every girl needs a greek chorus

a blog about hope


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Turistas

Watching for over 500 years...

Watching for over 500 years…

The Daughter and I have been busy doing nothing this week in Cancún, which, as you may have read, I am really good at doing.  This is not our first visit here, and we were looking for a relaxing trip to end a period of turmoil.  We could have gone to one of the Delmarva beaches, significantly closer to home, but, oddly, it’s cheaper to come to Mexico, even with the cost of airfare or frequent flyer miles.

I was first here in the fall of 1984 with the Veterinarian.  We were on a badly-needed vacation, the first we had in 12 years of marriage that didn’t include family or friends and the first of any kind in over three years.  Fearing the cost of hiring a relief veterinarian and potentially losing clients, he didn’t want to take time off.  I pointed out it was them or me, which was a great incentive.  I put him in charge of the plans.

At the time, Cancún was underdeveloped and an exotic destination, long before it became a haven for spring breakers and wet t-shirt contests.  Touted by a travel agent as an “American-quality” resort destination (i.e., the water was potable), its major appeal was and is the wide white sand beach and the bargains on lodging and food.  We stayed at the Sheraton Cancún, which, the travel agent told us somewhat apologetically, was far from town, surrounded by marshland.  It sounded great to us.  The most exhausted people on Earth, we didn’t care to partake in the nightlife.  That’s right; we’d be making conversation with one another 24/7.

As our plane landed at the small airport, we noticed numerous vintage airplanes scuttled off to the sides of the landing strip, including several DC-3s that appeared to have crashed into the jungle.

“Drug runners?”  We wondered.

A pre-arranged shuttle took our travel group to their hotels, starting in the downtown area.  Most of the passengers got off at the Fiesta Americana Hotel, known for its fiestas and fun.  We were the only couple to make it to the last stop, the Sheraton, which, as described, was far down the beach from town.  The only hotel farther south was the Club Med.  [Remember their “swinging” reputation?  Whatever happened to them?]

The Sheraton’s main building was low-slung, suggesting traditional pyramids, and the outbuildings were finished with traditional thatched roofs.  Interiors were finished with stucco and bright terra cotta tiles.  It was casual but sedate and had so many amenities that we didn’t even need to leave the resort.  The concierge who welcomed us pointed out the swim-up bar and even a small Mayan ruin, consisting of two buildings that may have been used as watchtowers along the coast.  The hotel restaurant’s food was a nightly buffet of Mexican specialties from various regions, so, everything was at our fingertips.  The resting and healing began.

May, 2012

May, 2012

When we could haul ourselves away from the pool grill’s Margaritas and excellent hamburgers, we managed to fill my #1 vacation plan, “Leave no historic site unvisited because you might miss something.” We toured the ruins at Tu’lum and Chichén Itzá, which is probably the most miserably hot place I have ever been.  In those days, you could actually walk up the incredibly steep steps to the top of the pyramids.  I gave it a try at Tu’lum.  Going up was a snap for a woman with size 6 feet.  Coming down was a nightmare for a woman without depth perception.   At Chichén, I watched the Veterinarian climb the massive central pyramid from below, and, in a pale imitation of Indiana Jones, I allowed myself to be led into the monument’s interior, crawling on my belly to see the throne room and its magnificent jaguar.  Not a good choice for a woman who tends to be claustrophobic.  [None of this is allowed today, and I wouldn’t do either of them again, even if they were.]

On our last night, we succumbed to the concierge’s repeated recommendation of the “traditional” fiesta dinner at a restaurant “downtown” that was included in our vacation package.  We took a taxi into town, and, while I don’t recall the name of the restaurant, it was a meal made memorable by the floor show of our waiter and not by the food.

As he delivered a pitcher of watered-down Margaritas, our waiter began a rapid-fire inquiry into our hometown, what we had seen since our arrival, etc.  We sat back and sipped at the drinks and perused the limited menu options.  In a few minutes, he returned to take our order.  When he left, I leaned across the table to the Veterinarian.

“Was he wearing that eyeliner when he brought the Margaritas?”

“I was just wondering the same thing,” he replied.  “I don’t think so.”

The waiter returned with guacamole, salsa and chips and iridescent eyeshadow on his lids.  I’ve been in the theatre for 95% of my life, so I remained unfazed.

