Staring at the ceiling of our 400-year-old apartment on our first afternoon in Paris, I was fairly certain we were going to starve to death.
The plane ride over the Atlantic had been an adventure in itself. Abigail’s brightly colored Paris-themed luggage, one of the signs that had given me the spirit high five to attempt the journey, immediately grabbed the attention of our oh-so-French flight attendant, Jean Claude. He paraded Abigail’s little satchel up and down the aisle of our Air France flight, called her “la petite mademoiselle” and said “ooh la la” about 17 times.
The entire plane clapped when they heard that Abigail was going to see her favorite painting, the Mona Lisa, to celebrate her 10th birthday.
We realized upon boarding the plane that what I had thought were seat numbers were actually row numbers, and, in fact, Abigail was not seated next to me. Panic shot through my body. Abigail’s eyes met mine—she laughed and said, “Your mommy senses are totally tingling. I can feel it.”
The nice lady assigned to sit next to Abigail offered to switch seats with me. Abigail declined the offer and explained that she would rather get to know a new friend. And they spent the entire 12-hour-flight chatting about silly and thoughtful things. Abigail told me later that her new friend published books for a living (note to self: give Abigail business cards next time). I kept looking over my shoulder at my young daughter, awed by her poise, friendliness and wonder.
Which is why, hours later, stretched out upon the bed in our apartment in St. Germain des Prés, running through worst case scenarios that involved flashbacks from the movie Taken, I began to feel like a total and utter wuss. I began to riffle through luggage looking for the protein bars. After all, they were peanut butter chocolate, her favorite.
Fat raindrops beat steadily on ancient windows. I rose from my bed and went looking for my daughter. Our apartment was on the fifth floor of the most beautiful building I had ever seen, 20 steps from the Seine River. They story goes that Balzac (my favorite writer) wrote portions of Le Père Goriot at the small café there, and that Picasso (Abigail’s favorite painter) frequently painted in the perfect courtyard.
I found her at the top of the winding, metal staircase.
Her “room ” was the upstairs loft—a magical place with a glass floor and a small mattress covered decadently with down pillows and Moroccan blankets. Above her, the largest crank windows I had ever seen, large enough to walk through like doors, opened right onto the tin roof of our building.
Her head was down, and her art pads were strewn all around her like the petals of a flower. Her hand worked furiously, getting the picture in her mind’s eye out and onto the page.
Abigail was already sketching dragons.
And I was coming to this fearless Princess of Truth and Beauty with a protein bar.
She tilted her head up and ice blue eyes met ice blue eyes. She smiled—wild, wonderful, alive—the first time I had seen that smile in over three months. I saw tears of joy glistening at the corners of her eyes. Pure joy—the kind you sometimes have to fly across the world to find.
I quickly stashed the protein bar in my back pocket.
“Are you hungry, little one?” I heard my own voice asking. It sounded brave, confident, like it knew what it was about it.
“Famished!” she shrieked.
My daughter and I carefully changed into our “first night in Paris” outfits. I wore my pretty peach cardigan, sensible flats, and Slay Your Own Dragons pendant. Abigail changed into her grey shirt with the stylish bow, and then I watched her carefully brush her wavy blonde hair and place her sparkly, silver beret just so.
We stepped from our courtyard and through the massive, blue door that led out onto cobblestone streets. Abigail’s eyes met mine—eyes filled with adoration, trust, and excitement. I clutched our little Paris map, the one that our driver had handed us with a “good luck” right before we jumped out of the car, the one that he highlighted with our address in bright pink highlighter so we could always “find our way home.” I tried not to let Abigail see my hands shake.
We set off down the narrow street—a street unlike any I had ever seen. We literally followed the smell of deliciousness—fresh baked bread, something savory—and let the rumblings of our tummies be our compass. When the alley finally crossed the Rue de St. Germain, it was like springing the lid of a jack-n-the-box.
Vibrant aliveness, interesting people, bustling shops, colors, dazzled our senses, like going from Kansas to Oz. We crossed one more block and encountered our first outdoor bistro. There were lovely red gingham tablecloths perched atop tiny round tables and patrons eating salads and croissants and sipping tiny cups of espresso.
Abigail grabbed my arm and said, “This is it!”
She was right.
I walked up to the maître de, smiled tentatively and said “bonjour.” He grinned and started speaking to me in half phrases of English and French.
We understood one another perfectly.
He seated us outside at one of the perfectly-set tables. I choked back happy tears as I beheld the shining face of my sweet, brave daughter. Sitting there at a little bistro table in the City of Lights, her favorite place—the place she had dreamed about since she had first been intrigued by the Mona Lisa and decided she wanted to climb the Eiffel Tower.
Abigail ordered salmon, coffee, and a small salad. She cut up her food up perfectly (to be polite) and said “merci” to everyone who came within three feet of her.
During that dinner, we were serendipitously seated next to a charming Canadian couple that had just spent the entire month of July exploring the arrondissements of St. Germain des Prés. Their flight left early in the morning, but they had made time for one last visit to their favorite bistro. For the next hour, they reveled in telling Abigail and me about their adventures—their favorite place to get flower-shaped gelato, the best time to picnic on the Seine, the restaurant where they had the best meal they had ever eaten, and most importantly, how to successfully navigate the Paris Metro after 6 p.m. I took copious notes, and that chance encounter did more to enhance our week than any of the 11 guidebooks I had lugged from the United States.
And not one of the protein bars was eaten during our week in Paris.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Provided by the Author