I have been gently nagging my wife for years now regarding my desire to return to Europe, to revisit some places I last saw decades ago and to explore some sites, too. Her unequivocal response: No thanks.
So I was intrigued when my daughter Abby came to me about 18 months ago and mentioned that her French teacher, let’s call her “Mlle M,” was going to escort interested and able (i.e., those who could spring for the cost) students on a two-week tour of France in the summer of 2019. This educational tour would also include brief excursions in to northwestern Spain and northeastern Italy. Did I have any interest?
“Abby,” I replied, “Do I sunburn easily? Am I annoyed when you or mom use the phrase, ‘just a minute, I’m coming!’ Have I had gray hair since I was 22?”
Abby stared back at me, dumbfounded.
“Yes, Abby, I am very interested.”
So we petitioned Empress Krista, who grudgingly gave her blessing, made all the arrangements, issued all the necessary payments, and acquired our passports from the U.S. State Department. (Thank goodness that little kerfuffle 10 years ago in Canada didn’t land on the books!) We considered what we’d need for the two weeks abroad and purchased items we didn’t have, such as electrical adaptors and a passport holder/purse that hung over our necks and down our shirts, thus thwarting would-be pickpockets.
Fagin, it seems, is alive and well in Western Europe these days. Our group of 14 intrepid travelers held four meetings prior to departure to discuss the itinerary, the demands, the probable quirks, and the behavioral expectations for the trip. Then, finally, in early June we drove down to the Cincinnati International Airport and boarded our Delta flight for Paris. We were off!
Our plane departed around dinnertime on Sunday, June 9. We arrived in Paris in the early morning hours, CEST (Central European Summer Time). We met our official tour guide, Hugo, and three other groups (one from Wisconsin, one from Columbus, and one from Houston, Texas) similar to ours.
Our four groups combined to form our official tour party of roughly 40 teens and 10 adults. We boarded our charter bus, bleary eyed but excited, and made our way to our hotel where we dumped our baggage. Then our congregation of 50 souls followed Hugo to the nearest Metro (Paris’s subway) station, and our adventure began in earnest.
As we entered the train for the 20-minute ride to downtown Paris, I watched my daughter carefully. She was sleepy, yes, and a little anxious in the face of the swarm of thousands of Parisians hustling to work or play on this Monday morning. She was surrounded by signs and people and spoken words and customs, some subtle and some obvious, which were unfamiliar. Still, I could see her anxiety was trumped easily by her enthusiasm and borderline incredulity. I have seen that expression (or felt it form) on my own face before, and probably wore it that day myself. It said, simply and joyously, “I can’t believe I’m here!”
We disembarked at the Opera station and climbed the steps to the world above. As I ascended, forgotten sensations and memories from four decades prior detonated in my brain: The smell of the hot oil wafting up from the train tracks, the sound of the murmuring throngs gathered at the steps of Opera Garnier across the street, the sight of the Opera’s eclectic architectural style and the sign across its edifice proclaiming, “Academie Nationale De Musique”. I had spent many hours in this neighborhood in May 1977 (for the math challenged, that’s 42 years ago) with my younger sister, Barbie, when our parents brought us to Paris for a week and allowed us (mon Dieu!) to explore on our own for hours at a time. Our hotel had been just a couple of blocks away. I was just turning 16 years old then, a year younger than Abby is now. Again: Mon Dieu! The wonder of time and the extraordinary grace that enabled me to return with my daughter all these years later.
Abby gawked at the building and stared at the sculptures on its south side celebrating renowned composers and librettists. She wondered (I could tell; much is made of a mother’s intuition, and rightly so, but a father’s insight is often underestimated) what tunnels and caverns might lurk within, and what structures might have provided Leroux, author of “The Phantom of the Opera,” his inspiration. We soon enjoyed a lunch in a café at the nearby Galeries Lafayette, where I shared with Abby elements of my moving and mysterious trip down memory lane.
“I still can’t get over it, Abby. We’re actually HERE. And in case I forget to tell you later, I want you to know I’m having an unbelievable time. Unbelievably good, by the way.”
“I know, dad, me too. We’re going to have a blast, and I’m glad you get to see some stuff you’ve been to before, but even happier that we’re going to experience some things for the first time together. Thank you. You know, for bringing me.”
A speck of dust flew into my eye, and I wiped it out.
“And, oh, by the way,” she added. “I am aware you’re spying my reactions to stuff. Just be aware I’m doing the same.”
“Fair enough, Abby. Fair enough.”
Next installment of Virtue and Mischief: “Observations from the French Promenade”
Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.