Memory #3: Three Little Birds

Crammed in the elevator shaft of the Eiffel Tower with my sister and mother.  I’m 16 and absolutely miserable.  I have a faint idea somewhere that one’s first experience of Paris should not be like this.  Clearly the only way for une jeune Americaine to be properly introduced to Paris was to send her and her battered trunks off packing to art school, where she could freely roam cobblestone streets and twirl about in boutiques and rendezvous in cafes with young rogues who looked like Jean-Paul Belmondo or Serge Gainsbourg.  I should have been Audrey Hepburn, Leslie Caron, Anna Karina, Jean Seberg.  To be shuffled about Paris in a group tour with my family and hundreds of other tourists, clad most ungracefully in mall-bought cardigan sweaters and corduroy pants, seemed to me to be the height of indignity, and most unfair.

To add insult to injury, Paris had not been anything like I had expected it to be.  It was dirty and in many places downright malodorous.  Our hotel was far, far away from anyplace glamorous or attractive.  At the restaurant across the street, our waiter refused to speak any English with a resonant, throaty “Non” and I, with my pidgin francais, had butchered our dinner order hopelessly.  France was to have been the grand finale of our European tour, but after the clean, crisp, open hospitality that we had previously received in Holland and Germany, I was deeply disappointed.

So here we were at the Eiffel Tower, on our last excursion on our last day before returning to the States.  Like any other place of note in Paris, it was teeming with tourists.  The day was made all the more unpleasant by the fact that Paris had been coated with a thin film of rain the entire day.  Furthermore, as we found out, the elevator would only take us part of the way up the tower; if we wanted to go to the top, we would have to take the stairs.  My sister and I looked on enviously at the families who were gamely clamoring up the many flights; we, on the other hand, would go no further, as our mother had no interest in exerting herself any more.

Munching on a dry croissant from the cafe, I walked around the tower getting as many different aerial views of Paris as I could, all the while thinking how much more dramatic the views would be from the top.  I was sweaty from the humidity and silently wallowing in my outrage that I did not lead a more exciting and romantic life when I so clearly deserved it so much more than everyone else.  It was at that moment that the sun chose to pierce the clouds, revealing not one, but two rainbows arcing effortlessly over the entire city.  The late afternoon sunlight climbed slowly over the city, sprinkling it with gold dust.

On the way out of the Eiffel Tower, we pass hordes of street artists painting portraits in chalk and pastel on paper and on the ground.  Street vendors selling pricey ice cream treats are clustered around the plaza; my mother stops to buy us each one on a whim.  The air is misty and warm and honey-dipped, and right between the straddled legs of the Eiffel Tower I can see the gangly silhouette of a street performer bending and swaying and beating his bongos.  His voice is strongly accented but still in tune–“Don’t you worry, ’bout a thing…Ev’ry little thing, gonna be alright…”–echoing after us for some distance, and with me, across the ocean, and across eight years.

About a day and a half later I am home in Palatine, Illinois, and laying across the cool linens of my bed, I feel like I have been changed somehow.

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