The Late, Late, Late Bloomer

planned a 10-day tour of France for my parents who were visiting Europe for the first time. I put a lot of pressure on myself because not only did I want them to have a good time but I knew they’d be seeing “French me” for the first time; since I first visited France in 2008, they’d never seen me navigate around this world so foreign to them.

IMG-20190814-WA0006We started our trip in the place all First Trips to France must start: Caen. Just kidding. Paris. Of course we went to Paris. Robin and I picked them up in the morning and I let them have their beloved Starbucks coffee at the airport as long as they promised they’d hold off on breakfast until I bought them their first croissant. Our cute and light-filled Airbnb in the 20eme (right by Pere Lachaise), owned by two sisters and creative designers, was perfectly located: close enough to be a 15-min metro ride away from most tourist stops but far away that we felt like locals and enjoyed close-to-silent nights. 

On the last phone call we had before their plane ride here, my parents told me that several people had told them that Paris was dirty, smelled like urine, and that French people didn’t shower. My mom, being the valedictorian of the school of thought that “cleanliness is next to godliness”, was starting to worry. However, having lived in the outskirts of Paris for six months, I carefully planned a “best of” walking tour of the city. Bellies full of patisseries and “expressos” (I’m sorry, but that’s what French people insist on calling them), we hit the strip of land that follows the Seine from the Champ de Mars to Bastille that every tourist loves and all the locals avoid.

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They were elated. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing was real. Over the next two days, I also took them to my personal favorite spots in the city like the Jardin des Plantes, la Coulée Verte, my favorite people-watching cafés in the Marais, and some adorable neighborhoods. I even got my mom to try riding an electric scooter with me.

My favorite part of our Paris trip was when we stumbled upon a older man, walking around the Jardin des Plantes with his hands behind his back, whistling. He seemed very keen on talking to my parents so I did my best to do Italian/Spanish/French translations as Giaccobo, an Italian expat, told us about his life in France. I’m sorry to be so cliché but it really is those unexpected, spur of the moment, meet cutes that make Paris such a special city. We said our goodbyes and headed to a cute bar in the Marais where I picked an aperitif of rosé and charcuterie for us to share. Introducing my parents to the proper way to enjoy paté, rillettes, and cornichons made me happy.

I tried explaining to them that no matter how much they loved Paris, by the end of their time in France, it would be far from being the highlight of their trip. After a whirlwind tour of the capital, it was time to travel south. Since it would be my parents’ first time taking a train, I booked them a first class ticket for our train to Bordeaux.

They loved it. At least, the part of it they were awake for. I had this running joke throughout the trip about my parents almost narcoleptic ability to fall asleep anywhere, anytime. I ended up with a selfie collage of all their naps.

Bordeaux is a special city to me because it was the first place I took a truly solo trip and couchsurfed with a Franco-Argentinian couple. Our Airbnb for the night was a small, vintage apartment right by the Porte Cailhau and steps away from downtown. After a 45 minute wait at a wine bar, we were all cranky but I made up for it by finding a creperie who snuck us a reservation even though they were booked for dinner. I ordered my parents a bowl of hard cider with their galettes for an authentic experience. After an appetizer of gelato, a dinner of savory and sweet crepes, plus wine and cider, we waddled back to our place, full and happy.

The next day, in the last hours before our train to Toulouse, I took them to the Marché des Capucins to eat oysters, bread with salted butter, and white wine for breakfast. Yeah, you read that right. Breakfast. My dad ate one out of politeness while my mom nibbled on a canelé trying to decide if she liked them. (She didn’t.) We bought mirabelle plums (my FAVORITES) from a grocer who heard that my parents weren’t French and added a few extra fruits to our bag for them to try, for free.