“Huh,” I commented, “he must be part of the show.”  We dug into the chips, the best part of the meal, and enjoyed the strolling mariachi.

Fifteen minutes later, our entrées arrived, over-salted, touristy-bland, and swimming in melted cheese. Oh!  And our waiter was wearing heels, fishnets, a spiked black wig, and one false eyelash.  I had to quickly look away because I was on the verge of losing my composure.

“It wouldn’t be so funny, if he’d put on both lashes,” I whispered when he’d left the table.  “That’s just tacky.”

“Eat fast,” the Veterinarian urged.  “Maybe we can get out of here before the show starts.”

No such luck.  And, yes.  It turned out to be a drag show, with the only sombreros on the heads of the heterosexual norteamericanos in the audience.  Our waiter lip-synched to Liza Minelli doing “New York, New York.”  When he brought us our flan and cafés méxicanos, we thanked him for a night we would never forget.

Just then, there was an explosion outside the open window against which I was leaning.  The fiesta’s grand finale began with fireworks, pinwheels spewing colorful sparks in every direction and clouds of smoke drifting through the window into the restaurant.

“We paid in advance, right?”  The Veterinarian shouted over the noise.  Between the smoke and my laughter, tears were rolling down my face, so all I could do was nod wildly.  “Then we need to get the hell out of here before the place goes up in flames.”  He dropped a generous pile of pesos on the table for our waiter and headed for the door.

So much for the traditional fiesta.

The next day, we arrived at the airport early and checked-in for our Mexicana airlines flight to Philadelphia.  We cleared customs and stood in the small waiting room, where all the seats were taken.

“Attention, ladies and gentleman,” a voice came over the loud-speaker.  “Today’s flight to Philadelphia is overbooked, and we are looking for two passengers willing to give up their seats and take a later flight to Philadelphia, stopping in Dallas.  Please contact a Mexicana Air attendant.  We will pay $750 per person.”

We looked at each other and couldn’t move fast enough, locating a man in a Mexicana Air uniform who assisted us through customs, where other passengers were trying to get out.

“We were here first,” a blond woman snarled.

“I’m sorry,” the airline’s agent said, “but these people were the first to contact an airline official, as instructed.”  He expedited our return through customs and to the ticket counter, where we were re-booked on a flight that left for Dallas two hours later and handed — are you sitting down, because you aren’t going to believe this one — 1,500 US dollars.  I am not kidding you.  The agent took us back through customs, where we sat in a trance.

“How much did this week-long vacation cost us?”  I asked.

“With tours and taxis and tips and souvenirs, I think about $1,200.”

“So we made $300 on this trip?”

He nodded numbly.

September, 2015

September 16, 2015

And that is how a trip to Cancún saved our marriage.  Alas, we never did get back.  There was always something else to see.  Something else to do.  Until 2012.  Seven months after the Veterinarian left us, the Daughter and I returned to Cancún, seeking rest.  A search on the internet found us an unbelievable deal on a one bedroom “villa” at the Westin Cancún.  I hired a service to pick us up at the airport.

Much had changed since 1984.  Although the airport was huge and modern, one of the DC-3s was still laying sadly on its belly next to the runway.  Our driver pointed out all the sights on our way to our hotel.  I didn’t recognize a single thing.  I told him about staying at the Sheraton on our previous trip.  He was too young to remember it.  But, in the back of my brain, something seemed familiar.  We pulled up to the guardhouse of the sprawling, modern resort, where the guard checked our names on his list and waved us through.  At the top of a ramp, massive glass doors slid open, and we walked into the lobby.  Through the glass wall on the other side, I saw the pool and a thatched, swim-up bar.

“Oh, my God!”  Tears sprang to my eyes.  I asked the receptionist, “Was the old Sheraton hotel on this property?”

“Sí, señora,” she smiled.

“And is there a Mayan ruin on the premises?” I still wasn’t sure it was the same spot.

“Yes, to the left.”

I couldn’t believe it.  28 years later, of all the hotels in all of Cancún, we were in the same place.   We had a wonderful, relaxing time.  I hired a private guide for tours of Tu’lum and Chichén Itzá.  He told us wonderful stories about what we were going to see, and the driver was waiting for us with wet chilled facecloths and bottles of cold water when we limped back to our van.   He told me how lucky I was to have been able to see the now-inaccessible parts and how other tourists and local vandals had damaged them.  I thought about the many traces of the Maya that have disappeared in the hotel zone and about the ruins on the property with new respect.

