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They'll always have Paris

Years after their youthful sojourns in the City of Light, a mother and daughter return, sharing romantic memories of a place that came to symbolize life, love and loss.

August 03, 2003|Constance Hale | Special to The Times

Claude DE MENEVAL is not the type I would expect to see on all fours:

a small, graying man, crisp of carriage, with an astonishing aquiline nose. And this is not a place that promises such informality -- a bourgeois salon with its large oil portrait of an austere ancestor, ancient bandoliers marking the walls with Xs, glass cabinet filled with such Empire relics as pieces of the royal china and a fan from Empress Eugenie.

"Le voila," he called out ebulliently, lifting a lithograph from the bottom of an ornate chest so my mother and I could see. There, on horseback, was Napoleon III, reviewing his troops. And there, just behind him, was Monsieur de Meneval's arriere- arriere grandpere, Napoleon's private secretary and the man who earned the impressive "de" in the De Meneval family name.

I had never imagined, when I impulsively invited my mother to Paris for her 65th birthday, that we would end up here in Versailles, sipping tea and chatting with Claude and Monique de Meneval. I knew that my mother's junior year in France had been one of the formative experiences of her life. But hadn't she moved on, settling for a humble life in rural Hawaii, never returning to France, letting her ties loosen?

She had, in my view, not so much abandoned her taste for all things French as chosen to pass it on -- to me. She pulled me off the beach to read "Madeline and the Bad Hat" and "Eloise in Paris." She bought me a small spiral-bound blank book, inscribing its brown cover with Mon Petit Cahier de Francais -- My Small French Notebook -- and listing words for me to memorize. Although our everyday diet consisted of tuna-noodle casserole and Hamburger Helper, occasionally she gave my brother and sister and me a taste of her Continental past by serving a cheese souffle or chocolate mousse. Once or twice she treated us to stories of the French Gypsy who had taught her to read palms -- and then proceeded to predict our futures.

Tales of Gypsies were eventually supplanted by tales of Baron Louis de Meneval, scion of the petite noblesse, and la Baronne, head of their formidable household in Paris' 17th arrondissement. Long on pride and short on funds, the enchanting De Menevals had chosen the socially acceptable way to improve the family cash flow -- by taking in a Smith College student.

Now here I was in Versailles, connecting the dots. Before me were all the possessions -- inherited by the eldest son of Baron Louis and la Baronne -- that filled my mother's descriptions. Here, too, was a relationship between Claude and my mother: the stiff rapport between a 23-year-old law student and a 21-year-old American girl was now reinventing itself as a warm friendship between a retired businessman-turned-Napoleon expert and a photo-toting granny from Hawaii. And here were the intersections between a family and a country, whose history Claude was proudly recounting. But, more than anything, here were my mother's deep ties to France, which had remained largely a mystery to me.

The longing for such connections had sparked the idea of our trip. Then, midway through the planning stages, my father fell ill and was given less than a year to live. Though he and my mother had been divorced for 30 years, the news devastated both of us. We considered postponing, until a new urgency swept aside our misgivings. Go. Now. While there's time. In the face of losing Dad, I yearned to draw closer to Mom. Planning the trip got me through some hard months.

There was lots of planning. With the help of the Internet and two Paris services, we selected a large studio apartment on the Ile de la Cite. An apartment would afford us corners of privacy and our own washing machine, and the kitchen would give us an excuse to load up on gourmet treats.

An apartment also let us experience Paris as residents. Being on Ile de la Cite meant waking to the 8 o'clock bells of Notre Dame, lunching in the lovely Place Dauphine and snagging ringside seats for the Saturday-night street theater.

Mom and I easily agreed on how to spend our days. We didn't go to a single museum. We skipped the Eiffel Tower. We tuned in to the surprises of the quotidian rather than the predictability of tourist destinations. We decoded billboards and shop signs. We enjoyed the bump and bustle of Paris buses, where schoolchildren rubbed elbows with immigrant workers, and adolescents prattled on into cell phones. And we visited churches daily: In the eloquent quiet of St. Paul and St. Germain-des-Pres, we lighted candles for Dad.

Stories lurk in the shadows

Mom spent one morning on the Ile de la Cite scouring the map. Soon she was leading us across the Seine on a footbridge, around the tiny chapel of St.-Julien-le-Pauvre, and then straight to Rue de la Huchette, a narrow medieval alley. She stopped in front of a crude stone facade.

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