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The French Promise

By: Allison Maher, Aylesford, Canada 
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

My mother started having children at 19 after she quit her new career with the Canadian Armed Forces. She loved music, and when I was a young girl her favourite song was The Ballad of Lucy Jordan. She said it was written just for her. It' s about a woman examining her life and discovering that many of the dreams she had in her youth, were now never going to come to pass; they had been swallowed by her choices, obligations and responsibilities. She had waited too long, put too many things off and now it was too late. It tells of regrets and the empty feeling of lack of accomplishments. The chorus says,

At the age of thirty seven,
She realized she' d never
Through Paris
In a sports car
With the warm wind in her hair.

Inevitably whenever the song came on she would, at some point and with varying degrees of intensity, say to me, "You listen to this song and promise me this will never be you. Promise me that you' ll be braver than I was. That you' ll make your dreams come true. Promise me that you' ll go to Paris before you' re 37."

My response as the perpetually bored teenager who really didn' t get it was, "Yeah, yeah, I will. Look, I heard already. Would you let it go."

My mother passed away when I was twenty years old.

On April 09, 2005 I stopped being 37. On April 15, 2005 I boarded an airplane for Paris. True to form, I was late, but I made it.

My friend flew from Seattle and met me there. Our first stop, within hours of arriving in Paris, was Notre Dam (translated: gentle mother) Cathedral. From an ocean away it seemed like an appropriate stop. The intent was to light a candle for my mom so she would know I was there, that I had come.

I never did. Notre Dam is huge, beautiful, cold and bustling with people. It felt as intimate as a shopping mall. If my mother had been there, I could not hear her over the din. I traversed the interior, admired it immensely and exited candleless.
An ocean away, renting a sports car and driving around Paris sounded like a good idea.

I didn' t do that either.

Our apartment was across the river from the Eiffel Tower and a short walk away from the monument marking the entrance to the tunnel where Lady Diana crashed and died. Any questions I might have had about how Lady Diana could have had such a horrible high speed crash in a down town location, were answered.

Parisian drivers are nuts. We cancelled the car rental.

The day before we left to come back home, we blessedly visited my now favourite spot in all of France: the Paris Opera House. We emerged from is breath taking splendor to find a long line of cabs parked by the curb. Having perused the lot, we selected the fifth car back as the "most sporty" looking of them all and walked up to it. The cab drivers became completely up in arms over our apparent lack of understanding with the protocols of taxi queuing.

My mastery of the French language was simply not advanced enough to explain that the line in the song says "Drove through Paris in a sports car" not "reliable family wagon". Knowing I was defeated before I even began, I chose the alternate route of speaking Japanese to them instead, of which I am passable, hoping they would just throw in the towel due to communication difficulties and let me have my own way. My friend chose LOUD AMERICAN (is there any other kind?).

Between the two of us, we managed to convince the taxi Mafia to drop the dogma associated with their taxi queue system and let us have the one we wanted.
When the gods want to punish you, they answer your prayers.

Our non-English, nor French, nor Japanese speaking Liberian born taxi driver began to speed along the river heading towards our apartment. The car was soon zipping along with the flow of traffic and zigzagging anything that could be zigged or zagged. In my kitchen at home, my hair is harmless and reaches half way down my back. In the back of a sports car in Paris, with the windows down for full musical effect, it becomes a facial laceration weapon that can reach all the way around my tongue in two complete loops and down my throat to my larynx.

After a few minutes of wrestling with my windswept hair and over active gag reflex, I turned to my friend and we agreed, that this was probably as good as it was going to get. Apparently the Liberian sentence for "Could you please pull over at the nearest subway station" is really close linguistically to "Whoa! Halt! Arret! Finito!" when yelled in stereo, because that' s just what he did.

We spent twelve days playing tourist in Paris and down through Arles in the south of France. All the while, the back of my brain was waiting for a moment of eureka, when I would know I had made the connection. I had fulfilled my promise to my mother and she would know I had heard her plea all those years ago.

It never came. When the plane lifted off, leaving Paris behind, it was crushing. I felt like a failure.

Not one to wallow, I decided there was nothing more I could do and dropped it. I then turned my head towards all the things that would be waiting for me when I arrived back home. My two amazing children would be all over me with questions. My husband and best friend of 22 years would be patient until the children were in bed. Then he and I could talk about my trip and all the things that we would have to start getting ready for the next years planting on our farm. My publisher was also waiting for me to hurry up with another set of revisions for my novel due to be released in the spring of 2006.

A hint of light flickered into existence in the back of my mind. The more I examined the light, the brighter it became. At 38 years of age, I have no regrets about my life so far. I wanted to have a happy family and I have one. I wanted to be an author and (as of April 06) I am one. I wanted to see the world, and so far the only continents
I' m missing are Antarctica and Australia.

I guess I did hear you Mom. It just took a trip to Paris for me to realize I had also been listening.

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