Saturday, March 22, 2014

We'll Always Have Paris By Jennifer Coburn To Benefit The American Cancer Society (EXCERPT)

Jennifer Coburn has been looking in the rear-view mirror expecting to see the Grim Reaper for the last 20 years—ever since she lost her father to lung cancer when she was just 19. When she became a mom herself, Coburn vowed to jam-pack her daughter Katie’s mental scrapbook with beautiful memories…starting in Paris. In her forthcoming memoir, We’ll Always Have Paris: A Mother/Daughter Adventure, Coburn shares details of their summer travels through Europe, one city at a time, united by their desire to see the world and spend precious time together. 

Even though her husband can’t join them, even though she’s nervous about venturing overseas, and even though she’s perfectly healthy and not actually dying, Coburn decides to leave the bathroom and kitchen repairs for another day, and invest in building memories with her daughter. Their journey begins in Paris when Katie is 8, and ends in Paris in 2013, when Katie is 16, after taking month-long trips to more than a dozen European (including Paris, London, Rome, Salerno, Florence, Venice, Madrid, Seville, Granada, Barcelona, and Amsterdam). Whether they are sleeping at Shakespeare and Company Booksellers in Paris, singing Korean folk songs at the Alhambra, playing charades with the locals in Pompeii, or visiting the Salvador Dalí Triangle in Spain, this is the story of how one mother lets go of the fear of death—and how her daughter teaches her to enjoy life. 

This is what Jen Lancaster, New York Times bestselling author of Bitter Is The New Black, The Two Of Martha, and Here I Go Again, has to say about this powerful and tender memoir: “From Coburn’s picture-perfect travelogue to her hilarious observations, she’s woven together a powerful narrative with a heartfelt and thoughtful examination of what truly makes a family.” 

Coburn’s travel memoir will be released by Sourcebooks on April 8, 2014. The author is donating all of the proceeds from pre-ordered copies to the American Cancer Society, the nationwide voluntary health organization dedicated to eliminating cancer. Pre-order before April 8 at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Books-A-Million, and Indigo to give your valuable contribution to the cause. 

Jennifer Coburn is a USA Today bestselling author of six novels and contributor to four literary anthologies. Over the past two decades, Coburn has received numerous awards from the Press Club and Society for Professional Journalists for articles that appeared in Mothering, Big Apple Baby, The Miami Herald, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and dozens of national and regional publications. She has also written for, Creators News Syndicate, and The Huffington Post. Coburn lives in San Diego with her husband, William, and their daughter, Katie. We’ll Always Have Paris is her first memoir. To read more about her and her books, please visit her website


Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. In twenty minutes, we will be landing at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris where the local time is now 7:10 a.m.,” a calm disembodied voice announced. Then the flight attendant repeated the information in French. At least I assumed she was repeating the information. For all I knew, she could have been saying, “On our flight this morning is a clueless American mother and her eight-­year-­old daughter who is counting on her to navigate their ten-­day stay in the City of Lights. Good luck with that.”
I looked at my fellow passengers, noticing I was the only one awake in the cabin, which always seemed to be the case on these red-­eye flights. William was back home in San Diego flossing his teeth. In a few minutes, he would look at the clock beside our bed and realize that Katie’s and my flight was landing. Twenty seconds later, he would be snoring. As a lifelong insomniac, I try to remember that he isn’t purposely taunting me when he goes from sixty to snooze in less than a minute. Still, there are times at night when I stare at him in amazement, wondering how he can let go of consciousness so easily.
I heard the clap of lifting window shades and watched light pour into the cabin like spotlights onto a stage. Good night, William, I thought. Good morning, Paris.
Katie can sleep through earthquakes, so neither the noise nor the plummeting descent of the plane bothered her. Her brown hair was still pressed into her Eeyore neck pillow, and her white Stride Rite sandals were nestled in the space between our seats. Katie didn’t even seem to notice when the flight attendant abruptly pressed the button that snapped her seat into its upright position. My daughter’s delicate eyebrows lifted quizzically; she shifted her position slightly and continued sleeping.
“Katie,” I whispered. “We’re landing in a moment. You need to wake up.” She blinked open her bleary green eyes, trying to register who I was, where we were, and what I was saying. “We’ll be in Paris in a few minutes,” I said, wondering if I sounded as relaxed as I hoped I did.
As the plane continued to land, I felt a slow panic rising.
Katie yawned. “Are you excited, Mommy?”
“Oh yes, Katie. I’m very, very excited,” I replied, imitating the voice of a yoga instructor. “And how are you?”
“Good,” she chirped.
I resisted the urge to say anything else, lest Katie know how absolutely, positively freaked out I was.
Weeks before we left, I asked Katie if she was looking forward to our trip. “Do you understand how lucky we are to be going to Paris? I mean, do you get it?” She was just finishing up second grade, and her teacher was very focused on the students’ comprehension of the words they read. So Katie brought Mrs. Lunsford’s lesson home.
“Well, Paris is the capital of France, and people say I’m lucky to be going, so I know it’s special, but since I’ve never been there, I don’t really understand why it’s so great.” Katie scrunched her mouth to the side, pondering the tough question. “So I understand it, but I guess I don’t get it.”
On the ground, I cursed my friend Maxime for telling me that Katie and I should take the train from Charles de Gaulle Airport, then delve into the Paris Metro system to find our hotel. “Eet ees easy,” he told me weeks earlier as we sat at the Souplantation in San Diego. Easy for him because he is, in fact, French.
“Deed you study the vocabulary words I gave you last week?” He looked disappointed when I told him I hadn’t. Sure, he was encouraging, always telling me my accent was très magnifique, but the French are known for being rather finicky about foreigners speaking their language imperfectly. The prospect of speaking French on their home turf was more than a bit intimidating. Maxime assured me that if I just gave it a try, they would appreciate my effort. “So,” he continued, “all you know how to say ees what?”
“Hello, please, and thank you.”
My friend sighed. “A writer with no words.” Maxime began scribbling on a piece of paper. Writing the French words for “I have” and “I am,” he begged me to try harder. He handed me a phrase book, which covered all of the basics, such as how to ask for directions, prices, and food. There was also a page on flirting. Here I was, a happily married mother on the cusp of middle age with an eight-­year-­old in tow. I hardly thought I’d need to know how to accept a man’s dinner invitation. Still, I was charmed by the idea that pick-up lines were considered essential phrases in French. “How long will you be staying in Paris?” I read in French to my friend.
Ooh la la,” he said, raising his eyebrows. “You have a knack for languages,” he told me.
“How can you say that? I only speak English,” I reminded Maxime.
“I am a French teacher. I can tell when someone has the ear.”
Weeks later, with my suitcase stuck in the Metro turnstile, I panicked. Katie tried to pull the case through, an effort that promptly left her on her behind. I remembered Maxime’s notes in my purse and vaguely recalled that some words, like “problem,” just needed a French accent to translate. “Please,” I called out in French, “Je suis un problème.” A group of maintenance men began laughing and rushed over to help. One smiled gently and corrected me. Apparently, in my haste, I’d mixed the phrases and announced to the commuters not that I have a problem, but that I am one. Was it possible to have a Freudian slip in a foreign language?
