Posted by Kathy Waller
Last month, I posted a piece that first appeared on my personal blog. Since it was the first of a series, I’m posting the second part today. It’s a record of one of my happiest times.
The breakfast room off the lobby is spacious, airy, earth-toned: oak paneling and hardwood floors, sconce lighting, a view of the garden. While David pours coffee, I forage.
In the corner, canisters of cereal line the wall above the breakfast bar: cornflakes, bran flakes, raisin bran, O’s, plain and fruited and frosted, reflect the room’s tones of wood and light. Trays of breads, bagels, rolls, pastries, gold and brown and white, sit side-by-side on the counter below.
They are beautiful. They are carbohydrates.
I’m sensitive to carbohydrates. One taste of sugar before evening and both body and brain cease to function. One spoonful of cereal and I will not see the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Elysees. I will sit, lead-bottomed, in the lobby, staring at nothing and making the concierge nervous.
Looking past the pastries, I see a bowl of hard-boiled eggs hiding, probably in humiliation, behind a pile of little plastic tubs of butter and cream cheese.
I don’t care for un-deviled hard-boiled eggs, especially for breakfast, but I set one on my plate. Beside it I place a bagel. I add three containers each of butter and cream cheese. At the table I peel the egg and eat small, dry bites, alternating with bites of cream cheese- and butter-slathered bagel. I pray protein and fat will cancel out refined white flour.
David sits beside me, drinking coffee and staring down at a puffy, powdery confection.
“We’re supposed to get breakfast,” he says. “The travel agent said our plan includes breakfast.”
“This is breakfast,” I say. “A Continental breakfast.” He says nothing. “We’re on the Continent.”
He looks up from the pastry.
“It’s what they eat,” I say.
He looks back at the pastry, his brown eyes sad, anticipating starvation.
I see the irony: one carbohydrate addict and one carnivore, turned loose in the country for which bread was named. Water, water everywhere, etc.
I understand David’s concern, but, determined to be positive, I smile. “Would you get me some more butter and cream cheese?”
I watch him cross the room. He is tall, with broad shoulders and a trim waist. When my best friend saw him wearing his brand new wedding suit, she gushed, “He is just built to wear clothes.” When my raft of cousins met him for the first time, they pulled me aside one by one and whispered, “Does he eat?”
He returns with a handful of plastic tubs for me and a cinnamon roll and a croissant for himself. As I pull back the foil from the butter—one hundred calories per tablespoon—I try to feel sorry for him.
By mid-morning, we’re on the upper deck of the tour bus, attempting to keep pace with the guide on the English tape recording. I can’t help gawking.
“Ahead to your left…” “Ahead to your right…”
The bus inches through traffic, but by the time I realize where I’m supposed to be looking, “ahead” is always “behind.” David and I pass the disposable Kodak back and forth, taking snapshots that will make the buildings look as if they need leveling.
When we pass Eglise de la Madeleine, I stop trying to follow the tape. I will later look on-line for detail: Corinthian columns, a relief of the Last Judgment on the pediment, bronze doors bearing a relief representing the Ten Commandments. All I will remember is the heavy, massive, dark expanse of stone. Standing outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, I felt uplifted. Here, I feel claustrophobic. I see no windows.
The bus stops in front of the Louvre. I jump up and scramble off. David follows me across the courtyard. When he calls my name, I turn and hear the shutter click. In the photo, my purple shirt and blue passport pouch fade into the red tee-shirts and yellow caps of pre-teens sprawled on the low, curved side of the pool in the background. I get a shot of David against one of the three glass pyramids erected in the ’80s. Through the view-finder, his twelve-day-old beard, which I’ve been privately thinking of as scraggly, looks distinguished, dark on upper lip and chin, grizzled on cheeks and jaw.
“You should keep the beard,” I tell him. He grins and rolls his eyes.
We stay in the Louvre four hours. I snap some photos, but the camera obscures my view. I ask David to put it in his pocket.
I marvel at the perfect fingernail on the hand of Vermeer’s Astronomer; feel breathless, almost afraid, in the presence of the Winged Victory of Samothrace; hear shutters swishing in the crowd pressing toward the Mona Lisa, and watch her eyes watch me as I walk back and forth seeking the best view.
I have no words.
Mid-afternoon, we board the bus. The next stop—the next one I’m sure I can identify—is the Eiffel Tower. As we pull up alongside the curb, I stop myself from blurting out, “It’s so big!” My fellow passengers don’t need to know I was expecting a gilt figurine.
- Waiting for the aisle to clear, I crane my neck at contradiction of steel and lace. Its base is as heavy and earthbound as Eglise de la Madeleine; yet, rising, it seems so fragile that a touch would snap it in two.
I’m surprised by sudden memory of a line I wish I’d written: “Poetry is geometry exploded.”
