June of 1995 marked a proud moment in the life of my niece, Ronya. She had accomplished one of the most revered achievements in African American life: graduation from high school and acceptance into college.
What better gift to share with an African American princess than a guided tour of my most beloved city, Paris. For expanding her view of the world, Paris seemed to be the perfect place to start.
Paris in June. The very phrase brought up an image of cozy cafes and street musicians, quaint shops on narrow streets, centuries-old cathedrals, museums, and gardens in full bloom. And I haven’t mentioned fashion and food. The last category alone would be worth the journey.
I had extended the invitation for this ten-day excursion the previous Thanksgiving, giving me more than six months to plan the details. Her mother agreed that this was an opportunity of a lifetime and would pay the airfare as a graduation present. I would cover other transportation, hotel costs, entrance fees, and dinner every night. When my other niece, twenty-one-year-old Helesha, got wind of the plans, she refused to be left out. The three of us would take Paris by storm.
I wasted no time, spending hours at local bookstores reading travel books. I spoke to everyone I knew who had been to Paris in recent years and even learned how to get on the Internet to find the best sights and locations. We would stay in an area I knew on the Left Bank in the sixth arrondisement, not far from the Sorbonne and the Luxembourg Gardens. We would have easy access to everything via Boulevards St. Michel and St. Germain, with the Louvre and Notre Dame a mile away.
After a flawless red-eye flight from Boston, we arrived in Paris shortly after noon; by 3:30, the girls were asleep in our Art Deco hotel. I napped for about half an hour, but even in my sleep my skin tingled, knowing that Paris was just outside the window, waiting beyond the balcony. I let the girls continue to snooze as I slipped into the street, literally dancing the four blocks to Rue de Seine. I bought a scrumptious chocolate fudge and bit into it. The Paris of my dreams came back to me; it felt just as I remembered it from my last visit. After pressing my nose against some antiques shop windows, I ducked into a brasserie and bought some bread and cheese for the girls’ late lunch.
They were still asleep. Jet lag, I supposed. I sat on the balcony and ate, gazing at geraniums filling the apartment windows across the way. At ten o’clock, when the sun was beginning to fade away, Ronya turned over and smiled and asked about something to eat. By eleven, the three of us were cruising the streets of Paris on foot looking for a McDonalds. I let the choice of dinner pass this time, especially when I realized that the golden arches were just three blocks from Notre Dame. So, at midnight on our first day, we were walking along the Seine watching couples in the glow of the lights shining on the cathedral’s buttresses. Paris had them hooked, or so I thought.
The next morning I woke up late and bathed quietly so as not to wake the sleeping beauties. The Luxembourg Gardens were just two blocks away; I decided to have a croissant and hot chocolate by the fountain and people-watch from a warm, comfortable vantage point. How could I be so selfish, I thought, sitting there so close to heaven and let my nieces miss this lovely scene. I forced myself back to the hotel a little past noon.
“So, what should we do today, Eiffel Tower or the Louvre?” I asked, spreading maps on the bedcovers while my nieces stirred beneath them.
“I’m a little hungry,” Helesha answered, “but this is vacation. We really don’t have to do anything.”
“What’s at the Louvre?” Ronya yawned. The stunned look on my face must have signaled that she’d better follow that up with something more. “I’ve seen it in a book somewhere, but I don’t know what it is, or what’s in it.”
I started to explain to the two high school graduates that some of the world’s finest art could be found there and that the building itself was once a palace. The only thing that got a hint of interest was the Mona Lisa. Winged Victory was pretty easy, right up the main stairway. Then, along with hundreds of other tourists, we crowded around Venus de Milo. The girls were smiling now, the Louvre had them hooked, or so I thought, until I found out they were laughing at the gum they had left at the base of another statue. I gave them that girl-I’ll-kill-you look that has been passed down in my family for generations, and they retrieved it. After a few more notable paintings and sculptures got only a cool response, I decided to get the Mona Lisa over with.
“It’s so much smaller than I thought. Why is this so famous?” Ronya asked, perplexed.
We had a brief art history discussion over bottled water and a croissant. They shrugged off my comments about the confident gaze, the use of color, and the approach to portraiture. It was still early, so I suggested a stroll up the Champs ElysEes, or at least to the Tuileries gardens, which were right next door.
“If we have to walk, never mind. We walked here, we’ve walked around the Louvre, and we have to walk back. Let’s just go back to the hotel.”
For dinner that evening the only thing we could agree upon was pizza. We found a pizza cafe on St. Germain where the food was decent and cheap and a Heineken cost the same as a Coke. This place would become our second home.
“What do we do tomorrow?”
“We could go to Versailles Palace or Monet’s garden at Giverny, maybe get out of the city,” I offered.
“Shopping. It’s time to shop,” they said in unison.
By Thursday I had devised a strategy to satisfy my Paris sight-seeing addiction. I would rise in silence and sneak into the bathroom to write in my journal, then take off for breakfast in the Luxemburg Gardens and some close-by sites. I’d then double back to the hotel at around one, wake up the girls and wait for them get dressed until three, then we would head out. Today it would be shopping near Boulevard Raspail.
