Reminders of that trip surface in little snippets of pleasure.
I was only eleven when my parents sent me to Paris to meet
my aunt, uncle and cousin for the first time.
I was "sentenced" to their care for the entire summer break -- parents not included.
Not knowing the language, the customs or even my relatives, I was terrified.
I knew I'd miss my parents and big brother -- we were a tight knit family -- but like
most kids, I worried about what I was missing at home in our neighborhood,
especially the 4th of July picnic and fireworks.
As soon as the plane landed and I saw the smiling faces
that arrived to greet me, I felt a little better.
My mother had versed me well about what to expect -- or so I thought --
but no preparation could have readied me for the assault
on my senses and preconceived notions.
It has consumed me ever since.
It didn't make me less of an American.
My stripes are still red, white and blue -- with a little
bleu, blanc, et rouge thrown in for added dimension.
The funny part about memory is that it's the little things that stick with you.
A kid doesn't go to Paris in search of lavishness or grandeur.
I just wanted to survive that alien summer, minus friends & family,
and learn about my mother's birthplace and people.
My aunt and uncle lived in a small town near Paris where they spent their
weekends and any free time their daughter wasn't in school.
They kept an apartment in Paris for school days so I was treated
to the best of both worlds that special summer.
Both experiences were exceptional and remain colorfully vivid to this day.
The country house was a 3-story chateau that was older than the U.S.A.!
It had been in my uncle's family for many generations.
I had my own balcony and a huge feather bed.
The library had a hand-painted mural of a woman baring her breasts,
incredibly shocking to a young American girl in those days,
especially when my aunt proudly boasted she had posed for the painting.
The Paris apartment won me over the minute I walked onto its ornate black iron elevator.
The balcony view was pure Paris and handy, too, as my cousin and I could
drop water balloons onto unsuspecting neighbors below.
I distinctly remember one of my first trips to the country marché.
My aunt bought a live chicken for dinner and made me carry it home.
Upside down, squawking, my little hands wrapped around its scrawny legs,
that wretchedly doomed chicken was less miserable than me.
I cried all the way home.
A week later, I carried a small pail of fresh fish home from the market.
Giddy with such new adventure, I felt as much underwater as the swarming fish.
My aunt didn't understand my reaction; Didn't everyone buy their fish live?
I fell in love with French food --- the simpler, the better --
especially my aunt's addictive plum confiture.
Bread and chocolate were another favorite (do not try this at home; it doesn't work)
as were those little Carambars and Choco-BN cookies that were like kitty-litter to a kid.
My uncle famously concocted a brilliant green soup from vegetables and herbs
just picked from his huge garden (he employed a full-time gardener) -- so fresh
and full of flavor, I didn't care what was in there.
It was that delicious.
Chocolat chaud every morning was an exotic treat, served in the classic Breton bowl,
scented with slightly funky unpasturized, unhomogenized milk and real chocolate -- delectable.
And the cheese, dear God, the cheese.
Camembert oozing across the plate.
Who knew a kid could learn to love stinky cheese?
I still recall the care my aunt took in selecting the best fromage.
The cheese-monger, caressing the top of each ripe disk, asked if she planned to serve it
this afternoon, this evening or tomorrow -- to insure the perfect selection.
I somehow survived without my Campbell's Soup and grilled (Velveeta) cheese sandwiches.
I had never been taught that simple etiquette and it showed.
My aunt and uncle had lessons to teach.
Even more disgraceful, my well-bred uncle couldn't get over that American
children were allowed to use their left hand to eat and to write.
Oh the horror!
Back in those days, the refined upper class used their right hand
whether it came naturally or not.
It was "correct".
No wonder they thought Americans were gauche (left).
My parents had written him a letter about my "disability", insisting it was ok.
It bugged my poor uncle to no end.
other guests at the long table.
When the weather was right, we'd dine outside.
Gorgeous surroundings and lively conversations - often debates -
kept me wide-eyed during the dining marathons.
We would often eat a whole fish, grilled on the ancient outdoor barbecue.
My uncle delighted in putting the head (eyeball staring) on my plate,
claiming I was his honored guest while smiling at my apprehension.
But after a little taste, I learned he was right; it was one of the best parts.
I vowed to never eat another fish stick again.
Each Sunday blowout felt like a festive occasion.
After eating for three hours straight, we'd finally go back into the house
to watch Steve McQueen's "Wanted: Dead or Alive" on the little black and white tv.
An American with status!
Cowboy bounty hunters were cool.
Women seemed effortlessly elegant, decorated in real fashion.
They resembled movie stars, more Audrey Hepburn than June Cleaver.
My own clothes were out of place.
French children didn't run around wearing shorts and t-shirts.
My aunt bought me several skirts and blouses so I would fit in.
Mussel gathering on a trip to the Mediterranean Sea.
Snail hunting near the Pyrenees Mountains -- I found the most!
Gawking at prostitutes on our way to dinner at a little "off-the-beaten path" bistro.
Admiring Place des Vosges before it was cleaned and spiffed up.
Dancing at a Bastille Day celebration -- with a stinky boy.
Laughing at the sight of a pissoir.
Rubber-necking at the tiny cars -- some small enough to park on the sidewalk.
Immersed in the sounds of Sacha Distel and Mireille Mathieu.
Succumbing to my first taste of French ice cream.
Recognizing how special it was to see a black Madonna in a teeny church
in the mountains (to this day, I don't know where).
Battling with my aunt who tried to give me a bath (I won) -- she
continued to bathe her own 12-year-old daughter.
Getting my hair done at a salon where they singed split ends with a lighted candle.
Marveling at policemen on horseback in parc Monceau.
Perceiving the value adults placed on intellect and education.
Figuring out how to eat langoustines -- and why it was worth the effort.
Learning respect for a home garden and all good things from it.
Loving the sounds of both the telephone ringing and the sirens blaring in Paris.
even forgiving my brother for getting to go to Disneyland without me
while I was "suffering" so far away.
Oh, and he got a new bike, too..... grrrr.....
But sometimes, I need reminders of that nurturing and influential summer.
The key to unlocking that simple life.
Because I didn't know the language (and so much more), I had to
CONCENTRATE ON ONE THING AT A TIME.
There was no multi-tasking then, who had ever heard of that ridiculous term?
It was a bit chaotic there -- but easily as fun as July 4th and maybe even Halloween --
STOP BEING SO BUSY LOOKING FOR PERFECTION.
I was in the care of near-strangers and it worked out beautifully.
LET SOMEONE ELSE DO THE HEAVY LIFTING ONCE IN AWHILE.
Thank goodness there was no fancy technology in those days.
Although I'm a fan of it now (too much so), I had to rely on my senses
to get by in that strange and wonderful place - no email, just snail mail.
DON'T LET TECHNOLOGY RUN YOUR LIFE.
And finally, be a kid -- let your mind wander -- and enjoy today.
"The best things in life aren't things."
Recorded by: Frida Baccara; Music by: Emile Stern; Lyrics by: Unknown
The wide eyes of a child look upon a world reborn
See the glory of a rose that never bears a thorn
The wide eyes of a child can invent a laughing moon
And the orange sun leaps high just as a floating toy balloon
He clearly sees the flower and the bird
Whose thoughts he knows without needing any word
And any child can hear ringing laughter from a stream
Hear the music of the heart, to us a half-forgotten dream
In sleep he hears the star's distant song
Oh, may its wonder last for his whole life long
If we had vision too, as we stumble on our ways
We could sometimes see our days as through the eyes of a child