City of Light

(Thank you, Sherri Frank Mazzotta for stepping in while I practiced for my music recital. Greatly appreciated!!)

This is the “City of Light,” the “most romantic city in the world.” But we may never see any of it if we can’t get out of the airport. First, we have to figure out how to buy train tickets from the ticket machines. We’re tired and cranky from the overnight flight. Hungry. And just want to get to our hotel. This is how our vacation begins.

The lines for the machines are long, and the instructions written only in French. When it’s our turn to insert a credit card, the machine advises us to do two things, neither of which we can understand. There are no staff to assist; no strangers willing to interpret. We push buttons, move levers, but no tickets appear. With the crowd seething behind us, we finally move to a longer line—to buy tickets from an agent at a window.

“Let’s just take a taxi,” he says.

But I shake my head. “The traffic in Paris is horrible. It’ll take us twice as long.”

“I don’t care.”

I say, “No.”

He looks angry, and I pretend not to notice.

We buy our tickets, ride the train into downtown, and finally arrive at our hotel.

It’s a beautiful building on the Left Bank. Our room is on the top floor overlooking shops and cobblestone streets. I’m eager to shower, find food, and explore the city. I’d been here years ago in my 20s and was excited to be back. But he’s talking about a nap and taking our time and it’s all I can do not to scream.

This is our vacation, after all, and we’re supposed to be having fun.

It’s late afternoon by the time we get outside again, and hotter than it should be in September. We’re still in a haze from jet lag, making our way through thick crowds of people. The sun seems too bright; the cars move too quickly on the narrow streets. We pass cafés and tabacs and creperies, but can’t decide where to eat. We’re timid; dizzy with hunger, but daunted by the chalkboard menus scribbled with words I’d never learned in high school French classes. When we finally choose a café and order food, it’s a relief. But the food is mediocre, unsatisfying, and I somehow feel defeated.

Afterwards, we take a cruise down the Seine on a bâteaux-mouches. Quietly, we study the monuments and museums along the quays of the winding green river. A woman approaches us with an armful of roses. She nods at the flowers, then at us, but my companion tells her “no.” She looks at me with pity.

We disembark from the boat but walk in the wrong direction. Turning a corner, we end up near a stone wall where a woman sits astride a man, kissing him passionately. I smile, it’s so quintessentially French; so perfectly clichéd. Still, I’m embarrassed. Envious. I think, this is what we’re supposed to be feeling in Paris, isn’t it? But I know that’s just a romantic fantasy; no more real than Doisneau’s famous photo of a couple kissing. As the sun sets, we head back to our room, too tired to do more. It’s only our first night, I think. We have time.

We sleep nearly nine hours and wake up feeling energized. We tour the Cathedral Notre Dame. Browse books in the stalls along the Seine. Walk through the Luxembourg Gardens. Our dinner that night is decadent, delicious. We leave the restaurant feeling woozy and relaxed. We’d had a good day.

We have other good days, too. But by mid-week, he realizes he’s getting sick. We can’t find a drugstore or anything even close to Nyquil. He gets grumbly. I feel annoyed that he’s sick, and then guilty for being annoyed.

Still, we head out to the Louvre with thousands of other people to stare at a surprisingly small Mona Lisa. We search for Jim Morrison’s grave in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Eat éclairs at a patisserie. We end each night early, heading back to our hotel to read in bed. Part of me is disappointed, because I’d hoped we’d be out at wine bars or the Moulin Rouge. Though I tell myself it’s because he’s not feeling well, I know it’s something more: Somehow, over the years, we’d lost our sense of adventure.

As the week goes on, things get worse. He doesn’t like the Metro, doesn’t feel safe on it, and wants to take taxis everywhere. This infuriates me more than it should.

We used to travel well together, and I don’t know when that changed; when this low-grade irritation began to buzz inside my head, inside my heart. Not just while we were on vacation, but most of the time. I’m not enjoying myself, I realize. And neither is he.

Our fury comes to a head at the Eiffel Tower, when I want to wait in line to see the view from up above, and he doesn’t.

“Can you wait down here?” I ask. “Or back at the hotel?” 

Instead, he begrudgingly gets in line with me. It’s humid. The line is long and moving slowly. I try to make jokes, to point out interesting things about the Tower, but he’s silent and miserable. It starts to rain, and we don’t have an umbrella.

“This sucks,” he says, “I don’t want to do this.”

“Go back to the hotel,” I say again. But he won’t.

We press into the elevator with what seems like hundreds of people, and it takes us to the first level of the Tower. It’s cloudy and difficult to see—though I’m no longer excited to see anything. Couples hold hands and wrap arms around each other. Kids smile as they peer out into the distance. There’s barely room to stand. I look at him, but he refuses to look back.

Afterwards, it takes an hour to return to our hotel. Now that it’s over he’s talking again, thinking about dinner. But I’m worn out; choked with unspoken anger. This is our vacation, after all, and we’re supposed to be having fun.

Days later, we head back to the States. I stare out the window as our plane lifts off, relieved but saddened by the undeniable truth that nothing lasts forever.

“Life is very short and what we have to do must be done in the now.”