Two summers ago I transgressed all three Universal Laws of Aunts (see my previous blog post), and I suffered repentantly. My sentence was innumerable incidents of mortification and exasperation. And Paris is dead to me.
I responded to emails (Rule 1) roping me into a vacation with all the Aunts and cousins (Rule 3) in Paris (Rule 3b), and upon my arrival I tried to take charge of their incompetent tourism (Rule 2).
Why? With 24 years of experience with my Aunts, how could I be so foolish? I was a few weeks into excavations in a cave in a remote village in Serbia. I emerged to the big city—with a coffee shop with espresso and internet—and checked my email. I was included on a 27-email long exchange between the Aunts about a group voyage to Paris in celebration of Aunt Jackie’s 50th birthday. All the Aunts, female cousins, and one unfortunate uncle were going! The trip coincidentally coincided with the exact days I would be in Paris between digging in Serbia and going home. I had planned a few days of peace and solitude in Paris, to re-acculturate before returning to the mania of urban, mid-twenties, Harvard rah rah life.
My plan was foiled because the Aunts knew I would be there. I could not be in Paris, while they were there, without joining them. I also had a series of messages from my parents apologizing for revealing my itinerary, divulging my email address, and obligating me to this fiasco.
I arrived in the evening on the third day of their trip. Three days in Paris! What had they done? What had they seen? What had they eaten? I was debriefed.
They had spent the past three days trying to get to the Louvre. Each day, by the time they got there, it was awfully late and not worth entering. How could this be? The Paris Metro is one of the clearest and extensive public transit systems in the world. There is a stop called Louvre. That is where the Louvre is. How could four women, one man, and seven post-tween-age girls fail to go to the Louvre on three consecutive days? It was inconceivable (with the Princess Bride inflection)!
Nope, it was conceived again the next day. I’m going to take you through this in real time, so you can conceive it too.
7:00 am: The getting ready brigade begins.
7:17 am: I am ready.
The rest of the gang is amidst a frenzy of showers, hair drying, hair straightening, hair curling, makeup, and outfit indecision (many layers and comfortable walking shoes a must!).
“We have to look fashionable in Paris!” proclaims Aunt Gloria as she globs on mascara, reminding me of a naive deer right before it gets shot.
7:32 am: Aunt Maxine extols a platter of croissants: “Everyone MUST have a FRENCH croissant.”
I prod the rubbery pastry with my index finger and it resumes its shape like memory foam. This is NOT a flakey, airy French croissant from the corner boulangerie. This is a prepackaged, industrial produced croissant from Monoprix—the Walmart of France. I inquire why they bought them from Monoprix and not the bakery and they explain that it was cheaper. You know what’s even cheaper? Not coming to France.
Aunt Nancy bites in theatrically. “Mmmmmm. It’s so delicious! It’s magnificent!”
8:42 am: The first argument over shoes. 29-year-old April wants to wear pumps, but Aunt Gloria insists that everyone wear sneakers because “we’re going to be doing a lot of walking.”
10:23 am: Aunt Nancy busies herself packing sandwiches for lunch (made of prepackaged Monoprix bread and cheese). Much grumbling and bewilderment over why peanut butter was in the International Foods section and so expensive.
10:45 am: I am still ready.
11:12 am: Uncle Bud sighs. His eyes, hopeless.
11:47 am: We eat the sandwiches Aunt Nancy packed for lunch because it is lunchtime.
12:14 pm: We exit the apartment. The Metro is two blocks away, but the Aunts know a short cut through… Monoprix. There are cheap clothes in Monoprix. It’s like hyenas finding an untouched antelope carcass. The women begin shopping. They are drunk off the idea having “clothes from Paris, clothes from Paris!” even though we are at the Walmart of Paris and all of the clothes are surely made in China.
12:47 pm: Cousin April finds a cheap, irrelevant sweater and needs it now.
I try to reason, “But April if you buy it now you’ll have to carry it all day. This store is one block from our apartment and there are tons of that sweater on the rack.”
“I know, but I just love it so much that I need it now. My mom will carry it.”
