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An American in Paris

A first-time trip to Paris offers a mother an opportunity to get lost in Europe and experience history, but also a chance to bond with her daughter.

June 23, 2012|Sandy Banks
  • Pierre Verdy, AFP/Getty Images
Pierre Verdy, AFP/Getty Images (m5gty9pd20120623033316/600 )

I'm just back from 10 days in Europe — France and Denmark, with stopovers in London and Reykjavik.

I love the way that sounds. I've managed to work that into almost every conversation I've had since my return to Los Angeles last weekend.

It makes me seem so sophisticated — though my history screams "impostor."

I've never had much chance to travel. I didn't board an airplane until I was 21, a newlywed on honeymoon. I didn't need a passport until I was 45, when I vacationed in Costa Rica.

And I wouldn't have ventured to Paris this spring without a nudge from my youngest child, Brittany, who has managed to visit London, Paris and Barcelona during a semester "studying" abroad in Denmark.

"Made it to Paris and navigated the metro and the Parisians," she emailed in March, with the subject line, "Hi, I have arrived in the greatest city in the planet …"

"You have to come here mom it's so cool," she wrote. "The energy is so amazing, it's like really alive but mellow at the same time and it's beautiful."

My daughter had fallen instantly in love with a city I'd dreamed about since I learned "Bonjour, madame. Comment allez-vous?" Hello, somewhere around fourth grade.

I thought of all the years I'd spent studying French, a language that I never seemed to need. And all the times I'd talked myself out of traveling because someone at home seemed to need me.

Then I went online and booked a flight — thrilled not just by the prospect of Paris but by the fact that my daughter wanted me there.

::

Our budget didn't allow for five-star hotels, but I wasn't about to bunk with backpacking kids. So I tossed out my daughter's list of hostels and found a decent, affordable hotel near Montmartre, in a neighborhood my guidebook called sketchy but I considered delightfully diverse.

It was a hub of African and Middle Eastern culture, on a block lined with cafes and open-air markets, a short walk from a subway stop. We didn't require haute cuisine. Breakfast was yogurt and fresh fruit. Lunch was sweet goat cheese on fresh baguettes.

I managed to resurrect enough long-buried French to decipher the menu at a brasserie, locate a free public toilette and barter a flea market deal.

My daughter navigated the subway like a native and had learned to read a map. That's what months with no GPS will do. I was almost as amazed by that as I was by the beauty of the Eiffel Tower and the majesty of the Arc de Triomphe.

But for all the growing up she'd done, some things hadn't changed.

She arrived in Paris with a raft of homework — due, but undone. Springtime in Denmark had been so seductive, she'd forgotten about things like deadlines and grades — the "study" part of study abroad.

That kept her hunched over her computer in our hotel room for our first two mornings. And it gave me a chance to explore on my own — but not without the same sort of lecture I'd delivered to her at LAX six months ago.

Be careful, she warned, pressing into my hand a subway map, the route highlighted and stops circled with a marker. Keep your purse tucked inside your jacket. Don't flash your money when you pay. Listen when they call the subway stops and make sure you're heading the right way.

And when I got lost, despite all that, and turned a 45-minute trip from the great basilica, Sacre Coeur, into a three-hour tour of Montmartre, she was the one counting the minutes, scanning the sidewalk and worrying about her wayward mother.

And Mom was having the time of her life, gallivanting unbridled through Paris.

::

Our trip — like the city itself — was lively and lovely, with a few rough edges.

We saw Paris through different eyes, from different stages of our lives.

What she found exciting, I found exhausting: the crowds, the noise, the subway rides. What fascinated me, she considered dull: the sweep of world history.

My clumsy French, and American tendency to chat strangers up, often seemed to embarrass my daughter. And I worried that her manners weren't good enough in a city where a stranger will take you to task if you don't cover your mouth when you yawn.

But six months apart must have taught us to give each other room to breathe. We enjoyed our time together, laughed more than we squabbled.

Ten days is a lot of togetherness. So I didn't mind when the jazz club she and her friends had raved about turned out to be a dank, crowded cavern thick with beer and body odor.

I hugged her friends, slid a wad of euros into her purse and made her promise to take a cab, not the metro, home. Then I ducked out and made my way to the subway station, clutching the directions she'd written:

Board Line 4 toward Porte de Clignancourt. Transfer to the 12 at Marcadet Poisonniers. Go toward Porte Dauphine, but only one stop. Get off at Jules Joffrin.

I did all that, but still wound up lost.

It was after midnight and drizzling; nothing looked familiar, the streets were empty. I wandered in the dark until I spotted a stranger and started chatting him up. He was a businessman visiting from London — raised in Paris and born in Mali — who knew my hotel, walked me toward it and called, 'Bonne chance,' or good luck, when he turned to leave.

I fell asleep to the sound of traffic rumbling along our busy street. There was no need to wait up for my daughter. We were in Paris, together.

Bonne chance, indeed.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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