they proudly trotted out soon after my arrival, especially for me (wasn’t that sweet?) and I sat at their dinner table and said nonchalantly, “Oh, I don’t like pie. Thanks, but no thanks.” I ignored their quiet stares of disbelief over my head and didn’t even feel bad until later (much later).
And then one fine day, (who knows where now, or how old I was…I must have been at least eighteen) I ate some pie. Just tried it, like a normal human being. And oh, man! I was disgraced at myself. Shamed beyond words. Because it turns out, pie is delicious! Downright sublime! Good pie is warm and gooey and melty and fruity and crusty and sugary all at once, and are you kidding me…..I’ve lived my whole darn life refusing to eat this deliciousness?
Well, Paris looked and smelled, felt like a whole new kind of pie. Magic Pie. Tourte Magique! And now, after landing in Paris and sleeping beneath papillons, I cannot believe I’ve lived my whole life over here, wearing patterned shirts and going to 7-11 and shopping at Wal-Mart and carting five kids around in a mini-van, etc..while they’ve all lived over there eating millefeuille and macarons and criss-crossing the Pont Alexandre bridge in classically colored scarves and strolling through the Luxembourg Gardens on ponies, mon dieu!
I always knew I was a window-licker at heart. In Paris they have an actual word for it - lèche-vitrine. Which sounds magnifiique when said from behind a newly-purchased scarf and in between bites of Crème Brulee. Trust me…