Monsieur de Méneval was not the type I’d expect to see on all fours: a small, graying Frenchman, crisp of carriage, with an astonishing aquiline nose. And this was not a place that promised such informality—a bourgeois salon with its large oil portrait of an austere ancestor, its ancient bandoliers marking the walls with X’s, and its glass cabinet filled with such relics as pieces of royal china and a fan from Empress Eugénie.
“Le voilà,” he called out ebulliently, lifting a lithograph from the bottom of an ornate chest so that my mother and I could see. There, on horseback, was Napoleon III, reviewing his troops. And there, just behind him, was M. de Méneval’s “arrière-arrière grandpère,” Napoleon’s private secretary and the guy who’d earned the impressive “de” in the family name.
I had never imagined, when I impulsively invited my mother to Paris for her sixty-fifth birthday, that we would end up here, in Versailles, sipping tea and chatting in French with Claude and Monique de Méneval. Sure, I had long known that my mother’s junior year abroad had been one of the formative experiences of her life. But hadn’t she moved on, settling for a humble life in rural Hawaii, never returning to France, letting her ties loosen?
She had, in my view, not so much abandoned her taste for all things French as passed it on, to me. She’d pulled me off the beach to read Madeline and the Bad Hat and Eloise in Paris. She had bought me a small spiral notebook, inscribing its brown cover with MON PETIT CAHIER DE FRANÇAIS and listing words for me to memorize. Although our everyday diet consisted of things like tuna-noodle casserole and Hamburger Helper, she occasionally gave my brother and sister and me a taste of her Continental past by serving a cheese soufflé or chocolate mousse. Once or twice she treated us to stories of the French gypsy who’d taught her to read palms—and then proceeded to predict our futures.
Tales of gypsies were eventually supplanted by tales of the Baron Louis de Méneval, scion of the petite noblesse, and the baronne, head of their formidable household in the seventeenth arrondissement. Long on pride and short on funds, the enchanting de Ménevals had chosen the socially acceptable way to improve the family cash flow—by taking in a college student. My mother must have fit the bill perfectly: She had studied French all her life (even winning a statewide award in Ohio), but she wasn’t just a French nerd. Raised by a socialite from Massachusetts, and named “Madeleine” after her, she had followed in her mother’s footsteps and attended Smith College. But by then my mother had lost her mother, and she always spoke of the de Ménevals with a fondness usually reserved for family.
Now here I was in Versailles, connecting the dots: Before me were all the possessions inherited by the eldest son of the Baron Louis. And here were the intersections between a family and a country, whose history Claude was proudly enumerating. Here, too, was the relationship between Claude and my mother: The once stiff rapport between a competitive twenty-three-year-old law student and a smug twenty-one-year-old American girl was now reinventing itself as a warm friendship between a retired businessman turned Napoleon expert and a photo-toting granny from Hawaii. But, more than anything, here were my mother’s deep ties to Paris which, because they preceded me, had remained largely a mystery.
The longing for such connections had sparked the idea of our trip. Then, midway through the planning stages, my father was given less than a year to live. Though he and my mother had been divorced for thirty years, the news devastated us both. We considered postponing, until a new urgency swept aside our misgivings. Go. Now. While there’s time. In the face of losing Dad, I yearned to draw closer to Mom. Planning the trip got me through some hard months.
And there was lots of planning. With the help of the Internet and two Paris services, we finally selected two pieds-à-terre: a large studio on the Ile de la Cité and a one-bedroom on rue du Fer-à-Moulin, in the fifth arrondissement. Apartments would afford us corners of privacy and our own washing machines, and their kitchens would give us an excuse to load up on fresh bread from Poilâne, cheeses from Androuët, and mustards from Hédiard.
But having apartments also let us experience Paris not as tourists but as residents. Staying on Ile de la Cité meant waking to the eight o’clock bells of Notre Dame, lunching in the lovely place Dauphine, taking in an evening violin concert at Ste. Chapelle, and snagging ringside seats for the Saturday-night street theater, kicked off by nine guys in surgical scrubs and a gay man in a bunny costume with a few strategically placed fresh carrots, green foliage flopping. In the fifth arrondissement, we visited with the boulangère down the block, blazed through the rue Mouffetard market every day, and took mint tea in the Arab Café de la Mosquée, with its blue-and-white-tiled fountain, fig trees, and round brass tables.
