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The *First* Time I Saw Paris

Imagine you’ve never been anywhere. Yet, you find yourself on a trans-Atlantic flight, destination: Paris, France. You arrive on a chilly, grey Wednesday morning. After being herded through customs, you discover that what was advertised as French when you took it was actually some other language. The babbling sounds you hear all around you sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before, and any prepared response you give is met with quizzical looks of non-comprehension.

Maybe you’re disoriented by the fact that you didn’t sleep two minutes on the flight over. Between the crying baby that never drew breath for seven hours and the person just behind you who kicked your seat all the way across the Atlantic, you’re just a tad tired. No matter. You’re in Paris. At least, that’s what you think as you exit the airport and find yourself in some cavernous, smelly train station, instructions you don’t understand blaring over a loudspeaker as you follow the gaggle of people onto the train.

Two stops, and there’s commotion in your car, pulling you out of your sleep deprived stupor. Some gendarmes are dragging people out of your car and are slamming them around a platform, yelling in the pseudo-French language that sounds like gobbeldy-gook to you. Suddenly, you hear the word “billet” and realize these people must not have tickets. And, you feel somewhat smug for having recognized an actual spoken word.

It won’t happen often.

The train emerges from its hole in the ground into rain that is coming down sideways over a murky grey landscape. Graffiti and garbage line the tracks on both sides. And, you think, THIS is Paris? The one I’ve been swooning over for decades? I flew all night for THIS? Can I just go back home now?

The train motors forward, and you see another tunnel in the distance. Rounding a bend, what looks like a toy  Eiffel Tower appears on the skyline, but you really aren’t sure your bleary eyes aren’t playing tricks on you, and – just like that – you’re underground again. When you reach some place called Gare du Nord, your travel companion insists on transferring to another train, getting off at the Cite station. Dumbly, you follow because you don’t know what else to do. You’re exhausted. You stink. You’re hungry, and you just want to find any bed, anywhere, and sleep for two solid days.

This was my first series of experiences in Paris with MTM, Thanksgiving 2003.

MTM kept wandering around the train station aimlessly. He would approach first one exit and then another, rejecting each of them for some mysterious reason. I’m dragging my luggage and myself along behind him, becoming increasingly more impatient (read shrill and cilantroful) as he seems to be content to explore every unseen cranny of Cite. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime (read five minutes), he found an exit that appeared to be to his liking, and we proceeded up the steps.

As we emerged from underground, I saw a green lawn in front of me. I looked up, and the clouds parted, dousing everything in prismatic rays of light that converged to my left. When I looked, there was Notre Dame, bathed in stunning morning light.

I gasped. And, then I cried, as I stood there and took in a spot I never thought I’d see with my own eyes.

And, then I had my first experience with a coin operated bathroom and babbling attendant in a foreign country. Even THAT was heavenly, once I saw the light.

The Secret to a Happy Marriage

I had my blog post all ready to go for today when I realized that I needed to lay some groundwork. I’m writing a series of posts this week about past Thanksgiving trips we’ve taken in an effort to help my muddled mind decide what to do this year.

Since 2003, MTM and I have had one – just one – rule in our household. We do not spend family holidays with extended family. It isn’t that we don’t love our extended families. We’ve just found that these periods of forced togetherness don’t generate the goodwill and cheer that people often dream of. We visit my parents around the holidays, and MTM’s mom always spends a week or so with us between Turkey Day and Christmas Eve. So, we see them with a much more relaxed vibe and far lower expectations on both sides.

Additionally, a factor contributing to this madness may be that, if you poke around, it is DIRT CHEAP to fly out of the country for Thanksgiving. Airlines are raping everyone domestically for flying to break bread and slurp cranberry sauce with the relations. It is off season for travel to Europe, mostly because it is cold and raining all the time in much of it during November. The museums are empty. The hotels have specials galore. The restaurants are leisurely and tasty. Sure, we wear rain gear, but we wander along the mostly vacant sidewalks in peace.

There are several other rules for this Thanksgiving jaunt. First, we have to do it all for under a set price, making the cost of airfare the normal deal breaker for a destination. We once found round trip tickets for under $600 to Rome when it was $750 to fly to Canada. CANADA! Usually, there are European bargains like this to be had around Turkey Day, even from Charleston, if one is persistent.

Initially, the rules also dictated that we had to go somewhere neither of us had been. Because MTM has lived abroad three separate times in his life, this is a short list of desirable places. For the past couple of years, we haven’t been able to find a decent ticket that met this criteria, causing us to re-frame this requirement as “seeing something together for the first time.” This year, we’re trying to get back in the spirit and see a new-to-both-of-us place together, but it remains to be seen whether or not the airline gods will cooperate with our top choices.

Lastly, we Do. Not. Eat. Turkey. On. The. Trip. Cranberry sauce is forbidden. Green bean casserole with the french fried onions on top; macaroni and cheese; sweet potato casserole; stuffing – all of it is not on the menu. Once, I meandered around Nancy, France on Thanksgiving Day, visiting every bakery in town doing a taste test comparison of the different pastries. Because I was walking, I thought my waistline could handle this abuse, and that was my Turkey Day breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. “Day of Pastry” beat “Day of Dry Turkey” any time.

So, this week, I’m going to share some of our past Thanksgiving experiences in an effort to generate additional ideas for 2010. Maybe it will inspire some people to throw convention out the window and do something radical this year. It IS the secret to our happy marriage. We’re both convinced of it.

Make Trips Not War

Growing up, I always wanted to go somewhere – anywhere – except my hometown of Florence, South Carolina. Trapped in a tiny town, I dreamed of being an exchange student to France. I looked at the same handful of photos from my Dad’s army days in Europe for hours, ceaselessly entertained by the exotic looking places contained on each black-and-white square of photo paper. Seeing the world always interested me.

Perversely, I never went anywhere. I focused on making good grades and doing all the things good Southern girls do to find marriageable suitors. I didn’t even stray away from home for college for more than one year.

My cousin Pam changed all that for me. She was married to a man who traveled the world building plants for his company, and she regaled me on visits with photos from all over the place. When she actively encouraged me to visit her in Cairo during my senior year of college, I firmly decided to do it. She had bodyguards and a chauffeur, all supplied by her husband’s company. Nothing could go wrong, I asserted when my mother voiced her objections. I looked into flights and determined to go during the week of my spring break.

March of 1991.

In January of 1991, something called the Gulf War broke out, dashing all of my hopes and dreams of finally leaving the country. Even I decided that going in that direction might be dangerous, and I begrudingly put the trip out of my mind.

The disastrous (for me) decade that was the 1990’s concluded, and, fresh out of a failed relationship, I decided to try to go abroad again, this time with a friend. Practically since I could remember, I wanted to visit England, and we planned an aggressive schedule of seeing London, Bath and Cornwall in a week’s time. I booked our passage, and we were all ready to leave.

On September 14, 2001.

I suppose I don’t need to remind anyone what happened on September 11, 2001. Once again, a war of sorts drove my plans for finally doing some real travel completely out of my mind. As I watched the horrific carnage unfolding, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere but home. We scrapped our trip, confident that it was the right thing to do.

A couple more years flew by, and MTM proposed that he take me to Paris for Thanksgiving. By this point, I was perpetually paranoid that any plans on my part to leave the country caused warmongering. This was 2003, and we were invading Iraq, in the midst of a stalemate with the French that led to something called “freedom fries.” Even though we were again at war, and I was concerned about what might cosmically happen if I left US soil, I boarded the plane and went to collect the first stamp in my passport, to tour a city that I’d only pieced together through reading Dumas and Hugo and drooling over photos.

My passport expires next June, and I’ve already shed tears over turning it in for a new one. This scared little Southern girl who dreamed massive dreams has seen some amazing things in the past few years. Still, I feel guilty, secretly paranoid that my going places is causing a constant state of war somewhere.

Until I put those thoughts out of my mind to get down to real business….finally deciding where we are going for Thanksgiving THIS year.

What’s Your Perfect Day?

My perfect day always happens on the same day every year. Well, technically, it isn’t the same exact DAY, but it is a recurring holiday.

MTM and I celebrate Christmas every year in Montreal, as in freezing-cold, it-always-snows, thousands-of-layers-inducing, can’t-understand-what-they’re-saying Canada. We book the same room at Hotel Gault in the Old City, and we spend as many days as we can afford in a winter wonderland. Last year, that meant just three, and we really couldn’t afford those, but we did it anyway. I don’t think I can contemplate starting a new year without chilling my brain above our northern border. We’re going on our eighth Christmas there, and it always goes the same way.

MTM wakes up at his usual time (6am) and I sleep as long as I want (usually 10am.) We order room service, which they deliver on a rolling drop leaf table with starched linens and an exquisite presentation of our oatmeal. I drag myself out of bed and eat, and then we send the cart back into the hallway and crawl back under the fluffy down covers. Usually, we watch a movie. This has ranged from “The Shining” to “The Lion in Winter” to “Open Water.” You know, very cheery stuff.

Then, we put on Radio Classique Montreal, and we listen to whatever version of Handel‘s Messiah they’re broadcasting that year. My favorite one of all time (and worthy of a download on any music device) is the Grammy-winning version by the Dunedin Consort, though we’ve heard a different one each year. Once they’ve played the last “amen,” the Queen comes on for her annual Christmas address, which usually sends me into a deep nap.

When I awake, I take a long bath in the soaking tub with a fizzy bath bomb from Lush and a book, and then we watch another movie, usually something more uplifting, like “Ben Hur,” “Roman Holiday,” or “Lost in Translation.” MTM catches up on all the crossword puzzles he hasn’t had time to complete, and I read some more.

We decide what to order for dinner, which is delivered in short order on another freshly-pressed linen covered drop leaf table. We play more Radio Classique Montreal while we eat and afterwards, when we normally play Yahtzee or Gin Rummy. We call our parents, and we do other things that I won’t share.

Christmas is my one perfect day of the year. Oh, I am blessed with other days that are memorable, remarkable and singular, but this is the one day where we cocoon, not leaving the room all day long, watching the snow fall and doing as little as possible save being together. It is uniquely unmarred. If I receive no other gifts all year long – for anything – it is the one present I don’t think I could do without.

So, that’s my perfect day, at least as much of it as I’m going to share. What is your perfect day? Or, what would it be if you scheduled the time to do it?

Hurricane Naming Party

As three cyclonic fits swirl in the Atlantic Ocean, I wondered what readers would name a hurricane if they had any say in the matter whatsoever. I have several approaches that I might personally implement for naming a hurricane, and should I ever be consulted, I thought it wise to record them for posterity. In case one of the swirling masses of destruction comes our way and all.

You see, I’ve always secretly feared that one day there will be a storm named “Hurricane Andra,” and she will be the most destructive storm in the history of the planet, causing everyone, everywhere, to shun me. I feel sorry for the poor “Danielles” and “Earls” out there right now, innocent of their choice of name, or the poor, pathetic person who may live in the Charleston area named “Hugo.” Surely we could base our monikers of mayhem on something other than names that people have to drag around with them for life?

One tempting approach is to name my storm “Hurricane Elsewhere.” Admit it, Charleston people. We sit, glued to our weather reports, hurricane tracking charts and minute-by-minute analysis of strike probabilities, cleaning out every store within a 50 mile radius of anything and everything usable or thinkable, when what we’re really thinking is this: “Please strike Florida. Or Wilmington. Or even the poor, battered-to-death eye magnet that is Cape Hatteras. If you can’t veer off into the Atlantic, then please run aground elsewhere.”

But then, I’m tempted to name my storm “Hurricane Palmettobug” because I am up at almost midnight writing a blog post. Michael Carnell, faithful reader and owner of Palmettobug Digital, will e-mail me at 6am on a Saturday morning wondering where my post is if I don’t write it now. He will then proceed to comment on old posts until I put up something new, and for me, before 10am on a weekend, when my brain is in stupor mode, this somehow feels like a tropically cyclonic event. Alternatively, the storm could wash every cockroach out to sea, never to be heard from again, like the cyclone was really a grim reaper specifically for vermin.

I might discard both of these, however, in favor of naming my blast of hot, swirling, overwrought air “Hurricane Jon Stewart.” Since he’s already struck South Carolina numerous times with his Daily Show exposes of our worst specimens, from various politicians to a man who’s had sex with a horse more than once, I think it is fitting to wish that a hurricane named in his honor would hit us head on. I hope it washes all those people away who want to get on his site and AGREE WITH HIM about how everyone in South Carolina is exactly as he projects us to be.

Those are just three of my approaches to hurricane naming. What would you name a hurricane, should you ever be asked?


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