20150916_175356Now, we are back and headed to the ruins of the ancient watchtowers before dinner.  They sit on the highest point of land on the shore, facing the sea, still watching.  Yesterday, a Mexican naval patrol boat cruised up and down the shore until well after dark.  The more things change, the more they remain the same.  The turtles still nest.  We still find rest.  The hamburgers remain the best.  So, who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!


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Fly with Me, if you Dare

I have a love-hate relationship with air travel.  I used to love it.  Now, I hate it.

Remember when families used to go for a Sunday drive?  Sometimes we went to Grandma’s house.   Sometimes we drove down to the Detroit River to watch the iron ore freighters glide past.  Sometimes we drove into the country to look at the stars.  (Can you imagine taking our children or grandchildren to sit and enjoy nothing as a family?  These days, we could probably be arrested for abusing them.)

Sometimes we just drove to the airport to watch planes land and take off.  Cars would park at the end of the runway and just watch them fly over our heads.

Air travel in those days was unreachable to average American families, so there was something glamorous about flying into the unknown.  It beat the hell out of riding in a hot car for 9 hours to visit relatives.  I wanted to wear a stylish outfit and fly the friendly skies, so when I was 13 (1965), I called Delta Airlines to research the fare for a round-trip ticket to Atlanta to visit relatives.  The round-trip fare was $104.  I asked my parents if I could make the trip if I could save up the money.  They smiled benignly and said, “Sure, if you can save the money.”

From then on, I saved my meager allowance and modest gifts, and, in about 10 months, I had $104.  The fare had remained unchanged, so I approached my parents.  My, my, my, weren’t they surprised?  Being smart parents, they agreed, but they said they would pay for me and my sister to fly to Atlanta with a return trip in the family car.  Not my original plan, what with the sister cramping my style, but I would still have my $104.  I readily agreed to the compromise.

We dressed in our best Sunday dresses and shoes, waved good-bye to our parents at the gate, and boarded the plane.  We were served filet mignon wrapped in bacon, a common practice when flying coach in those days.  And that was the last uneventful trip I’ve ever had.

50% of every trip I take by air involves some sort of snafu in one direction or the other.  The only exceptions were when I flew the Concorde and when my sister and I flew to Italy two years ago, both trips on British Airways, now that I think about it.

Here are some highlights of airline angst and how I’ve survived them:

In 1977, my brother-in-law lived on Eleuthera, one of the “out-islands” of the Bahamas.  At the time, it had two airports, one on the north end and one in the main town, our destination.  Unfortunately, the only airline that served the island was Bahamasair, whose motto, according to the locals, was “If you have time to spare, fly Bahamasair.”  We were booked to fly from Miami in the early afternoon.  We flew Eastern Airlines  to Miami and re-checked in at Bahamasair

Now, it’s always nerve-wracking when you have to step on a scale with your luggage to determine the flight’s total weight.  We were assigned seats according to our individual weight, which put me way in the tail and The Veterinarian behind the pilot, about five rows away.  Okay.  I understand aerodynamics and small airplanes.  We sat in the waiting area.  And waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Finally, an announcement was made that the flight hadn’t left the Bahamas because “a front was passing through.”  Okay.  I understand the effect of wind.  When the plane arrived, we immediately were hustled out to the tarmac.

“Board quickly, please!”  There was confusion about which luggage was carry-on and which had to be stowed, about who sat where.  “Quickly, please!”  The agents and pilots kept saying to us.

Once loaded, the small plane rolled onto the huge taxiway at Miami International, interspersed with the usual DC-9s and 747s.  The Veterinarian turned around and looked at me and rolled his eyes.

“I love you,” I mouthed.  He winked.  His family was in the air cargo and charter business, and we were well-familiar with the safety requirements of flying.  We were behind a 727 and turned onto the runway immediately as it took off.  We looked at our watches and each other as the small plane accelerated.  It clearly was taking off too soon after the big jet.  I shrugged and put myself in God’s hands.  We bounced and jostled as we sped down the runway.

