Mrs. Phelps was raised in the Netherlands but had lived in france for over a decade with her ‘lover’ before moving to California to teach French at my private junior high school. I’d never heard anyone referred to as a lover but, the minute mrs. phelps said it with her thick accent, I began using the word and tried to pronounce it like mrs. Phelps whenever possible. My aunt’s boyfriend was no longer, john but “her looouver.”
After school, even in the winter, Mrs. Phelps put the worn top down on her red convertible and drove off. I’d watch her disappear down the street—edith piaf billowing from her radio. Then came the string of fancy german cars driven by the older siblings or maids sent to fetch the children of doctors, lawyers and engineers. While my classmates tossed their backpacks onto leather upholstered back seats, I thought about mrs. Phelps. I imagined her leading a double life as a jazz singer scatting out French chansons at a dimly lit bar.
Once just about every kid was gone, my mom would finally pull up in our red Toyota hatchback, the trunk full of vacuums and windex and in the backseat, rosa and Carolina—the two sisters from Jalisco who constituted her housecleaning crew.
The only kid that always got picked up after me was Shiloh. As we pulled away I’d watch Shiloh disappear in the rearview mirror, her book bag in a heap at her feet. Shiloh had been deemed “the bastard” after my classmates found out that her mom not only wasn’t married but, had never been married. I don’t know who picked Shiloh up after school. she always arrived at school via a different mode of transportation. Sometimes it was the school bus. Sometimes she’d just walk onto campus and I’d wonder if she’d taken the public bus. sometimes she’d be in a sidecar attached to a motorcycle with her cher-like mom (long dark hair and an interesting profile) who’d be clutching the waist of a man who looked borderline homeless but still sexy, like paul newman. At least I wasn’t the last one to get picked up, I’d think.
Even at 12, Shiloh had this “I don’t give a shit” attitude that I guessed could only come from spending time with her mom’s boyfriends—men who wore ripped jeans and didn’t shave. My mother referred to men like this as roughnecks. A part of me romanticized shiloh’s life, just as I did mrs. Phelps’—that instead of popping through a fast food drive through like my mom and me, Shiloh would eat chicken wings in bar while her mother danced to the jukebox with homeless paul newman. If paul newman was the first sexy man I’d seen (and he was), mrs. Phelps was the first sexy woman I’d seen.
Mrs. Phelps’ hair was dyed red hair and she pinned it in a loose twist with thin tendrils falling onto her face that she’d brush aside during class. She wore tight black cigarette pants and ballet flats that she’d slip off onto the floor while she sat on top of her desk, dainty feet dangling as she chanted lolling French verb conjugations at us. when she left the classroom she’d put on big dark sunglasses that covered half of her face. She was middle aged and unmarried and it didn’t seem to bother her. She was the first non-american I’d ever met.
Even though mrs. phelps wasn’t technically from paris, she was a parisian in my eyes and I desperately wanted to be a Parisian too. I’d already discovered the singing nun and had been singing along with my favorite song of hers Dominique since the fourth grade. Mrs. phelps only made my Francophile tendencies stronger. I’m pretty sure I was the only girl in my junior high who listened to edith piaf while reading henry miller’s tropic of cancer in her bedroom. i had no idea what edith piaf’s words meant and henry miller was way above my 12 year old comprehension but I listened to those voices who sang and wrote about paris and I became a devout Francophile right there in an condo in orange county.
Over 20 years later I finally went to paris. I’d had chances to go before but my fear of flying always held me back.
“why don’t you just get drunk,” People always said. They didn’t understand that for me being in a plane felt like playing Russian roulette while being trapped in a box with a few hundred strangers at 30,000 feet. perhaps people who are buried alive should try to make the best of it too and mix up a manhattan to ease their nerves.
What finally got me on the plane was a bitter break-up and the smell of salt water and the sun as I stood in the pacific ocean with my friend Helen. Helen is the type of friend who fears almost nothing, and when you’re with her, her fearlessness is contagious. helen coaxed me further and further into the ocean while telling stories about Europe—where she’d been living for the past few years with her now ex-girlfriend. And then, there we were, two almost middle aged women, our legs kicking furiously since neither of us could touch the bottom anymore. for a moment I panicked. I thought about sleeper waves and the undertow and sharks and sea lions.
‘There’s nothing you can do now, just keep kicking and let go,” helen said. I thought about Shiloh, in the care of a roughneck, speeding through orange county protected from the world only by a little sidecar. I thought about the tough way she always shrugged her shoulders when the other kids called her a bastard.
By the time helen and I were toweling off, out of breath from treading water and swimming to shore, the plan for me to fly abroad with her and help tie up her life before moving back to the states was set.
Like b.a. baracus (the character mr. t played on the a-team who had an intense fear of flying) I needed a little sedation to get on the plane.
“don’t worry. I’m going to b.a. baracus your ass onto the plane,” helen said when we got to the airport.
Helen didn’t knock me out or hypnotize me but, she did hand me a zanax and the next thing I knew, I was dragging my suitcase up the metro steps into a sunny parisian afternoon.