Katie and I exited the station and stood on the grim-­looking sidewalk. With a steely ceiling of overcast, this was not the Paris I had envisioned. People rushed past us, mainly tourists with maps in hand and a few locals heading to work. No one wore a beret; no one was painting at an easel. I knew it was naïve to expect such a threshold into Paris, but I’d hoped for something a bit more visually appealing.
I stood frozen, staring at my map without a clue of which direction to walk. An elderly woman wearing a floral scarf on her head noticed that Katie and I looked lost and stopped to ask if we needed help. I shot her a pathetic look and handed her a piece of paper with the address of our hotel written on it. She grabbed my hand and patted it. “Ees close. I take you there.” I heard my mother’s voice warning me not to fall prey to kidnappers who would sell Katie and me into slavery, but I was pretty certain we could outrun this woman. My eyes darted in search of vans with blackened windows, but I saw none. Three blocks later, she delivered us to our hotel, kissed both of my cheeks and pinched Katie’s. She said something to us in French that sounded warm and buttery.
“Mrs. Poltorak told me that French people were snooty, but I think they’re really nice,” Katie said, recalling the student at the airport who helped us buy train tickets and the father who commanded his sons to carry our suitcases up the Metro steps.
This was one of the many reasons I brought Katie overseas. I wanted her to experience different places and people and make her own assessments. I mentally checked the box with this life lesson jotted beside it. We had been in France for less than two hours and already my child had learned something: don’t listen to Mrs. Poltorak.
I also felt that taking Katie abroad young would give her greater confidence to travel on her own someday. When my friend Laura invited me to visit her in Rome for a month during summer break in high school, I declined. The language was different. I didn’t understand the money exchange. It seemed overwhelming. If Katie started traveling young, she wouldn’t find international travel intimidating. She would never doubt her ability to navigate her way through the world the way I still did.
The concierge at our hotel told me that our room was not ready yet and asked if we could return in an hour. My body felt like it was midnight, and yet the clock on the wall insisted it was nine in the morning. Okay. I steeled myself. One more hour. Sixty more minutes and then even I would have no problem falling asleep. Katie shrugged and said she was fine. She’d slept on the plane and only felt “a little floopy.” I, on the other hand, hadn’t slept a minute, and I felt as though I had been whacked on the head with a brick and the ground had transformed into a giant waterbed.
Soon Katie and I were seated at a small, round table in a café with textured black and mocha striped wallpaper and funky hot pink chandeliers. Small black-­and-­white photos with gold rococo frames graced the walls with an unevenly chic flair. A bored brunette wearing capri pants and five-­inch stilettos handed us menus, saying nothing. Her pouty lips conveyed that she hoped to be Europe’s next supermodel, but until then she would deign to serve coffee.
“What does this mean?” Katie asked, pointing to the menu. It was a picture of a coffee mug with steam coming off the top. Beside the image were French words, including chocolat. I confidently announced that it was hot chocolate and suggested we each have one and share a croissant. Inside, though, a certain reality sunk in: this child trusted that I knew what I was doing. She thought I understood what things meant and how they worked. I was the adult here. That couldn’t be good.
Desperately wanting to assure Katie that I was in control of the situation, I boldly thanked our coltish server. “Merci, mademoiselle,” I said as she set down our cups.
Fuck you, appeared to be her reply. Body language always translates perfectly.
Twenty minutes later, I got my second dose of reality. Katie and I walked to the Tuileries Gardens and spotted a Ferris wheel. Taking a ride seemed like a fun, carefree thing to do, but it had the opposite effect on me. As the cart rose, the Eiffel Tower came into view. I gasped, not with joy, but sheer terror. This was not a photo of the Eiffel Tower; it was the real deal. We were unquestionably, undeniably, irreversibly in Paris. What had I done?
What did you think was going to happen when you got on a plane to Paris? Of course the Eiffel Tower is here; of course the menus are in French. What part of this is unexpected?
By the time Katie and I arrived back at our hotel, it was two in the morning San Diego time. On the way from the café, I managed to get thoroughly lost, and our grandmotherly guide was nowhere to be found. When we finally arrived at the hotel, we rode up a small elevator, and I held onto the wall for balance. The bellman opened our door, showed us in, and I promptly ran to the toilet and vomited, then collapsed on the bathroom floor. As I was throwing up, I worried that the bellman was annoyed that I hadn’t tipped.
