Once Upon A December

Disclaimer: This essay has nothing to do with the Romanov dynasty or any subsequent fictionalizations of the Grand Duchess Anastasia, animated or otherwise. Sorry.

I went to Europe for the first time when I was fifteen. My family decided to spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve in London and Paris, respectively. It was my first time abroad, my first time anywhere really. At that point, the only place I had been via airplane was Florida. On that first transatlantic flight, my parents used years of hoarded AmEx points to upgrade our tickets to first class. My brother and I sat behind my eighth grade Latin teacher, who was British and flying home for Christmas. This was a nice coincidence that became a lot less nice once my brother filled up on the overly decadent free food and, after a bit of turbulence, proceeded to vomit on the back of my teacher’s seat. When I returned to school in January, my math teacher told me she heard my brother had an interesting flight to London.

What I remember about my first time in London: high tea in The English Tea Room at Brown’s and afternoon tea at Claridge’s; dinner at the Ritz, where the waiter asked if we wanted our water with or without gas, a question that, in a painfully American moment, made us snicker like five-year-olds; a wonderful West End production of My Fair Lady (if you’re going to see My Fair Lady, you should really see it in London, don’t you think?); a less than stellar adaptation of the 1980 film Fame (a movie chronicling the lives of the underprivileged students at New York City’s premier performing arts high school in the late 1970s is probably as un-British as a West End production can be); a trip to the National Portrait Gallery followed by lunch in the Portrait Restaurant and Bar, which boasts spectacular views of the London skyline, and is the setting for a disturbingly misogynistic scene between Julia Roberts and Clive Owen in the 2004 film Closer; and, almost missing the EuroStar to Paris.

What I’m about to write reveals a bit about why I often worry that I act or sound clichéd, but here goes: I love Paris. I think I probably fell in love with Paris before I set foot in Paris. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t gravitate to black and white toile or fleurs-de-lis or croissants or Amélie.

December 2006: Taking photos (using a digital camera) in Paris.

On New Year’s Eve, we took a Bateaux Mouches cruise on the Seine. We sat with a family of three from Italy. The daughter was around my age, and her name might have been Marina, but I don’t remember because they did not speak English and despite my mother’s insistence that I try speaking to them in Spanish because Italian and Spanish aren’t really that different, Kate, everything got lost in translation. But, at the same time, nothing important was lost in translation: We were two families on holiday celebrating the arrival of 2003. There was live music. There was dancing. There was champagne, which my parents allowed me one glass of, although I snuck another when they weren’t looking. We celebrated the New Year by watching the fireworks over the Eiffel Tower. We found our way back to our hotel by foot, navigating through throngs of people, mostly drunk but all celebrating. We hadn’t planned well and couldn’t get a cab, and at some point, I took off my shoes and completed the walk in my tights. We didn’t sleep because our flight back to New York was early on New Year’s Day. It is one of my favorite memories from my adolescence.

Other than that first New Year’s Eve abroad, I don’t remember much about my first time in Paris. Of course, we did some touristy things, but we mostly spent time aimlessly wandering or sitting in restaurants drinking café au lait and eating Croque-Monsieur. We slept late and didn’t bother with a daily agenda, which was rather impressive for a family of planners. At home, the familial modus operandi was go go go. Not a minute unscheduled, not a box unchecked. No undotted i’s, no uncrossed t’s. I come from a people who get shit done and get it done with superhuman efficiency. But in Paris? In Paris, we just were. We were happy; or, perhaps, we were happy enough. Regardless, it was likely this quiet contentment that prompted us to return the following December, and again in 2006 and 2007.

In 2003, I was taking Contemporary Art History in school, and, self-starter (read: ass-kisser) that I was, I asked my teacher for an extra assignment because I was going to be in Paris. He told me to go to a museum and write something about how the building’s exterior interacts with its collection. To this day, I do not know what museum I was supposed to go to. I remember that I did drag my family to Musée Bourdelle, where my parents and I spent a long time trying to find the connection between the fairly nondescript brick building that was once Charles Bourdelle’s studio and the large bronze sculptures of horses in the courtyard. Our theories were tenuous at best, bullshit at worst. The fact that I wrote two pages suggesting an interaction between the two should have been a sign that in college, I would major in English literature, a degree that, in my experience, is akin to a B.A. in B.S.

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, “Self-portrait with Her Daughter,” 1789.