Finally…land of loouvers…paris. it was everything I’d hoped it would be—ham and butter sandwiches, tiny apartments with even tinier showers, walking for hours that felt like minutes because every second was architectural and people watching eye candy, dusty bookstores and crowded red lit bars. Lucky me, on our first night I met a man. This was the kind of man that you think only exists in movies until you meet him—paul newman, shiloh’s mom’s boyfriend, henry miller and a little mrs. Phelps all wrapped up in one ridiculously handsome dangerous package. He smoked unfiltered cigarettes, was a struggling photographer and his family owned a vineyard in Bordeaux. The clincher was when my traveling companions who were devout lesbians said, “this is the most handsome and interesting man I’ve ever met. Even I’d sleep with him.” I spent a night drinking in the bar where edith piaf met her secret lover and then a deeply hungover morning of climbing just under a million steps to the notre dame church and eating steak frites for breakfast with that ridiculously handsome dangerous man.
And then…I left paris. i returned to America and fell in and out love just one more time before I met my husband, seth. When it came time to plan our honeymoon, paris was first on my list and luckily his, but since we’d be embarking in july, the hottest, most humid and expensive time to travel to europe we opted for the only French-like place within our budget and weather criteria—montreal.
I took a zanax to brave the flight and tried to channel the sedative state of mind of b.a. baracus and the fearlessness of helen and shiloh. Six hours later, seth and i landed in montreal. Is montreal an equal substitute for paris? no. is montreal a foodie and visual mecca? Yes. Are you deeply in need of fulfilling your now illegal in the states foie gras fix? Head to montreal. Would I recommend montreal as a vacation destination? If you like food and walking, then by all means, yes.
That’s pretty much what seth and I did. Walk. Eat poutine. Pedal around town on rented bikes. Stop for a beer. Walk. Eat foie gras. Look up at lovely old buildings. Walk. Eat more foie gras. It went on like this for five days and despite the 90% humidity I enjoyed almost every minute of it. we stayed in the plateau neighborhood in the most perfect apartment. Our place was a block from the metro which is the simplest underground system i’ve experienced. we took Anthony bourdain’s suggestions from his show the layover very seriously. We ate at bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon at beauty’s diner. we grabbed a seeded bagel and some cream cheese from st. viateur bagel then biked to the park and ate them on a picnic bench. I ordered meats I’d never eaten before like blood sausage and buffalo at au pied de cochon. I even got a little weepy when I tasted the smoked meat sandwich at schwartz’s. I used whatever words I could recall from mrs. Phelps lessons. If someone said “bonjour” to me I’d say “bonjour” right back, thinking I was echoing their pronunciation. But they’d always respond by saying “hello.” I tried to remember the way mrs. Phelps said it but, the montrealers caught me every time.
four days later the charm of the city streets was waning, our feet ached and we’d finally gotten sick of duck liver. we rented a car and drove to quebec city. If the montreal metro is the easiest way to get around in Canada then driving in quebec city is the most difficult. Streets changed from one way to the opposite way without warning. some streets were only a block long. sometimes it was impossible to tell if we were driving on a street that was meant for cars or for horses. it was as if the city planners got together in a bar and laid out the town during a drinking contest that centered on who could come up with the wackiest street layout. It actually took us an hour to drive 8 blocks, which included us driving directly into a parade and nearly running down four mimes on stilts.
It was worth it. quebec city was like being on a movie set of a film set in a non-specific European town. It was a little like spain, a bit like Germany, somewhat London-esque and of course, kind of Parisian. We immediately booked a hotel for one more night. The amount of tourists was overwhelming. a storm of teenagers roamed the streets, since our visit happened to coincide with a huge music festival. Unlike American teenagers these ones were surprising well-behaved. we only saw a few cops and the ones we did see looked bored as they bummed cigarettes from the festival goers. Without anthony bourdain’s suggestions to guide us, we wandered into whatever bar or resto (restaurant) looked interesting. Seth played a slot machine called kitty glitter in pub. the goal was to get four fluffy bedazzled persian white kitties in a row. seth did pretty well and we took our winnings to an old school vegas style steakhouse called le continental where our waiter cooked our steak tableside and we drank dirty gin martinis.
We were able to squeeze in one more meal that included foie gras when we got back to montreal and then it was time to go. In the taxi on the way to the airport, seth asked the cab driver, “how’s your day going?” we’d gotten used to pretty much everyone in quebec being bilingual.
“Excuse-moi,” the driver said.
“Comme ca va (how are you),” I said.
“Ahhh, tres bein, parlez vous francais?” it was the first time I’d ever been asked if I spoke French. Maybe after a week I was becoming a little more Québécois than I realized.
“Un petit peu (a little bit),” I answered. I started channeling fearless women and mr. t as we got closer to the airport and to me getting on a plane. I watched the buildings of montreal get smaller in the rearview mirror and then I sat back in my seat and made a vow to return to my French lessons and make mrs. Phelps proud.