My dad asked me about our train’s departure time but I reassured him that I had everything under control and that we still had time. On our walk back to the Airbnb to get our luggage, I looked at the time and realized everything was NOT okay. We were going to have to haul ass to make it. I tried to not show my pure stress as we walked out the door but the second I saw we missed our bus to the train station, I ditched the façade and simply yelled, “RUN!”. I grabbed their bags and ran like a cartoon villain while my parents, in their 50s and 60s, panicking and panting, tried to keep up with me. Somehow we got on our train with only 90 seconds to spare. I spent the train ride apologizing and hoping the cushy seats would make up for my shitty planning.

In Toulouse, we picked up Robin and our car to start our road trip across the Southern coast towards my in-laws’ place in Barcelonnette. We only had a few hours to kill so only I took them on a quick tour of downtown and we got Toulouse rugby jersey for my brother.

Our first stop along the coast was the medieval hilltop citadel of Carcassonne. It would be my parent’s first time in a castle and they just couldn’t believe how historic everything around us was. The next day, I wanted to make my mom’s birthday special so I booked an airbnb in a magical renovated house from the 15th century with vaulted ceilings and a jacuzzi. I booked the airbnb without checking out the town but Miramas-le-Vieux turned out to be a charming, incredibly picturesque village.

Our next stop, Cassis, would be a test of my parents’ sportsmanship and they passed with flying colors. As is the case with most immigrant parents, my mom and dad aren’t exactly big on hiking and being in nature. We had good weather on our side and even though I had to talk my mom into peeing outside for the first time in her life, I’m glad I took them to the Calanques so they could see the turquoise waters firsthand.

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From there, we met up in Sisteron with Robin’s parents, his sister, Charlotte, her boyfriend, and Robin’s brother, Nathan, who was having a concert with his two-man band, The IMG-20190829-WA0026Foolers. Although our families had met before, the idea of having our two radically different families meet up was stressful but I knew the language barrier would keep things safe. Nathan invited us up to sing a song in Spanish with him. To my utter shock and surprise, my mom jumped right onstage and grabbed a mic even though, like me, she only knows the chorus of Despacito.

Sisteron is only about an hour from Barcelonnette so after the concert, we said goodbye to Nathan and Charlotte, and finally headed home. I was happy we’d be arriving in the dark so that my parents would have the same “Christmas morning” as I did, the first time I opened up the windows as saw the majestic Grande Séolane staring back at me.

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The town of Barcelonnette actually has a Mexican influence; in the early 1800s, French entrepreneurs emigrated to Mexico to sell wool and silks from the Ubaye valley. Their venture turned out to be more successful than they thought, leading to more than 5,000 families from the valley following their move. To commemorate this history, every August, the city of Barcelonnette hosts the “Fêtes Latino-Mexicaines”, complete with dancers in folkloric dress, live music, and mexican food. I kept it a surprise from my parents and as we walked up to my mother-in-law’s hat shop downtown, my parents were completely surprised to be hearing a live mariachi band. It was emotional albeit a bit bizarre for my dad to be hearing songs from his hometown being played with the French alps in the background.

Family friends of the Lenogues were staying at their small guesthouse at the same time as we were there, and luckily for us, 2 of them spoke fluent Spanish though I admit that after two bottles of rosé, communication transcends any language barriers. After Barcelonnette, Robin drove back to Toulouse and my parents and I took a bus from Aix-en-Provence to Marseille, where we picked up our rental car to continue our drive along the Southern French coast and into Italy. We managed to find an automatic car to rent because at the time I still couldn’t drive a stick. It was stressful getting out of Marseille, which I could describe as Houston, only angrier and with less city planning, but we finally were on our way to San Remo, Italy.

 

 

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Everything was just fine until we cross the Italian border. Rules? Out the window. Two-lane street? Ha. Sure, if you don’t count the 3 unofficial lanes of mopeds zipping all around you. Speed limit? A mere jumping off point. I white-knuckled it and didn’t really exhale until we got to our hotel for the night.