I remind you that Cousin April is 29.
1:12 pm: We leave Monoprix. I see the Metro sign—but wait!—Cousin April needs to buy a soda. She scurries across the street to make the purchase, while we mill about and Aunt Gloria explains why the soda purchase is contentious.
The Cousins have been forbidden from ordering sodas because the Aunts deemed them too expensive. The Cousins have no money of their own because the Aunts believe that one can only get European money by cashing Travel’s Checks at a certified exchange office. Cousin April was devastated by the soda prohibition, so she called her husband and he told her to get some cash from an ATM. The Aunts believe this will cost you unthinkable fees and probably targeted for conspiracy kidnapping.
Aunt Gloria continues, “And after she got cash FROM THE ATM she has been flaunting it and buying as many sodas as possible.”
Animosity is stewing. April is missing. Aunt Nancy’s phone rings.
Aunt Nancy listens and then announces, “April is lost and sitting on some church steps. Annelia we need you to go find her.”
My 29-year-old cousin got lost crossing the street to buy a forbidden soda. I’m beginning to understand how they did not get to the Louvre on three consecutive days.
1:55 pm: After locating April (she had accidentally gone out the back exit of the stop), I convince the group to go to the Natural History Museum instead, which is in an nearby, pleasant park where I had planned to meet Gilbert at 3:00 pm.
Gilbert, you may recall, is my best friend from Graduate school and a Frenchman (see my blog entry, “Friendsgiving”). He had just flown in from fieldwork in Syria and we had a brief email, which set our meeting and explained his current state of shambles—a situation that was typical of his life characterized by brass nonchalance and melodrama. We had to be back at school in five days. While he was on excavations his parents moved from the city of Avignon to a country home in the hinterlands. His major possessions were there, but he didn’t know where there was exactly and his parents were out of contact, on holiday in Turkey.
More. His credit card had been frozen for months because he did not set a travel alert that he would be in Syria. He was living off cash he made on excavation, but could not book a ticket to Boston—for school in 5 days—until the credit card was reactivated. Oh, he didn’t a phone, or a place to stay, but would find some ex-girlfriend with an open bed.
He also had no place to live in Boston, if he made it to Boston. Who plans for things like apartments? Puritanical, uptight Americans, that’s who! Gilbert is far too French and alive(!) to do things like rent apartments and pay bills and not loose his wallet. We call it the “Pfft [scarf]” mentality (imagine someone saying “pfft!” and then tossing their scarf behind the shoulder with a scoffing wrist flick). “Travel alert on my credit card?” “Pfft [scarf]” “Tetanus booster?” “Pfft [scarf]” “Social security number?” “Pfft [scarf]”
Despite his multifaceted, pressing predicament, Gilbert absolutely had time to meet for a tea. I just had to shepherd my Aunts and Cousins to the park by 3 pm (I wasn’t allowed to go alone because they saw Taken and knew I absolutely would get violently abducted if I went anywhere alone).
3:00 pm: Of course Gilbert is not at the rhino statue, our designated meeting spot.
3:17 pm: I wander the park searching for Gilbert as my relatives occupy themselves in the museum.
3:29 pm: They are bored with the museum and want to go to McDonalds across the street. It begins to rain, but phew—they brought plastic ponchos!
3:37 pm: The stars align to create the perfect moment of mortification. I find Gilbert. He is looking overly French, wearing wee little red shorts, a scarf (in August), and loafers. His accessories are a cigarette and a posh, unamused woman with fire engine lipstick that I could never pull off. She’s just an exgirlfriend with an open bed.
We embrace and cut to the chase.
“Where are the cousins? I want to meet the American cousins!”
We cross the street and find my American relatives: in a McDonalds, wearing ponchos, with multiple maps open, trying to find the Louvre.
They are so impressed that he is really from France. They ask him if he likes wine. They gush that it must be so neat being French. They tell him how delicious the croissants were at breakfast.
4:00 pm: We’re not making it to the Louvre today.
4:10 pm: Aunt Jackie asks if I can find a nice Italian restaurant with chicken fingers on the children’s menu for dinner later.