Travels with Mama

It was 1989. I hankered to go to Europe again, having left it abruptly at the time of my father’s death. I had arrived home penniless in 1983, our antique business in France at an all time low, not in debt but not making money either. In the intervening years, Franc had made a big decision to leave his country to follow me, come what may, even though he couldn’t speak the language. He was confident he could find work in his trade; that his skills would speak where his tongue could not. Canada was, after all, an officially bilingual country, wasn’t it?

It had not been so easy. He was unable to find a job, so he created one, somewhat by chance. He’s mechanically minded, so when a neighbour had something wrong with her vacuum cleaner, he fixed it and she gave him a twenty for his trouble.

The neighbour recommended him to a friend when her dishwasher was broken down. He fixed it for parts and a tip. Slowly word spread. With his toolkit in hand, he hopped the bus and visited X’s friend and repaired the washing machine. Soon he was on the bus all day, fixing machines. Always he was paid something for his trouble over and above his fixed costs. Soon an apartment block owner shared his name with another. An electrician had work to pass over to him. He worked with the electrician and found out how the pricing was done. By year five, he had a busy affair, a healthy income and a brand new Honda Accord station wagon to go repairing in.

During the same time, I’d worked for a temp agency at a wage essentially below minimum wage because one had to pay for the privilege of working; joined on at a corporation as a lowly receptionist and sometime typist. I worked evenings and weekends at the Art Institute teaching Foundation courses in Colour and Drawing. I rose from receptionist to clerk and then administrative officer, each time increasing my salary, each time increasing the discretionary spending I could do.

Finally we had adequate income to take a holiday, but Franc didn’t want to go. Mother on the other hand was always eager to go travelling. She’d travelled the world already, but she had never seen France. She proposed to go with me and share the expenses if I would do the navigating and arranging.

We spent a week in Scotland visiting friends I had met during my first few days at a Youth Hostel in Rheims. We’d shared a glass of wine at a sidewalk cafe, discovered that Evelyn was also an artist and that Sam love flowers and was studying to be a horticulturist. I’d had a standing offer to come stay with them since 1976 and now Mama and I were coming to visit.

We spent a glorious week on their farm. On my first morning, a cool mid-September day arising, with jet lag ruling, I was up before six. I snuck out of the house, shivering, dressed much less warmly than needed in a northern Scotland realm, to walk down their country road. Not far from the house, just past the round metal bars of the cattle guard, I halted to watch a flock of free ranging sheep appear one by one over the crest of the hill, descend to the grassy field below the house to graze. The brisk air engendered a whispy, milky cover close to the rich grassy slope. The white sheep glowed, back lit by the early sun, making me think of Henry Moore’s brilliant suite of sheep drawings.

My job at home had burnt me out to a state of nervous exhaustion. This bucolic antidote was seeping into my bones and starting an overdue cure. I was thrilled to be here; thrilled to be standing alone sopping up such a peaceful looking landscape; thrilled to have escaped my mundane job. Every single thing in view was a cure for deprived eyes.

Our hosts were wonderful. They took us all around Argyll shire including the Isle of Iona by way of a ferry which was most interesting to Mother with her deep Christian faith. We had a picnic high on a highland hill overlooking their estate and far across the land. On another afternoon, Evelyn rowed a small boat on their man-made lake that looked as natural as if it had been there forever. It was loaded with waterlilies and other aqua culture plants. We were drifting more than moving forward, while I absorbed in the healthy deep peacefulness of it, trailing my fingers in the warm lake water, thinking that one of the Pre-Raphaelites would have found inspiration in the reflections and plant life of this magical place.

Mother was seventy eight and going strong. She joined in when she could and rested when she couldn’t, which provided me with some one on one time with my friends and some opportunities to tramp about on my own, enjoying the natural goodness of this quiet place far from my crazy job.

All too soon, our time was up. We were flying to Paris and France, where I wanted to show Mother where I had lived, those seven years away, and what I had done. I wanted her to meet some of my friends and see the way of life. It was impossible in the ten days that remained of our travels, but we tackled it with vigour and it was rather dazzling what we actually managed to see.

At Orly, we took a cab into our hotel which sat just a block away from some Parisian artist friends. We had a small, clean hotel room that had an elevator unlike most of the walk-ups I’d inhabited during my travel days.