The lesson on prices turned into more than just calculating exchange rates. I had to agree with the girls that this stuff was expensive, even in the less chic shops. Shoes were seventy to ninety dollars and a simple T-shirt was close to forty.
“Where is the mall?” Ronya asked.
“Gallery Lafayette is not too far, and there is a bargain department store along the way.”
We arrived at the department store, Tatee, just about the time office workers get out of work. Bedlam. People were packed in the narrow isles, speaking very brisk French or Algerian or Chinese with a French accent and with a more aggressive approach to shopping than I had experienced even in New York. We were badly battered as we considered purchases. At one point I looked over my shoulder and caught pitifully bewildered looks on my nieces’ faces and suggested they go outside while I paid for our purchases. I went to rescue them with a couple of extra gifts, cheap umbrellas. It had begun to rain. We gave up on shopping and returned to the hotel in silence.
After a late dinner that consisted of nine-dollar sundaes at the Haagen Daz cafE, they finally let me have it full force.
“We came here for a vacation,” Ronya started. “When I go on vacation, we sleep late, then go to the beach. And everybody speaks English and everything is real cheap. It’s not like that here.”
I began to explain that we were not in a resort or back home. We were in Paris. This a place where you see historical things you’ve read about and learn a little about another culture by watching, listening, and being curious. Then it was Helesha’s turn.
“These are just old buildings to us. The people here are mean and try to run you over in those little cars. We came here to shop and we can’t do that without more money; we don’t know where to go and we can’t ask anyone because we don’t know what they’re talking about.”
And then the final blow.
“We were thinking we should leave, maybe go to London or just go home.” Ronya nodded in agreement as Helesha spoke.
Go home? Leave Paris? After three thousand dollars and three thousand miles? I closed my eyes and began breathing deeply to push away the vision of tossing two young black bodies over the balcony. I checked my tone of voice and began what I thought was a reasonable defense.
“How could you leave Paris after only three days? You haven’t even seen half of it. We are staying right where James Baldwin and Langston Hughes met friends in cafes. Josephine Baker sang not far from here. Friends of mine who are artists had studios and jazz clubs in the next block. You haven’t even given it a chance.”
“Those people are all dead. We have given it a chance,” Ronya pouted. “We’d rather just chill.” End of discussion.
I awoke on Friday depressed. In Paris! Unthinkable. After going through my normal routine, including some scorched expletives about these two young sisters in my journal, I returned from my garden breakfast and walk to find them still sleeping. I threw some francs on the table and wrote a note that I’d be back at three.
The closest travel agents were in the area near the Opera House and I walked toward them with a vengeance, talking out loud to myself. How could anyone not love Paris? Couldn’t they see that there was life outside of Roxbury? You can take the child out of the ghetto, but…
The third agent spoke better English than the others and I began to explain my problem. As I asked about making reservations to return to the States early or taking a ferry to London the next day, tears began to roll down my cheeks. She looked at me sympathetically or maybe she thought that I was as crazy as I was beginning to feel. We came up with two plans of escape, but I would have to make a decision and confirm arrangements by the end of the day. I had an hour. I jogged passed the Louvre, across the Pont Carrosel, up Rue des Sts. Peres to Rue de Seine. I walked the rest of the way to the hotel and arrived breathless to find the room empty. I sat on the balcony and just as I began to feel a twinge of panic the two of them burst into the room, laughing, with arms full of shopping bags. For the first time in days, I was thrilled to see them.
“We found some good places to shop, up around the University,” Ronya gushed, showing me the outfits and gifts she had bought.
“Yeah,” Helesha said, unpacking her wares. “We walked in the store and they started talking in French. We stared at them and they laughed and started trying to talk in English. I can understand almost anybody if I’m trying to shop.” They pulled out skirts, jackets, scarves, and barrettes purchased at some of the very places I had passed on my solo adventures.
Relieved that they were alive, and jealous that they were having a better time without me, I explained where I had been and the choices we had. We decided to compromise with a trip to London but to give me two more days in Paris.
“We think we can stand it two more days,” Helesha smiled, “and anyway, I’ve got to bring back a picture of the Eiffel Tower.”
For the next two days my routine changed. I got up and out early and went to see Giverny one day and the Rodin Museum and the flea market at St. Sulpice the next. I’m not sure what the girls did, but we met for a decent dinner each evening and finally found something that impressed them: the Eiffel Tower at night. I even got Ronya to try something other than hamburgers and pizza. I figured a ham and cheese crepe was at least a step in the right culinary direction.
London turned out to be delightful. Some brothers hit on the girls in English our first night, and we found blocks upon blocks of shop- ping on Praed Avenue. Somehow we squeezed in Buckingham Palace, Westminister Abbey, and the House of Parliament to appease me. Ronya and Helesha liked the city so much that they began planning to return the next summer.
On the flight home I pondered it all. True, they had acted a bit spoiled. On the other hand, maybe I had been heavy-handed in wanting to expose them to the things that touched my soul. But how would I have viewed Paris if I had taken Spanish and African American studies instead of French and World History? How would I have done if my first visit had been with a guide who had her own view of what was important instead of letting me discover Paris for myself?
I ended up seeing that it hadn’t been such a bad vacation after all, just two different ones, theirs and mine.