Mom spent one morning on the Ile de la Cité scouring the map. Soon she was leading me across the Seine on a footbridge, around the tiny chapel of St. Julien-le-Pauvre, and then straight to rue de la Huchette, a narrow medieval alley. She stopped in front of a crude stone façade.
“My dear friend David brought me to the Caveau de la Huchette on my birthday in 1953,” Mom mused, casting a glance at the Greek restaurants now lining the street. “This was just an old alley then, with centuries of grime.” Pointing to pictures of dancers on a subterranean parquet, under stone arches, she continued: “Steep, turning steps descended to a cave-like room. Sidney Bechet and his Blue Notes were playing! A gang of men all dressed in black turtlenecks—they were called ‘apachés’ then—arrived. One of them, very handsome, asked me to dance. At first I demurred, but David insisted I dance with him. By chance I was wearing a black cashmere turtleneck and a flared red skirt. He was very polite with me. And he was the most wonderful dancer—the smoothest….” I sensed in Mom’s voice the hint of something dark, forbidden, thrilling; later I learned about the underworld of the apachés and the rough tango they practiced.
“Afterward, in the foggy mist from the river, David and I circled around a small Greco-Roman church. We walked back across the city to the seventeenth, past bakers in basements—one blew flour at us from a bellows. We crossed the place de la Concorde, completely empty. I was carried part of the way because my feet hurt.”
And so I started to learn the secrets of my mother’s time in Paris, to become familiar with the subterranean corners of her history. And she, in turn, learned mine.
My Paris is a place of unfamiliar longings suddenly made all too familiar. A place of romance witnessed from a distance (those kids kissing on the bridge), and loves unrequited. A place you can desire but never possess.
Mom knew little about my having fallen in love in my early twenties with a French photographer. Jacky and I shared poetry, love letters, and, briefly, a room in a sprawling house on the St. Cloud train tracks. We had met in San Francisco, but it was in Paris, after a ten-month separation, that Jacky took me up in his bear-like arms, burrowed through my jumble of curls, searched for “le creux de ton cou” (the hollow of your neck), inhaled deeply, and whispered, “Je retrouve l’odeur de Connie” (I am rediscovering the scent of Connie).
But it was also here that Jacky and I made our own Odyssean journey on foot, starting at 1:00 a.m. from Châtelet and ending at 4:00 a.m. near the Bois de Boulogne, when Jacky gently let me know that he intended to live alone, that he needed to be alone. An artist needs la solitude, he said, without a trace of grandiosity.
And now, fifteen years later, Jacky was inviting us to an exhibition, at the Canadian Cultural Center, of still photographs he had taken for a film, The Red Violin. There, he added, we could meet Nam, the French-Vietnamese woman for whom he had abandoned la solitude, and their son, Ulys. Never was I so happy to have my mother’s company. I was struck by uncharacteristic shyness; she held my hand while I gazed at photos, she made small talk with Nam, and she praised Jacky on the handsomeness of his son.
Jacky’s first words to my mother—Je la connaissais quand elle était toute petite (I knew her when she was a little girl)—called Bob Dylan to mind (not just the line “she breaks just like a little girl,” but also “I was hungry, and it was your world”). And they also reminded me of that peculiarly French brand of intimacy—witty, affectionate, and brutally detached. He looked better than ever, his auburn hair brushing his shoulders, and I found that I was still susceptible, still able to be pulled in by his tender words and then spat out into the dark Paris night.
My mother did not directly address the whirl of confusing emotions within me as we left the cultural center and wandered along Les Invalides. “Would you like to stop by that wine bar you’ve been curious about?” she asked instead, with exquisite delicacy, placing her hand softly on my shoulder. And so we submitted together to the attentions of Au Sauvignon’s proprietor, who determined that we should leave his establishment having tasted the very best France had to offer.