To top it off, all the restaurants were booked, despite it being a weeknight, and the place we ended up at tried bringing us an appetizer they had forgotten about, almost 20 minutes after we finished our subpar meal. Now, I am clearly not fluent in Italian, but I managed to tell the waiter they forgot to bring it out earlier, we were done eating, and we were no longer paying for it. Seconds later, a very angry manager comes over yelling at me about how “I don’t understand how Italian cuisine works!”, and I’m trying not to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation while replying, “Okay, maybe I don’t but can you please just bring me the check?”. All the while, my parents are just staring at us in shock, trying to understand what was going on.

We enjoyed “lido” culture which is basically just going to the beach and sunbathing on a striped lounge chair in a tiny bikini, drenched in gold jewelry until you turn roughly the color of a rotisserie chicken. The next day we managed to find a decent place to eat lunch where my parents finally got to understand why I love eating in Italy so much. I ordered us fresh burrata with prosciutto and focaccia, a margherita pizza, and ice cold beers. The meal was a revelation. Everything was absolutely delicious.

We drove back towards Marseille, stopping by Monaco which was a total snore-fest for me but charmed my parents with all the fancy, nouveau riche folks walking around with tiny dogs and giant Birkins. Nice, however, was sunny, easy to navigate through, and made for a great final leg of our trip.

We dropped the car off and it was finally time to part ways. My parents were fine, as fine as you can be with the high concentration of crazy that is the Gare Saint-Charles in Marseille, up until the point they got on the bus to the airport. 

My parents kept asking if I’d be okay on the station alone. I smiled to myself thinking how funny it was. I had been living for years off and on in France, dealing with much scarier situations by myself, but in this moment, my parents were worried about my 20 minute wait alone for my train. As they waved goodbyes from the bus window, my mom started to cry. It weighed on me that she was upset, but I was fine.

It wasn’t until I was sitting in my train, staring out the window at the blurred landscapes, darkened by dusk, that the sadness unfurled in front of me at once, like a curtain. It was almost as if I had finally become aware of the weight of adulthood, which must have been placed on my shoulders years ago. For the first time in my life, my parents depended on me. They didn’t speak the language, they couldn’t understand street signs, they didn’t know the customs, hell, they had never stepped foot on this continent before.

Before I stepped off my parents’ bus, I joked with my dad that surely he must be happy to be rid of my micromanaging and back to being in charge. He laughed and shook his head, saying that being able to sit back and just turn to me for next steps had been one of the best parts of the trip.

Processing this trip has been incredibly emotional for me. I feel like I’ve reached the point of no return: the point at which my parents can no longer teach me anything I haven’t already learned. The point at which it’s up to me to coddle and pamper them, not the other way around. For the first time, I felt depended upon and it was a weight I was finally capable of carrying.

I spent decades depending on others. I was so sharp when it came to being book smart but have been such a late bloomer when it comes to useful, developmentally important progress. For years, I put pressure on myself to be the best, to get good grades, to achieve, to be able to produce something tangible to give to my parents in gratitude. But how do you repay someone who gave up everything that was familiar and warm to them, unable to return for decades, in order to spare you their trauma and pain?

 

 

When I moved to France last September, I called my mom, crying, feeling so frustrated at being unable to assimilate despite knowing the language. She listened and in her signature, gentle but no-bullshit way, she reminded me that she understood, since she moved to the US, pregnant and with a toddler, without speaking a word of English, poor as dirt. A few weeks after my parents settled in Inglewood, California – a stone’s throw from Compton – my pregnant mom was beaten by a gang of women for no reason. My dad, a computer salesman at the time, used to eat his lunch (a tin of sardines and a can of warm, cheap soda) in his car – a clunker with springs that came up through the seats – far away from the office so his co-workers wouldn’t see. How do you tell those people, “yeah, I’m childless, living with a supportive, emotionally intelligent spouse in a country where I speak the language fluently, but I have the sads”? I just do. And they just listen to me.

I will never be able to give back to my parents what they gave to me. All I can do is take them to the beautiful places their investment in me has allowed me to go, and bask in a love that overwhelms me and makes everything feel alright.

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