Once in the air and over the Atlantic Gulfstream (about 2 minutes after take-off), the co-pilot announced that we had left Miami too late to make our final destination.  We would all deplane and clear customs at the north end of the island and arrange our own transportation to our final destination. As it turned out, there were no landing lights at either airport, and while it would be light when we landed in the north, it would be dark before we could land at our actual destination.  If you have time to spare, fly Bahamasair.

In August, 1980, The Veterinarian and I were booked on Republic Airlines to fly from Baltimore’s BWI airport to Detroit on a Friday afternoon for our high school reunion, which was being held the next day.  We had to fly home on Sunday because he had appointments to see on Monday.  We arrived at the airport, checked in without baggage and proceeded to the gate.  Again, we had a long wait.  Eventually, an announcement was made that there was “turbulent weather” in Detroit and that the flight was delayed.

Okay.  I don’t want people endangered for my convenience.  Then, we waited another hour.  And another hour.  At least, we were travelling between major airports, fully-equipped with things like lights, so we weren’t especially concerned.  Finally, the flight arrived, and an announcement was made that it was overbooked, and about 20 passengers were being rescheduled to Monday morning.  We were told to go back to the main counter to have our tickets reissued.

WHAT???!!!!  We had boarding passes.  We had seat assignments.  The reunion was the next day.  There was no point in going on Monday.  I stomped to the counter.  The Veterinarian settled back and watched me work.  I explained our dilemma to the agent and demanded to either be booked on another flight by noon the next day or issued a refund.

“These are non-refundable tickets, and we are not responsible for the weather,” she snapped.

“I get the weather issue, but how is it that we had seats and boarding passes for the other flight, and now we don’t?  How are you deciding who gets to fly and who doesn’t?”  Passengers behind me in line chimed in, “Yeah.  Explain that one.”

“All flights are overbooked, which is a risk.”

“No, no, no,” I replied.  “We had seat assignments.  Who got those seats?”  Just then, another agent pulled her aside and whispered to her, “They sent a smaller aircraft from Detroit, so we don’t have enough room for all the passengers with seat assignments.”

“WHAT??!!”  I seized my opportunity.  “You screwed up?  The problem isn’t the weather, after all.”

I guess I could have been arrested for inciting a riot, because the people behind me went nuts.  Suddenly, the counter agent was smiling and accommodating.  Long story short, the airline was forced to find seats on the flights of other airlines.  We were re-booked for the following morning.  We got to the reunion on time, but why should I need to have a confrontation to get a seat?

In the mid-1990s, we were bounced from two Delta flights due to overbooking.  When we boarded the third flight, we discovered that another couple had been given the same seat assignments, and the flight was full.

“You’ll have to deplane,” said one of the flight attendants.

“Here, hold my carry-on and don’t move,” The Veterinarian ordered.  I dropped our bags in the middle of the aisle in coach and started explaining our nightmare with Delta Airlines to my fellow passengers in a really loud voice.

In first class, The Veterinarian was having an argument with the gate agent and a flight attendant when the captain of the flight came out of the cockpit and asked, “Why aren’t we finished boarding?”

“Well,” said the gate agent, “These people have been issued duplicate seat assignments.”

“Sir, this is the third flight we’ve been booked on that has been screwed up,” The Veterinarian explained.

“Who’s sitting in these empty seats in first class?” the pilot’s voice boomed throughout the plane.

“Well, they aren’t booked.”

“Put these people in these seats then, or we’re going to lose our slot for take-off,” the captain ordered.

“But we don’t have any meals for them,” said a flight attendant.

“We don’t need food.  We just want to get home to Baltimore.”  We were hustled into first class, where they did have Champagne for our troubles.

Another time, we were travelling with The Daughter when our American flight was cancelled due to “maintenance” issues from Miami, so we were told that they couldn’t get us on a flight to Baltimore until the next morning.  They told us to sleep in the airport.  Again, we stomped to the counter with a woman flying alone.

“So,” I began, “this is a cancellation due to a maintenance issue.  Don’t you have to provide lodging for us?”

“Well,” the counter agent hesitated.

“Look, this isn’t my first time at the rodeo.  Are you putting us up or not?”

“Ok.  We’re giving you a room at the Mississoukee Casino.”

“Isn’t that way out in the Everglades?”

“Uh, yes.”

“Uh. No.  What about the hotel right over there in the airport?”  (We’d been put up there twice before on other cancelled flights—geez, I hate Miami).