When the aisle is clear, I stand. David remains seated. “Do you see that line?” he says.
I do. Except it isn’t a line. It’s a horde. I also note that for the first time since we left Austin, I’m perspiring.
“Is my face turning pink?”
He nods. He looks tired. He’s probably hungry. I am.
We stay on the bus. When we pass the Arc de Triomphe, people are standing on top. I didn’t know you could get up there.
The temperature is still warmer than we find comfortable—we didn’t come all the way from Texas in July to enjoy the heat—so we find a cafe and take a corner table inside, where it’s cool and dark. We want something substantial, so we order a pizza. Since we’re in Paris, we order red wine.
The pizza arrives. It’s a French pizza. The crust is round and flat and covered with tomato sauce. Meat and cheese and other pizza-ish things may be present, but they don’t announce themselves.
In England and Scotland, we ate only two meals a day. Beginning with eggs, bacon, sausage, baked beans, fried tomatoes and mushrooms, toast, juice, milk, tea, and/or coffee (and, no, I didn’t eat all that), and ending with venison pie and haggis, we considered a third meal redundant.
Things are different now. It occurs to me that when William the Conqueror crossed the Channel, he might have been looking for more than just a change of scenery.
We eat the pizza. We drink the wine.
Before we ask for the check, David makes a trip to the restroom. Back at the table, he sits down, picks up his wine glass, cuts his eyes toward me, and murmurs.
“Strangest restroom I’ve ever seen.”
He pauses. “I can’t explain. You’ll have to see it yourself.”
I’ve been inside a men’s room only once, at a Texas Library Association annual convention at the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center in San Antonio. Someone with a grain of sense had looked at the demographics and stuck paper signs reading Women over half of the door plates reading Men. Someone with sensitivity and good taste had put potted ferns in front of the urinals. So in effect, I’ve never really been inside a men’s room, and I’m not prepared to invade a foreign one.
“I wonder whether the ladies’ room is the same,” I say.
“It’s bisexual,” he says, using his term for all things androgynous. “You can go look.”
I go look. He’s right. It’s strange.
David hands the waiter some euros. We leave.
The air is cooler now, but dark is a long time off. We walk. We sit at a sidewalk cafe and drink coffee. We people-watch.
I’m fascinated by the brown-skinned women wearing dresses of bright yellow, blue, and orange, with matching headdresses. They stand straight, heads up, shoulders back, regal.
After a time, David breaks the silence.
“Let’s have dinner again.”
At the north corner of rue Cadet, there are two restaurants. Casual observation from the sidewalk suggests the one on the left side of the street is serving hardier fare. The host seats us inside by the window and hands us menus.
Suddenly conscious of my posture, I sit up straight. I want to make a good impression. I’ve heard about French waiters. The ones we’ve met so far have been pleasant, but here the stakes are higher. Here there are tablecloths.
When we close our menus, a white-coated waiter approaches. He is short, with olive skin, neatly clipped black hair, and black eyes. He stands erect. He does not smile.
In a mixture of English, French, Spanish, and pointing, David tells him what we will have. In a mixture of French and hand-waving, the waiter tells us we’re not going to get it.
When he disappears into the kitchen, I ask for a translation. David thinks only one serving of whatever we ordered remains in existence, and therefore the waiter has strongly suggested a substitution. David thinks we are going to receive the poulet.
We receive the poulet, all right, like no other I’ve ever smelled or tasted. Poulet stew, for lack of the proper term, an enormous bowl of chicken, carrots, celery, herbs, spices, who-knows-what, and, to top it off, saffron potatoes, swimming in the broth. When I see those potatoes, any chance of moderation vaporizes. I devour every scrap I can stab with the fork, and itch to take a piece of bread and mop up the rest.
Sated, I look across at David’s bowl and see it’s as empty as mine. We sit for a while, pretending to drink coffee and staring at each other with expressions denoting simultaneous misery and contentment.
When we think we can stand, David pulls out his wallet, gestures to the waiter, and hands over a credit card. The waiter withdraws to the counter on the opposite side of the room. David and I resume staring at each other. Moments later, shouts of “Dah-VEED! Dah-VEED!” pierce our mutual reverie.
We look up. Behind the counter, the waiter is jumping up and down, waving his arms and shouting. “Dah-VEED!”
Dah-VEED manages a tentative smile and waves back.
When he brings the receipt, Abrahim—that’s the waiter’s name—explains that he has a cousin Dah-VEED who owns a restaurant. Abrahim works there when he’s not working here. He gives the American Dah-VEED his cousin’s card. By the time we leave the restaurant, the language barrier has been shattered and we have a new friend.
To be continued: Ordering a soccer ball, getting lost, mangling more French, invading a men’s room on foreign soil
Image of the Eiffel Tower by Benh LIEU SONG (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons