If not actually an oxymoron, “family travel” is dangerously close. What you see if you visit Chichen Itza with the members of your household is the same thing you see in Hong Kong or Yellowstone Park: the exotic relentlessly crushed under the heel of the mundane. For example, the only reason I found to stay up after midnight in Paris during our infamous family trip of 2005 was the same as at home. Where the hell are the kids? And while it is true that I had spent much of the month wishing my family would fall into the Seine, once I actually lost two of the children, I changed my tune.
On the way home from dinner, 17-year-old Emma and 15-year-old Vince had jumped off the subway at the nasty Chatelet stop to find a club Emma had read about on the Internet. Had we actually given permission for this? “Be back by midnight!” I called.
Now, long past that time, I was standing on the sidewalk outside our borrowed apartment, freaking out. The Rue de la Tombe-Issoire was as silent and motionless as a hyper-realist painting, every shuttered pastry shop, every glowing streetlamp, every parked scooter pulsing with ominous portent. On the corner, the red digital marquee of a closed-up drugstore ticked off the minutes. 2:11. 2:12.
At what point should I wake my husband, Crispin? When would we have to call his ex-wife in Baltimore and tell her we had lost her daughter? When to go to the police? I gingerly began to imagine what could have gone wrong. They weren’t dead, I didn’t think, but they could be with bad people. Bad people in shabby apartments with no furniture, with smelly mattresses and uncircumcised penises, with lousy vodka and lousier drugs.
Vince was tall and sort of imposing looking, but he was only 15. Emma was small and vulnerable and, though less reckless than Vince, no wizard of circumspection. But part of my panic that night was that I assumed the two of them wouldn’t do this on purpose. Something had to have happened to them.
At 3:21 a white police van pulled up right in front of me, and three young officers, two male and one female, leapt out. Le Mod Squad. I rushed up to them shouting in broken French.
They looked at me like I was nuts and said to go the main police station and file a missing persons report. Then they went into the alley with flashlights, executed “la mission,” rushed back to the car and sped away.
Practicing for the post-August crime rush, perhaps.
Around 4, I went inside to pee. “Are they not back yet?” my mother-in-law, Joyce, whispered down from the loft. Now it turned out that both she and her friend Sallie had been awake all night. They had heard the phone ring at 1:15, when Emma called to say that they had missed the last train. Her younger brother Sam answered the phone; Emma hung up before I got there. I chided Sam about this, as if he could have prevented it, and the poor boy was beside himself apologizing. Until I stepmotherishly snapped, “Stop apologizing, for God’s sake!”
While Sam had drifted off at last, his tiny, white-haired grandmother was tiptoeing down the narrow wooden staircase in her bathrobe. Life is tough, people are weak, Marx was right–these are the building blocks of my mother-in-law’s worldview. Much in the world does not pass her exacting muster. Lucky for me, she took to me as soon as she met me: a 40-year-old woman in horrifically short cut-offs (that detail haunts me), floating into her living room like a Macy’s parade balloon of mid-life romantic happiness. Having been hated by my previous mother-in-law, I cherished my good fortune. In fact, this whole trip to Paris had its inception when I said something dreamy about wanting to spend some time there, and Joyce sighed, “I’ve never been. And now I’ll probably never go.”
My own mother hadn’t been either, I realized. And though each of these elderly widows needed little help in most areas, it seemed Paris was my department. I had been several times, I speak a little French, I know a few people.
If I had planned a trip for just the three of us… But this simple, civilized approach never crossed my mind. I never thought of leaving my husband, or the five kids we had between us, aged 5 to 17, or my best friend Sandye and her four-year-old, and pretty soon Joyce decided she couldn’t leave her best friend either, and so we were 12.
I emailed a Paris-based contact to see if he had any leads on lodging. He offered me his place, because he, like everyone else, was leaving for a month during the traditional Parisian summer vacation. Though he had only one toilet and two bedrooms, there was a daybed in the kitchen. Of course we would fit! I arranged two shifts of travel, so we’d never be more than eight at once.
Unsurprisingly, Joyce took a dark view of the missing-children situation. I told her I had spoken with the police earlier and they said I had to go to the station.
“So go,” she said.
Wearily I trudged back out to the alley and pushed open the iron gate. I was only halfway down the next block when I felt so cold and tired that I wondered if I mightn’t wait until morning. I should get Crispin’s opinion, I decided, and turned around.
“Crispin,” I whispered, kneeling by the bed.
One blue eye opened under its gingery eyebrow.
“The kids never came home.”
He pushed himself up on one elbow. “What the hell,” he said grimly. Like his mother, he was quite certain that I should go to the police station immediately.
This is the problem with always acting like you are the most capable person around and don’t want or need any help at all. People will take you right up on it.
I arrived around 5 at the precinct. Outside at a guard booth were a pair of cops, male and female, both smoking. I looked longingly at their Gauloises, but felt that bumming a cigarette might not be best opening move.
Inside was a large, dirty reception area with three more gendarmes lounging behind a long counter. One was fat, one had a mustache, one was fat and had a mustache. They heard my tale–les enfants ne rentraient jamais!–but were unimpressed. First of all, said the mustache, there was nothing they could do right away–no phone call to make, no database to check. A missing persons report was a “grande procedure” and I should come back with our passports around 7, and plan to spend most of the day.