Despite that particular mix-up, our December 2003 trip to Paris was the first time I remember art taking my breath away. It seemed impossible that I was actually standing in front of works I had learned about via slide projections in the basement classroom of my high school that encompassed the entire Art History department. (One classroom, one teacher, but he taught me more about art than any of my college professors did. Actually, he and I are friends on Facebook, so if you’re reading this, Mr. Yates, I’m sorry about the Musée Bourdelle bullshit.) Instead of clamoring to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, I wanted to see Fragonard’s The Lock and Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii. When I found Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s Self-portrait with Her Daughter, I took my mom’s hand and said, “Look, Mom. It’s us.” We each bought a bookmark of the painting in the gift shop. We both still have them. At the Musée d’Orsay, I showed my dad how Manet used the same model in both Olympia and Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. He was impressed that I knew more about art than he did, and proceeded to buy a ridiculously overpriced, thousand-page, five-pound book detailing the d’Orsay’s entire collection so he could read it and teach me a thing or two.

In the 360 days between those first two trips to Paris, I read and loved Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami and proceeded to devour almost all of his published work at such a terrifying speed that the plots and characters completely blurred together. (I don’t think this is a particularly unusual phenomenon, though, because hey, Haruki Murakami Bingo is a thing.) But I do remember my first trip to Shakespeare and Company, where I spent at least an hour perusing those hallowed bookshelves, eventually finding and purchasing a copy of Jay Rubin’s Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, which I had not seen at any U.S. bookstores. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that, even fourteen years later, I still haven’t read it.

December 2008: In London, wearing the coat I bought the year before at a tiny boutique in Paris. It is one of my most prized possessions, and I still own and wear it.

When I was seventeen, we went to Rome. I had taken a year-and-change of Italian in school, and maybe because of this, enjoyed the city more than my family did. I also reveled in the male attention I received, mostly because I had never really gotten any, or perhaps more accurately, was not aware of it. During one lunch near the Torre degli Anguillara, or Casa di Dante, our server waited until my dad and brother went to the bathroom, and approached our table to ask me, “Bar, stasera?” I had studied enough Italian to know that stasera means tonight, and isn’t it nice that bar transcends translation? I stammered a bit, but eventually came up with a response of, “Sono solo diciasette,” to which he replied, “Va bene.” Apparently, I had not studied enough Italian to accurately tell this 20-something Roman that I was only seventeen-years-old. What I should have said is, “Ho solo diciasette anni.” Instead, I told him, “They are only seventeen.” That said, I’m fairly confident he understood what I was trying to say. Furthermore, I doubt his casual response of what basically translates to It’s all good in English would have changed had I correctly conjugated.

In 2008, we returned to London, where we saw theatrical productions almost every night, including Billy Elliot, The Mouse Trap, and a Pinter play that, to be perfectly honest, was boring AF, because it was 90+ minutes of two alcoholic men in their sixties talking at each other. My dad was the only one who enjoyed it. That trip also provided the premise for a long-running family inside joke: During lunch one day, we overheard a woman tell her companion, “The goose is lurking in the fridge.” Obviously, this woman was referring to Christmas dinner leftovers, but we couldn’t help but concoct an elaborate storyline about espionage and covert ops and code names. It was a nice moment and thinking about it still makes me smile.

December 2009: Posing on a (definitely parked) vespa in Amalfi.

Our last December trip was to the Amalfi coast in 2009. We stayed in the town of Amalfi, but took day trips to Sorrento, Positano, Pompeii, and Ravello. Eight years later, and my mouth still waters when I remember some of the food we ate on that trip. In Ravello, I had the best pasta of my entire life at Cumpa Cosimo, where owner and chef Mama Netta grows tomatoes on her roof and says hello to every table. In Positano, we sat under umbrellas at La Cambusa while it poured and we listened to the waves crash on the beach. An American couple in their 60s sat next to us, and we chatted. The husband, Peter, smoked a cigar while complaining about his advisor at UCLA, where he was pursuing a PhD. We eventually shared several bottles of wine, and they invited us to Venice for New Year’s Eve, but didn’t give us any contact information other than Peter’s last name, which they implied would be sufficient. When we returned to our hotel, I Googled him, and said to my family, “Holy shit, we just got drunk with RoboCop.” (I probably wouldn’t have known Peter Weller by name if this hadn’t happened, but I was delighted to see him six months later on the last season of Dexter.)

In his 1919 poem “The Second Coming,” Yeats writes, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” which is a good enough explanation of why these December trips are no more. And I will be the first to admit that they weren’t all sunshine and muffin baskets full of rainbows. It would be naïve to expect a masterfully-developed dysfunctional dynamic to disappear because you fly over the Atlantic Ocean. You can’t help but pack that figurative baggage in the literal baggage. Anger, frustration, and resentment don’t cease to exist because you’re in another country. At some point, one of you stops pretending that everything is fine, so you are all forced to admit that everything is far from fine. But, I choose to filter these memories through the lens of the good parts. Because once upon seven Decembers, we were happy enough.