“Well, they’re having plumbing issues and don’t have hot water.”

“Do the toilets work?”

“I believe so.  But there’s no hot water.”

“We don’t need hot water.  We need a toilet and a bed.”

“All right.”  He made the arrangements, as a single woman from our cancelled flight stepped up to the other agent.  I heard him try to send her out into the Everglades.

“Ma’am, no,” I interrupted.  “Don’t let them send you out to the Everglades.  Make them put you up here in the airport.  There’s no hot water, but you’ll be safer.”  I glared at the agent as he booked her into the airport hotel.

Now, we also deal with the Transportation Security Administration (aka TSA).  In March, 2002, we were flying with our 10-year old, blond, blue-eyed daughter, on US Airways from Philadelphia to Orlando for spring break.    Vigilant parents, we always boarded with her between us.  I showed my boarding pass for scanning, stepped aside, and The Daughter showed hers.

“Security!” The agent called out.  We all three jumped.  “You, board the plane.”  The agent moved me toward the door.

“No, I don’t think so,” I stopped, “What are you doing with my daughter?”  A security agent appeared and took hold of her arm.  The Veterinarian put his hands on The Daughter’s shoulders and said, “Get your hands off my daughter.”

“She’s been randomly chosen for a security pat-down according to a code on her boarding pass,” the security agent tried to pull her away.  She started to cry.

The boarding agent continued to shoo me toward the jetway.

“You are not touching my daughter,” my husband protested and turned to me, “Go on.  I got this one.” I walked down the jetway to just outside the aircraft door but refused to board.  A flight attendant asked me what the commotion was about.  She shook her head sadly when I explained the problem.  I stood there envisioning myself in a federal jail in Philadelphia.  Within five minutes, they appeared, my daughter still in tears.

“I told him to pat me down for his ‘random check,’” The Veterinarian explained.  “Assholes.”

I could go on and on and on, but it’s just more of the same, including when I flew this past January and in March, when I had to insist that I be flown to Baltimore, where I had parked my car, instead of Washington, DC, when my US Airways flight was cancelled due to a “maintenance issue.”

There have been wonderful moments, two of which I would be remiss if I didn’t share.

When we adopted our daughter, she was living in Denver.  We were able to use frequent flyer miles to bring her home.  Because no cheaper seats were available on our last minute booking, we had to fly first class, which is never a good way to introduce a child to air travel, by the way.  As we boarded, she cheerily told the flight attendants that she was being adopted and was moving to her new home in Maryland.  Unbeknownst to us, the flight attendant told the captain, who came and took her for a cockpit tour.  This was 1999, pre-9/11.

We were invited to take photos of her sitting in the pilot’s seat, and, the pilot placed his cap on her head.  It was one of those magic moments that a parent never forgets.  I still get teary thinking about it.

14 years later, she and her girlfriend and I boarded a flight home.  About 10 passengers had boarded, when boarding was stopped due to a “maintenance issue.”  We sat in the stuffy plane chatting with the flight attendants when the captain came out and introduced himself to us.  We told him about the Daughter’s first flight experience, and the captain said, “Let’s do it again!  We could be sitting here for a while.”  He took her up to the cockpit, sat her down, put his hat on her, and took her photo.  There’s probably some regulation against it now, so don’t tell anyone!

The Daughter and I are about to fly.  I booked the flight in April, flying out of DC, instead of Baltimore, but the departure time of 11 am didn’t seem too extreme.  She was scheduled to work the night before, so I’d pick her up at 8am and drive us, thinking she could sleep on the flight.

Or so I planned.

At the end of June, I got a notice from the airline that the schedule had changed.  Now, our flight leaves at 6:45 am, which is before The Daughter gets off work.  I understand changing schedules, but I expect that you re-book me on a flight at a similar time.  Now, she has to rearrange her work schedule, and this becomes one of those driving-to-the-airport-in-the-middle-of-the-night deals, arriving before the counter has even opened.  I would call and go into irate customer mode, but I’m saving the energy for the actual flying experience.

And I haven’t even gotten to lost or damaged luggage.  Maybe I’ll have more energy after my vacation.  After I lay on the beach and drink Margaritas for a week.  So, who am I to complain?  Life is (or will be) good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!


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The First Time I Saw Paris

Quatorze juillet

Quatorze juillet

When I was a girl, I learned that the world was a much bigger place than the block of houses on which I lived.  My grandparents, and those of my friends, spoke different languages, Italian, Polish, Armenian, Hungarian, Gaelic, German, Lithuanian, Norwegian, and French, among others.  They told stories of hardship that drove them onto ships and trains looking for better lives, regaled us with stories of magical places, and stuffed us with exotic food.  I wanted to see and hear and taste and understand them all.

On the cover of my first French language textbook was a photo of the Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel, that medieval engineering marvel off the coast of Normandy.  It was something from a fairy tale, perched on a rock, isolated by water during especially high tides.  I placed my 14-year old hand over the picture, scanning it into my brain through my palm.

During my sophomore year in college, we read Henry Adams’ Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres in a western European art and history class.  I scanned Adams’ description into my brain with the image and carried them until 1989, when I planned a long-awaited, first trip to France with The Veterinarian for a medical conference.

“Here’s our itinerary,” I showed him my plans.  “On Saturday, we fly into Charles de Gaulle airport and take the Air France bus right to the conference hotel.  Then, on Monday, we meet up with a French Rail tour which will take us to Normandy.”

“What?” he asked.  “Normandy isn’t near Paris, is it?”

“Well, no, it isn’t,” I explained.  “That’s why we have to take the train.”

“How long is this going to take?”  I could tell he was skeptical.

“It’s a 10-hour tour.”

“10 hours on a tour?!”

“Sometimes, we’ll be on the train and sometimes, on a bus, and we get lunch in a medieval restaurant.”

“Are we going to see the D-Day beaches?” He brightened a bit.

“No, we’re going to see the Mont-Saint-Michel,” I explained.  His face was blank.  “You know?  The abbey on the island in the English Channel?”  He was unimpressed.

“Why are we going all the way west to Normandy when the conference is in Burgundy in the east?”

Mont-Saint-Michel 1989

Mont-Saint-Michel 1989

“Because,” I sighed and fixed him with my steeliest glare, “I’ve wanted to see the Mont-Saint-Michel all my life, and I am not going to France and not seeing it.  I may never get there again.”  He knew when to quit and let the subject drop.

The previous year, we had taken a similar BritRail tour in England and Scotland, a perfectly delightful way to cover a lot of a country in the fewest number of days, so I didn’t understand his peevishness.

Our Air France flight introduced us to our first experience française.  The flight attendants were chic, the food and wine sublime, even in economique.  After the cheese plate and dessert were served, they brought coffee, cognac, and squares of the most divine dark chocolate that I had ever tasted.  I let mine melt on my tongue until it coated every part of my mouth.

“You aren’t going to eat that chocolate, are you?” I asked The Veterinarian.

“Yes, I’m going to eat it all. You shouldn’t have eaten yours so fast.”

“But, it’s sooo good.”

Madame, would you care for another chocolat?”  The flight attendant magically appeared and presented a box under my nose.  Not wanting to be the piggish Americaine, I limited myself to two more of the little wrapped squares, which I tucked securely in my purse.

Ah, oui, s’il vous plaît.  Et merci!”  I practiced my best French.

“Aren’t you the lucky one?”  The Veterinarian smirked.

“Yes, and I’m going to find this chocolat and buy some to take home.”

Upon arrival in Paris, we went straight to our hotel, a modern high-rise in the business district, not especially romantic, but we were exhausted, and our room had a spectacular view of Paris.  No matter which way I lay on the bed, I could see the Eiffel Tower, either through the window or perfectly reflected in the mirrored closet doors.  After a brief nap, we set out to explore the city of my dreams.  I dressed in chic and practical black, and he wore a tweed sport coat.

“Let’s go to the Tour Eiffel first, so we can see all of Paris,” we decided.  The Métro station’s map of multi-colored train lines and stops wasn’t nearly as daunting as we had expected.

“Now,” I said to The Veterinarian, “go to the window over there and ask for ‘deux billets, s’il vous plaît,’ and hand them the money.”

He nodded, walked about three feet, stopped abruptly, and turned to me.

“Wait a minute,” he shook his head. “I don’t speak French.  You’re the one who speaks French.  You buy the tickets.”