We settled into our spartan room, staking territory, laying out ground rules for bathing and grooming, planning our Paris agenda. By late afternoon, we walked out in the streets to breathe the city air and get our bearings. We debated long over a choice of restaurants. Mama is fussy. If it didn’t look spotlessly clean, it wouldn’t do. Most of the restaurants looked closed. To her dismay, she discovered that Parisians dined late. A respectable restaurant would not open until six, and then they didn’t really expect to serve any but the English tourists. Despite her eagerness to sit and dine, we had to loiter in the streets that made her vaguely uneasy.

“Are you sure that this district is a good one. Kay?” she dithered. The streets were not clean. People hurrying in a typical big city haste took no notice of her stock-stillness as she tried to place herself in her surroundings. While she was still operating on her own steam without cane or walker, she was not steady and the Parisian streets made no efforts to accommodate the disabled, the weak nor the infirm. And I had forgotten the Parisian love of dogs that often left packets of business to watch for and walk around. It wasn’t Canadian clean.

Finally we saw a restauranteur flip his door sign to “Ouvert”. It was acceptably spotless with white linens and silver so we entered. We dined alone, surrounded by clientless set tables, on a three course tourist menu choice of chicken a la something, the most economical item available. The waiter served with withering disdain and hovered all too closely. Any self-respecting diner would know they should not disturb a very professional waiter before the hour of seven. People who ordered chicken had no savoir faire. There was perfectly good sweetbreads, tongue, quail or duck on the menu. This was a culinary place, not a chicken and fries cafe.

I would have to Frenchify mother if we were going to survive. We couldn’t afford all the appearances that the upper class table settings implied if we were to travel thus for the next ten days.

Fearful of the dark in a big city, Mother insisted that we return to the hotel. It was not even seven o’clock. Paris was only starting up its reputable light show for the tourists. We argued. I won the half hour privilege of sitting outside at a sidewalk cafe with her over a tiny cup of expresso while she continued to worry at me about getting in safely off the streets. People swarmed by in either direction, a treat to watch, but she saw none of it. The bistro waiter came and hovered, expecting another order that did not come. Mother wanted nothing. We were taking up valuable restaurant real estate and the waiter was expecting payment in either a big tip or more purchasing. Between the two, the appeal of people watching was rapidly diminishing. I acquiesced and we went home.

The next day, I had contacted Claire and Ken and arranged a time for us to meet at their place for dinner. Mother and I walked out and looked in fashion store window while searching for a bank where we could trade traveller cheques for French francs. We found a taxi stand and a taxi and headed to the Quay d’Orsay to see the recently refurbished train station that had been restyled into the Impressionist museum.

I ranged the museum at will, looping back regularly to see Mother’s progress. Her walking was slow. Every time I found something exceptional, I would drag her along to it. She would find a seat and wait while I did the rounds and circled back again. When we had exhausted our eyes with visual candy, we went out to the Quay to find a coffee shop where we could restore our feet and our tummies with a sit down and a cup of tea. The walk was longer than suspected. We found one in the direction of Sennelier’s, one of Paris’ finest and oldest art supply stories. Sennelier is basically unchanged in it’s store appearance since its inception in 1887 and has the creamiest oil paints and chalk pastels plus a selection of great art papers in sketch book format.

Mother sat at the coffee shop, tired from so much walking, while I went a few doors down and did some shopping. I returned with my treasures and spread them on the small round table before us. She nodded her head smiling but a bit puzzled that I would prefer these metal tubes of paint and tiny pocket sketch books as tokens of my stay in Paris.

In the following days, we went up the Eiffel Tower, rode a fly boat down the Seine, toured through Notre Dame de Paris and the Sainte Chappelle. We saw many galleries – the Jeu de Paume with its Impressionist collection; the Orangerie with its grand salon of Monet’s water lilies; the Pompidou and it’s modern collections and a number of local commercial galleries. We met with my friend and designer of fashion fabrics, Veronique Solivillas and had lunch. Veronique and I went to the flea market on Saturday morning – one of the ones Franc and I worked at many years previous – while Mother had a sleep in to restore her overworked feet. The pace was rapid for me but too much for Mom.

At the end of our Paris days, we rented a car, cabbing it back to Orly Airport with all our baggage to get it. I drove anywhere but in Paris. We headed east, destination Chateau Thierry where we stayed at a little motor hotel on the banks of the Marne. Early evening, still on Mother’s British time, we drove to a restaurant at the top of a hill. It nestled in the remains of some castle wall. To reach it we had to drive through a narrow gateway that arched above us some fifteen feet. About twenty teenagers were milling about it as we drove up. Some were holding on to their bicycles.

“Don’t go, Kay!” Mother said fearfully. “You don’t know what those people are doing! Look! They are all young teen agers. You don’t know what mischief they might be up to. Once you are in that gate you don’t know if you can turn around.” I continued to drive forward. The teenagers split like the Red Sea, causing no trouble whatsoever on our passage to the best restaurant in Chateau Thierry, so we had been told.

It was about six thirty – slightly later than in Paris. “Let’s go back,” she fretted. “There’s nobody here.”

“There’s not going to be anybody here for another hour at least, Mom,” I wheedled back. I wasn’t going to go chasing around a town I didn’t really know, rejecting restaurant after restaurant because of one thing or another. “Oui, pour deux,” I responded to the maitre d’.

While we dined another couple came in, but by the time we left an hour later, there had been no more. Dinner was acceptable but nothing to rave about. Perhaps the person I had asked had recommended his brother’s restaurant, or his next door neighbour’s as a favor to them. I could just here it:

Did you get that mother and daughter up at your restaurant last night around six. You couldn’t miss them. The daughter spoke fairly good French, but I didn’t hear a word of it from the Mother. You couldn’t have had anybody else at that time of night. Stick out like sore thumbs, those tourists do. You owe me one, n’est pas.”

When we left, it was pitch black outside. Electricity is too expensive in France. A frugal restauranteur wouldn’t waste money on illuminating anything but the entrance door. The customers should look after themselves going out. They should supply themselves with a flashlight if they can’t see in the dark.

Mother and I stumbled to the car, testing each step on the uneven ground. I looked for my car, but in the dark I didn’t recognize it. It was, after all, a rental.

Eventually we arrived back home having passed under the castle entrance arch once more, no loiterers in sight. In the morning, I packed the car with the exception of Mother’s things. I left her to her own toilette and packing and took my little travel box of watercolours and painted a postcard size picture of the Marne passing by the rustic gate at the end of the driveway. When I came back, the watercolour and the box was wet and I left it on the windowsill to dry while I packed Mother’s things in the car.

Fifteen minutes after we left, driving down the highway to Rheims where I had spent four years of my Art School days, I remembered the watercolour paraphernalia. It wasn’t far away and I had an exquisite painting of a crofter’s cottage across the dale from Sam and Evleyn’s place in Scotland in it. The box of colours was Schminke and very expensive. There was a number six Kolinksy Martin water colour brush with it. It was worth turning around to get it.

Within that half an hour, it was gone. With the hotelier’s key in hand, I looked in the room we had slept in the night before. It was nowhere to be found. It had not fallen on the gravel below the window.

“Who would that be valuable to?” Mother asked, rhetorically. “Who would have taken a thing like that?”

“Oh, Mom. In France , the French know the value of a nice piece of original art. They know the quality and value of art supplies. Probably the housekeeper pocketed it. Even if they knew they had it, they wouldn’t say so.” I was bitterly disappointed.

“It’s only material goods,” she quoted to me, not for the first time in my life. I haven’t bought you anything for this trip,” as if she needed to do that. “When we get to Rheims, you go wherever you need to go to get a new one and I’ll give it to you for a gift. You aren’t going to spoil your trip over a watercolour box.

I still have that new watercolour box. I fill it up with wet paint when the colours get low. I loved her for her equanimity at that point. Bless her heart. But I never have erased the image of that rare, perfect watercolour I had done in Taynuilt. That was irreplaceable. I still wasn’t very sure about my artistic output and when I did one I thought was wonderful, it was hard to part with.

We reached Rheims mid afternoon and we went directly to the tourist bureau to find the address of a hotel just down the street from where I had rented my apartment. It was central to the downtown stores and sidewalk cafes. It was also a short walk from the Cathedral in the other direction. The information office phoned and reserved for us. This hotel had a two star rating and cost us about forty dollars a night. The hotel assigned us a room that was on the second floor and down a long corridor, then the corridor went down a few stairs and across-wise, back up a few stairs and returned down the same direction as the first corridor. It was just too much for Mother so I went back to the reception desk and explained our problem. Was it possible there could be another room available. The desk clerk made a fuss but changed it eventually. There was something gained but not much. We were still pretty far from the elevator and from any exit stairwells. With Mother’s fear of hotel fires, this was not a good thing.

(to be continued)


One Response to “Travels with Mama”

  1. ALBA fashion Says:

    Interesting article. Gave pleasure.

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