As Mom and I continued to explore the mysteries of Paris, we continued to refine our mother-daughter act. It started with the language we both love. Mom’s French is formal, correct. Mine is informal, current. With the artists and boutique owners in Village St. Paul, I chatted away as Mom intently listened. I could see the wheels turning in their heads, could see the scenarios spinning. The mother must be French—trim figure, strong nose, elegant sweep of white hair. The daughter’s French is good, yes, but the unkempt curls, the running shoes, the earnest manner! Not French, no. Then I mashed a few pronouns, Mom answered a question, and their stories shattered around us like dropped Limoges.
Not that I did all the talking. In an antiques store in the Marais, an eccentric, leather-skinned patron pointed me downstairs to his collection of ’40s French soap wrappers. (Flat, light, and cheap, etiquettes de savon are the perfect souvenir.) Having dispensed with me, he extravagantly set two director’s chairs in the doorway, facing out, and flirtatiously invited “Madame” to join him “sur la plage” (on the beach).
To track down the de Ménevals, Mom pored through an old white pages, thinking that at least the children—Claude, Françoise, Christian, and Bébé—would still be in Paris. She found a Claude de Méneval listed. I dialed the number, identified myself, and asked after Claude. The man who answered—he was much too young to be a contemporary of my mother’s—explained that Claude, once a roommate, had moved to Poland. “Perhaps you are looking for the father,” he added. “I believe he lives in Versailles.”
And so we ended up at the train station in near the famous palace. The moment Claude stepped out of his blue Renault, my mother gasped. “He hasn’t changed at all,” she whispered. He and my mother approached each other without a trace of doubt, clasping hands and kissing on both cheeks. Then we got into the car; I joined two towheaded and very curious little boys in the back seat. Unlike Claude, who retained the formalities of the seventeenth arrondissement, Monique was a down-to-earth Bretonne at ease welcoming us into their modern townhouse on the edge of Napoleon’s woods, passing delicate porcelain teacups and crisp cookies laced with chocolate, and firmly insisting that the grandchildren, Luc and Daniel, sit still.
After an exchange of gifts and the finding of the magnificent lithograph, Claude suggested a tour. Mom had visited the palace years ago, so for this tour she chose the gardens. All six of us piled into the Renault while our private guide, who had spent his retirement learning about this place, revealed the intrigue behind the endless canals, the Grand Trianon, and Marie-Antoinette’s faux peasant village. When we parted, the Paris my mother and I now shared had acquired one more facet.
On our last night in France, Mom and I treated ourselves to Turandot at the Opéra de Bastille. We arrived early and bantered with two young, idle ushers. Hearing that Mom had come back to Paris after forty-five years, they asked excitedly, “What was Paris like in 1954?” and “How do you find it different?” She answered in French, basking in our interest, telling us how belle it is now, the trees ever more majestic, the façades scrubbed of coal dust, the shadows of World War II banished, and the men in green keeping the boulevard St. Germain spotless.
In Act III, we both wept quietly in our front-row balcony seats as the slave-girl Liù expressed her “deep, secret, unconfessed love” and anticipated her untimely death. We wept for the loss of Liù, for the pending loss of my father, for the loss of youthful romance, for the loss of rekindled friendship, for our last moments together in Paris.
To console ourselves, we stopped at the Café le St. Médard for a crème brûlée, a last look at the crowd, a last listen to the fountain. There I realized I had lost an earring. It was half of a pair of lovely mabe pearls, traced in gold, given to me by my father on my recent birthday, the last I would spend with him. I was momentarily heartsick, and then realized that an earring was the only thing I’d really lost on this trip, and that I could live with that.
A few weeks later, back home in California, a small package arrived from my mother. In it was a pair of pearls.
A version of this story appeared in the Los Angeles Times. The story in its entirety was later published in A Woman’s Europe (Travelers’ Tales, June 2004) and France, A Love Story (Seal Press, September 2004). © Constance Hale.
Causes Constance Hale Supports
Intellectual Property Protection, Environmentalism, Income Equality Worldwide, End to Racism