Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Mom's first trip to the Continent



As my brief tenure in Belgium wounds it's way toward a close, my mother flew in to meet me in Brussels for one last jaunt. She would be there for 10 days, then we'd fly home together. Mom had never been to Europe; the closest she'd been was our trip years back to England and Ireland. So I had planned some excursions for us: to Paris for a weekend, and two places I'd not yet been, London and Venice.  I had been traveling according to my financial status in Europe: that of graduate student on a volunteer stipend. By then I was staying at a historic townhouse in the city center as a house sitter for an American family posted to Brussels living off base. In my charge were their two very different pet cats, Dickens and Hamilton. Dickens was skinny and shy, almost elusive, while Hamilton was outright obese and extremely social, even gregarious. Hamilton would climb up the stairs to the bedroom on the weekend mornings to wake me up if I'd slept in too long. He would meow the entire way, expressing his dissatisfaction at not having been fed breakfast as early as deemed appropriate by his ample stomach. 

So I met mom at the airport and we travelled by bus to the city center. The bus stopped very near to the townhouse, and so we walked the rest of the way, mom very much enchanted by the lovely architecture of the well preserved residential neighborhood. I left her to rest in the good care of an attentive Hamilton and the relatively absent Dickens before heading in to the office for several hours. I'd left instructions for Mom to help herself when she got hungry and to try to sleep off some of the jet lag. I didn't dare leave food out on the off chance that dear Hamilton might miraculously heft his girth onto the counter if the incentive were great enough. After I finished at work for the day, the plan was to pick mom up at the townhouse and head for the train station, where we'd catch the high speed for our weekend in Paris. I had per booked everything, from our separate seats on the Thalys (I got a student discount but subsequently had to ride in a different car) to what Expedia described as a four star hotel not far from the hill of Montmartre. 

All went according to plan for the most part, except of course for the exceedingly tall, Japanese Belgian man in his very early  thirties mom met in her train car. As it happened, so she later explained, he was sitting next to her and spoke English, so naturally after he mentioned wanting to settle down, mom thought of me. God knows how long they spent discussing me, but mom must have painted me in a good light overall, for as the train slowed for imminent arrival he gave her his business card, in case I wanted to keep in touch. As you might imagine, once I found mom on the train prior to disembarking, I vehemently wished I had just waited for her on the platform. And after awkward introductions between myself and the aforementioned businessman, I rolled my eyes so many times at my mother that if one could injure oneself so, I would have suffered permanent damage. But by then we were in Paris, out of the Gare Saint Lazare dragging our luggage behind us. If I may say, we had planned the baggage badly for a weekend away, and would not be making that mistake again. 

By then my French was acceptably travel worthy, though not at all proficient beyond that capacity, but I still managed to get us lost, if only for 10 or 20 minutes. Relief flooded us both when we found our reserved hotel and, au Francais, I checked in with the front desk. 

However it was fleeting, when the clerk said, "Ah, oui, Mademoiselle Rosser. You have a very nice room reserved, acclimatise, everything, but...not in this hotel."

"Pardon?!" Came my incredulous reply, a moment of panic coming over me.

"Oui," he continued, "your chambre is at our sister hotel, very nice, around the corner." He proceeded to give me directions to the very nice sister hotel in half French, half English, which turned out to be a little further than just around the corner.

We made it to hotel number two quite easily though, and repeated my now practiced check in procedure, this time in English due largely in part to my nerves by this stage. Somewhat surprisingly, it went off without a hitch and we headed to the elevator, as our room was on the fifth floor and we had our small roller suitcases. As the door to the elevator slid open, though, we looked at each other with raised eyebrows when we saw what was the smallest elevator either of us had ever beheld.  We could barely stuff ourselves in it, tandem, with our bags, but we made it and rode giggling up to our room. The lift might have tipped us off, but we were far too naive for that, and I was oblivious, partly out of necessity, to the drawbacks of my travel budget. 

Upon entering the room, we noticed a very old, very low queen bed but otherwise a pretty standard room. Until, that is, I wandered into the bathroom and discovered a bona fide hole in the tile and through the entire wall of our shower. At least I had the where with all not to stoop down and look through it; there was no light I could appreciate from my end so I actively chose to believe the other end must of  opened to a neighboring closet or something of that ilk. 

In any case, we were in Paris, the city of lights, and planned on spending next to no time in the room anyway. We dropped off our suitcases and set out in search of one of the famous sidewalk cafés. 

Now have I mentioned it was August, in Europe? Which is tantamount to saying that the vast majority of the Continent shuts down. Who would have thought that the sidewalk cafés of Paris would be a empty and silent as a ghost town? I half expected a tumbleweed to blow by. We finally found an open brasserie and sat down, shortly to be attended to by an over zealous but understaffed Armenian waiter who introduced himself as Yousef. Mom ordered some awful, limp frankfurters, and my meal was so underwhelming I can't remember to this day what it was I had ordered. What we do remember though, is Yousef, who kept asking me my name in French, and, emboldened by my answer, then began petting my hair whenever he walked by.  Escaping the clutches of disturbing Yousef, we quickly paid and headed back to our hotel lobby, where we perused tourist brochures and asked the concierge for recommendations. 

We settled on a cruise of the Seine the following day, and I compromised on a private tour of the city at night by car. Mom loved guided city tours and I loathed them, too touristy. So, the next morning we breakfasted at the hotel before catching the bus to Notre Dame. The cathedral was intimidating, commandeering all of its tiny island in the Seine, with gargoyles leering above us. Inside, the Gothic influence was still palpable in the dark, but you could practically smell the history, thick in the air. 

We lunched at a much nicer, much more occupied sidewalk cafe on the Left Bank, where mom was sure that our French waiter scoffed at us continually, especially when she requested a second spoon for our shared, and amazing, creme brûlée.  I tried repeatedly to explain to mom that just because no one was speaking English directly to us absolutely did not mean they did not understand what we were saying, and therefore, courtesy dictated that mom should not talk about the people around us in a normal conversational voice unless she had very nice things to say. We revisited this topic more than once during our brief visit to the French capital.

After lunch we cruised the Seine under the unchanging watch of the Eiffel Tower, enjoying a sunny day and the beautiful architecture surrounding us. Before our evening tour, we hit the Louvre, marveling at the Classical Antiquities, the Egyptian Artifacts, and of course, da Vinci 's now ever crowded Mona Lisa.

The Eiffel Tower glittered before us toward the end of our admittedly enchanted evening tour, and we fell into the uncomfortably low hotel bed two very content frugal travelers.  

Our departure the next day was early evening, so we left our bags at the front desk at check out, and hiked up the hill of Montmartre. We stumbled across a cute little market shop and went inside for croissants. No one ever told me just how steep that particular hill is, but once we reached the Sacre Coeur, it was well worth it. Street artists sold watercolors just before the steps to the city vista, and mom bought one of the Champs Élysées for me which we had framed Stateside. Walking around the basilica and down the steps to the terrace, the view of Paris laid out along the river Seine before us was indeed breathtaking, something for a postcard. 

Much to my relief, mom didn't find anyone on the train ride back to Brussels to set me up with, and we headed back to the company of the two townhouse cats for a night's rest before more gallivanting around Western Europe another day.