Merde!  He’d found me out.  I was secretly terrified that I didn’t really speak French intelligibly.  Everyone told horror stories about the French mocking American tourists, and I wasn’t sure that my ego or my childhood fantasies could take it.  But he was right, and, if I was ever going to speak French properly to a French person, I might as well try it out in an anonymous subway station, where the clerks were probably rude to everyone.

I timidly approached the window.  When the bored clerk looked up, I made my request and slid my francs into the till.  Without a word, he counted out the two tickets and my change.  Amazed, I whispered, “Merci, Monsieur.”  He went back to his newspaper.

“See?” The Veterinarian laughed.  “That was easy.  He understood you.”

“Oh, God,” I was on the verge of hyperventilating, “I’m not sure I can do that again.  Too much stress.”

At the Tour Eiffel, we got in line and easily purchased our tickets.  I used the same French phrase, and the clerk answered me in English.  Ok.  It was obvious that I was a non-native speaker of French, but I was communicating in a foreign language.  We rode up Gustave Eiffel’s elevators to the top, a real steampunk experience of late 19th-century ironwork and gears and cables with glimpses of the ground and Paris and faces.

“I’m starving,” The Veterinarian complained.  “I’ve got to eat.  Let’s go to that brasserie on the second floor.”  Actually, I recall a little more arguing about exactly where we were going to eat, but, after looking longingly at the menu of the Tour’s Michelin-starred Jules Verne restaurant, we headed for its much cheaper stepsister.

“You do the ordering,” he said, when our waiter appeared.  I took a deep breath and looked her in the eye.  She wore the traditional black pants, crisp white shirt, and long white apron of French waiters, her blonde hair in an elegant chignon.  I felt like the street sweeper.

Je voudrais le steak frites, et mon mari…” I began.

Le steak frites.  Beefsteak with fried potatoes,” she interrupted.

“Uh, oui,” I replied.  “Et mon mari voudrait le poulet rotî, s’il vous plaît.”

Le poulet rotî.  Roast chicken.” she said.

“Uh, oui, merci.”

Eh, bien, Madame, Monsieur,” The waiter gave a slight nod, smiled pleasantly, and left the table.

“Oh, no,” I moaned, “she was correcting my pronunciation.”

“No,” The Veterinarian replied, “it sounded the same to me.  Didn’t you notice that she wasn’t writing down the order?  She was repeating it, so she would remember it.”  He even became bold enough to order wine in English, and we settled into our first meal in Paris, right through to the Tarte aux Pommes.

When our alarm went off at 6 the next morning, our jet-lag was so bad we could hardly focus to dress ourselves, find the Métro, and get to the train station for the tour’s 7 o’clock departure.  The Veterinarian was mollified by a boulangerie in the station with heavenly coffee.

“This had better be worth it,” he mumbled through his croissant.

Our group boarded the sleek Train Grand Vitesse (TGV), one of those high-speed modes of transportation enjoyed by the rest of the civilized world that makes the U.S. look like it’s still in the horse-and-buggy age.  Soon, we were zipping along the seamless rail.  The faster the train went, the smoother the ride became.  In my mind, I was hurtling from the future into the past.

Mont-Saint-Michel 2009

Mont-Saint-Michel 2009

At LeMans, the famous racing town, we disembarked and boarded a bus, which began to wind its way through the bucolic Norman countryside to the coast.  Just before noon, the bus turned onto a narrow road, and we could see the spire of the church atop the rock rise into view.  The one-time abbey and some-time prison looked exactly like the photo on my old textbook, but even more mysterious, as it grew out of the rock.  In places, it was impossible to tell where the rock ended and the abbey’s foundation, built from the same stone, began.  The bus let us out at the end of the causeway, and we followed our guide up the steep street, stopping for a lunch of one of the town’s famous, and famously overpriced, puffy omelettes.

Just before one o’clock, we made our way past a long line of tourists to the ancient wooden door.  To the side, a smaller door opened, and a hand reached out with an enormous iron key, which our guide accepted and opened the enormous wooden door for our group, closing it behind us.  She returned the key.

“See?  This is why we took this tour,” I hissed to The Veterinarian.

For about 15 minutes, our group was alone on the grounds, the wind off the English Channel whipping around us, as we walked through the cloister and into the reconstructed church and refectory.  Although I had no idea what an abbey would look like, this one whispered ancient stories from the stone walls.  You know how you read the “Harry Potter” books and imagined how Hogwarts would look, and when you saw the movie, it looked exactly like you pictured it?  That was my experience, only I felt the prayers of the monks and the prisoners who had lived there.