However, the fat one continued, les enfants would probably be home by the time I got there, because the trains and buses started running again at 5:30. Au revoir, madame, they said, executing near-simultaneous Gallic shrugs.
Back at the ranch, Crispin and Joyce were at the table sipping coffee. Soon I had weakly responded to all their questions and we fell silent. Outside, the sky paled to gray.
The Depression-era song “April in Paris” was written by Yip Harburg, also the lyricist of the “Over the Rainbow.” The words are, frankly, uninspired–blossoming chestnuts, singing hearts, etc.–but apparently the mere thought of April in Paris was enough to lift the spirits of New Yorkers in breadlines and to live on for all time as a symbol of romance.
Our family, unfortunately, missed April by a season and a half. Instead, we had August, the month when those who live in Paris leave and lend their apartments to others. One by one, the shops close, the window-gates are pulled shut, the chairs and tables are hauled in. Only the museums staunchly hold wide their portals as the city is given over to throngs of tourists. These are the people of August, people who dare not speak its name, because they cannot. What kind of word has three vowels and one diacritical mark before you ever get a consonant? Août. Really.
1. Vince had fallen ill–his throat swollen, his lungs congested. Never a stalwart sort, he lay moaning on the kitchen daybed as if on a Civil War battlefield. Reaching our doctor in the U.S. and finding an open pharmacy was a poignant throwback to other family vacations: Hayes’s horrific diarrhea in Mexico at 18 months, Sam’s ear infection in Jamaica, Emma’s impacted tooth in San Francisco, the headaches and digestive problems which follow Crispin around the globe and can be escalated to crisis proportions simply by leaving the Tylenol home.
2. The interpersonal tensions of the group were more than I could bear. One evening, just before we went out to dinner, we had a gloves-off brawl about the location of a particular Italian restaurant. It was me against them, Crispin, Hayes and Vince, and I was right in the end, but that didn’t help. The meta-arguments, as usual, were the killer: “This is your worst trait!” Vince said darkly, meaning that I argue so hard, which seemed a low blow considering they were all 100 percent incorrect, but by then Hayes had done the typical Hayes thing of changing what he had been saying so he was not actually wrong, which is his worst trait, and this move destroyed the fragile alliance between him and Crispin. Vince at one point tried to smooth things over, saying everyone has bad traits, but Hayes shouted him down.
These people are not very nice to me, I sadly concluded (again). And though we were not at home, I continued in my domestic enslavement to them, their clothes, their meals, their dishes, their rumpled beds. And all of this was my fault, of course, since the ultimate horribleness of one’s horrible children is that one has only oneself to blame.
3. Hayes did not want to come to Paris and had insisted on bringing his golf clubs, despite my increasingly hysterical explanations that there were no golf courses in Paris. Now he sat morosely in the tiny apartment, staring at his golf bag. One day we took three subway lines into the outskirts of the city so he could hit balls on a driving range set up in the middle of a racetrack. This did not make either of us feel any better.
4. My mother, on the other hand, was no trouble at all. During the Italian restaurant imbroglio and most others, she repaired to a table in the bushes in the alley with her martini, her cigarette, and one of the seven books she had imported from her public library. Having passed on the task of driving me insane to the younger generation, she could relax. By the night the kids disappeared, she and Hayes had taken their flight home.
Around 5:45 a.m., the front gate clanged shut; Joyce, Crispin and I all heard it. We looked up from our mugs into each other’s eyes. Then we heard the soft chatter, the familiar voices, and raced out onto the stoop.
When the two of them saw the three of us lined up like that, shrimpy and exhausted, their jaws dropped. They’d had no idea there would be such a problem; only in the last couple hours had they even tried to get home. So we grownups filled them in on exactly what we had been through.
While Vince, who had been my son all his life, didn’t seem too concerned about the worry he had caused–just another drop in the bucket–my stepdaughter Emma felt very bad. It was rather refreshing for me to see the forlorn, apologetic look on her face. I don’t think my boys ever learned to make that face.
Perhaps more time would have been devoted to the aftermath of this crisis if another hadn’t broken in its wake. I received a phone call from my mother in which she used the F word at least 15 times, explaining that she and Hayes had been delayed overnight in Boston, then flown to Washington instead of Baltimore, and had finally arrived at BWI 36 hours behind schedule only to find that Hayes had lost my mother’s car keys.
By this time, stress had sandblasted every synapse in my brain. My primary reaction was, better him than me.
For our last day, I pulled myself together and planned a three-stop outing: the famous Deyrolle taxidermy shop, a top-floor restaurant with a view, a carnival in the Tuileries. We hit the Paris-in-August trifecta. All were closed, despite the assurance in my guidebooks. At the sight of the carnies taking down the Ferris wheel, the youngest members of our party burst into tears.
“Good thing we’re leaving tomorrow,” said Vince, “before they roll up the streets.”
At that point, believe it or not, it started to rain.
Ah well. Soon it would be September, and we would be back home in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, where the fact that everything was open for business and we had four toilets in our house would not make us as happy as you might think.
In many ways, it would be surprisingly like Paris.
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.