This photo is of my mother in Paris when she was 17.
I’ve had several love affairs in my life, but this one started very young and is still as hot as ever today.
It began in an unlikely place: at home with my mother.
My parents, both storytellers, liked to reminisce about their adventures from their younger days. Some stories would be told over and over again; mostly the humorous ones that would get their friends belly laughing from the ridiculous disaster that would unfold.
Their stories were from their childhoods, and of their travels together. They loved to share, and would even perform on request.
I know I asked more times that I can remember, “Mom, tell me about that time you went to France.”
My love affair with that romantic country of cheese and wine and le français began with my mother’s dreamy stories, which ignited my imagination and planted a seed that grew deep roots.
And her love affair with France started with her father. It’s all in the family, really…
At 17, my mother’s friend asked her if she would be going on the school trip to France.
My grandfather, having previously heard nothing of this trip, and having more pride than money to back it up, spontaneously responded for my mother: of course she is! Later he was heard saying, “If that family sends their daughter on the trip, of course Ellen is going!”
Keeping up with the Joneses meant that my mother got a fancy new coat, new shoes and other lovely new things, as well as a very exciting overseas adventure!
My mother’s tone when talking about the preparation for this trip is one of excitement and almost a sense of importance. In a family of 5 children, getting new clothes was a significant occasion, and here she was getting an almost entirely new wardrobe!
She would be representing the family, but also the country, so she had to look great!
As a child, the idea of such lavish spending and of excitement about fashion was all a bit foreign to me, and it made France seem all the more alluring. I loved hearing about this part of the story as much as the tales about the trip itself.
My mother told me of the romantic artists at Montmartre calling her to come sit for them:
“You are so beautiful, I want to draw you!”
In her stories, she described la Place du Tertre, or the artists square, as an absolute delight, with artists swooning over the young women who walked there.
At another point during her trip, a man she passed in the street took her by the shoulders, looked deeply into her eyes as he turned her around, and then let her go, dazed.
I imagined France a place where compliments were abundant and where women felt like goddesses.
(I haven’t yet been disappointed in this regard.)
She bought a painting from one of the artists: one of a man in a hat. The colors were mostly browns with some oranges, but what always stood out to my mother was the way the artist had painted the end of the man’s cigarette: it look as though it is actually lit!
Seeing this painting in our house always reminded me of her stories and regularly brought back those feelings of excitement, importance, and romantic fantasy that she had so cleverly painted into her stories.
Around age 8, I asked my mom to teach me French, which she did for about a week, until I had exhausted her knowledge of the language completely.
She eventually bought me Muzzy video tapes to learn French, which I unfortunately watched only very rarely. Luckily, I took French lessons a few years later at school and learned a great deal more. Unfortunately I had to stop when I changed schools. Finally, in high school I had French class again, and I soaked it all in with delight.
Freshman year of high school, my school offered a spring break trip to France and I jumped at the chance!
The trip was incredible! I loved the architecture everywhere and really appreciated our tour guide’s knowledge of buildings and the history of France. It was so special to eat the French food and explore Paris, Rouen and the chateaux in the Loire valley. Somehow we even managed to fit in Mont St. Michel and the Normandy beaches! It was a whirlwind and it only served to fuel the now-roaring flame of this grand love affair.
This trip fulfilled a dream that I had been hiding for years:
to relive those same superb moments my mother had lived in her own youth. Finally, I thought I could understand what it had been like for her to go abroad at 17. I felt closer to my mother, and I felt we shared something special.
What neither of us knew at the time is that her stories and this trip were simply springboards: that my life would slowly circle back again and again to the romantic fantasy that is France.