At the end of the day, as we hurtled through the French countryside back to Paris, I thought I should just get on a plane and fly home.  I had seen the Tour Eiffel.  I had seen the Mont-Saint-Michel.  I thought I had seen it all.  Luckily, there were 10 more days, from the Château Clos de Vougeot to the tiled roofs of Beaune, a Swiss breakfast in Geneva, through the Mont Blanc Tunnel for lunch in Italy, and back to Chamonix for dinner.  It was a whirlwind of eating and sightseeing and the inevitable day of crashing in our room, when we just couldn’t take one more day of dreams coming true.

The First Time I saw Paris 1989

The First Time I saw Paris 1989

On our last day, we took another train tour to Chartres to see the great cathedral with its famous labyrinth, another lunch in a quaint inn, and on to Versailles.  That night, we crowned the trip with dinner on a Bateau Mouche, those barges that ply the Seine through the heart of Paris, to the delight of tourists and the bane of residents.  It was a day of piety and indulgences of the not-so-religious kind.

The next morning, as we made our way through Charles de Gaulle airport, I realized that I had forgotten to the chocolates.  I turned into a “gourmet” gift shop, and there it was, Valrhona, in small bars and in a large box.  My love affair began in earnest, I must confess.

“We should get the large box of the little squares so we can share them, don’t you think?”  I asked the Veterinarian, who shook his head at my indiscretion.

I handed over my credit card and stuffed the surprisingly heavy box into my carry-on, where it remained untouched, since we were served little squares with lunch on our flight home.  It was the first thing I unpacked.  I pulled it out and cut the seal.  Inside the box was a foil wrapped package.

“Oh, I guess this is to make sure that the little squares stay fresh,” I thought.  But, when I cut into the foil, there was a solid block of the finest chocolate that I had ever tasted.  The aroma filled my head.  I looked at the box.  “70% guanaja chocolat.  3kg.”  Yep, I had purchased a 6.5 pound solid block of chocolate.

“Whoa!  What are we going to do with all of this?”  I was shocked by what I had purchased.

“Here’s what I’m going to do,” the Veterinarian replied.  He pulled a metal mallet out of the drawer and smacked off one corner of the block and popped it into his mouth.  “Oh, my gosh.”  He handed me a chunk.  In a solid marble-sized piece, it melted even slower.  We looked at each other and groaned with delight.

I learned to do a lot with chocolate.  Created my own truffles.  Used it in mousse au chocolat.  Made a killer coconut cream pie whose custard is spooned over a layer of hardened chocolate in the baked pie shell.  And the ultimate dessert that never ceases to amaze guests, a chocolate soufflé made in individual rings.

And, of course, it’s a great anti-depressant, when eaten all by itself.  I’ve eaten a lot of it in the past three years, especially with Pinot Noir.

It takes me about two years to go through an entire block, which I keep tightly wrapped in its foil pouch.  Yes, it does bloom, but nothing else has the same deep chocolate flavor, with just enough sweetness and even a hint of vanilla.  Only two other things can transport me to France, Champagne (see Yes, I’m a Champagne Slut) and bread from Poîlane, other trips and other storiey.

The Last Time I saw Paris 2009

The Last Time I saw Paris 2009

In 2009, 20 years after our first visit, we returned to the Mont-Saint-Michel on the Autumnal Equinox, September 21, one of the few times of the year that the parking area at the foot of the causeway was closed because the tide came in so high that the water almost completely surrounded the island.  Silting at the mouth of the river, as well as construction of the causeway, prevented it from occuring on a regular basis.  However, in 2015, a bridge opened to link the mainland to the island so that the causeway could be removed.    We parked on the mainland and started walking, as the water receded, and cars returned to the carpark.  It was even more spectacular than we remembered.

Last week, I found out through a distant cousin, that our Italian great-grandmother’s mother was French!  I like to think that explains it all.  Now, if someone could explain to me why I buy stuff in the airport without properly calculating the exchange rate, please get in touch.  I’m always horrified by my foolishness when my credit card statement arrives.  Of course, I’m always delighted with my souvenirs, such as the pair of buttery soft, lilac suede gloves that I bought at DaVinci airport in Rome, so who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!