Katie rubbed my back and suggested that we take a nap. My eyes were filled with tears and my nose was running from the violent return of breakfast. Feeling the cool tiles of the bathroom floor pressed against my cheek, I hoped to God that the maid service was thorough. “It’s going to be okay, Mommy,” Katie offered. “I have a good feeling about this trip. I know we’re going to have a lot of fun.”
“You do?”
She smiled and nodded.
“Based on this?”
I used to comfort my mother in the same way when we were living in a studio apartment in Greenwich Village in the seventies. My parents, Carol and Shelly, had the most amicable split in the history of divorce. Even after their break-­up, my father drove my mother to events in whatever five-­hundred-­dollar car he owned at the moment. My favorites were the tomato red Ford Pinto that demanded chilled water every few hours and the mustard yellow AMC Gremlin with cardboard floor mats. He named the first vehicle Princess Ragu, which was also his pet name for my mother because of her highbrow aspirations. In turn, my mother tolerated him bathing in our tub when the water was shut off in whatever shithole apartment he was currently renting.
As my mother describes it, during their brief marriage, my dad just wanted to get high, stare at the fish tank, and have rambling philosophical conversations with other musicians. My mother, on the other hand, wanted to go to the ballet, finish her degree at NYU, and put down wall-­to-­wall carpet. Each confided in me that the other was a genuinely good person, but a little bit crazy. Both were right.
Though my mother landed a secretarial job almost immediately after the divorce, the move to our new apartment left her short on funds. She always said that if my father had a million dollars, he’d give us $950,000 of it, then blow his fifty grand on drugs. The problem was that my father never had more than a thousand dollars to his name, and my mother was worried about the rent. After I’d go to bed, I could hear her weeping at the kitchen table. At the sight of her six-­year-­old daughter, my mother stifled her tears, embarrassed she had been caught. “Don’t worry, Mommy,” I told her. “I’m going to help.” Far from comforting her, my declaration only made her feel worse, though at the time I couldn’t understand why.
The next day, I set out a blanket in front of the Quad Cinema across the street from our apartment building and sold everything I deemed unnecessary in our home. I got a dime for a copy of The Stepford Wives, fifty cents for our salt and pepper shakers, and three dollars for a pair of my mother’s leather boots. I sold half-­filled bottles of alcohol to the three winos who lived in the doorway across the street. A nice woman discreetly advised me against selling my mother’s diaphragm.
My mother quietly accepted the money I earned, but the effects echoed through our apartment for months as she would notice things missing. “Where are the…” she would begin to ask before remembering that I had sold the teacups. It was years before we ever had a full set of dishes. It was even longer before I witnessed her shed a tear again.
The week after my gypsy garage sale, basking in oblivious pride, I informed my mother that I had earned forty dollars selling raffle tickets in our building. “Jennifer, honey,” my mother said tentatively, “what kind of prize are you planning to give away for this raffle?” When I looked at her quizzically, she explained that I couldn’t just sell raffle tickets. There needed to be a drawing and a prize as well. I assured her she was wrong; no one had asked a thing about a prize. She insisted we go to the five-­and-­dime, buy a glass figurine, and give it to someone who had purchased a ticket. Since there were no ticket stubs, I had to draw from memory. We delivered a frosted glass swan to the guys in apartment 2G.
The following week, my mother and I were walking through Times Square when I noticed a skeletal black man in a green fedora engaging a crowd. A dozen people gathered around his table fashioned from a cardboard box, watching his fluid hands move three cards around the surface. The cards, all face down, were switched from one spot to the next and then another. The man’s voice was hypnotic, promising that players who kept track of the queen of hearts would win fifty dollars. It looked so easy. The payoff was huge. “Let’s play!” I urged my mother who held my hand tight.
“No one ever wins that game,” my mother explained. “At the end of the day, that guy walks off with everyone’s money.”
I turned to her eagerly. “Then let’s watch how he does it!”
“We’re going to be late,” my mother clipped and quickened her pace. As we turned the corner, she smiled brightly. “Did I mention that I got a raise at work?”
“You did?!”
“Yes, a very big raise, so I’ve got us covered from here.”
Katie and I woke up fresh and ready to take on Paris. Unfortunately it was 11:00 p.m. We went downstairs to get dinner, but because we had been so lost earlier, my confidence was low. I was determined to stay within a block of our hotel. On the street corner, a woman who looked to be at least a thousand years old with a humped back greeted Katie and me. Her chin sprouted hair and her nose looked like a pickle. She wore a black hooded cape and held out knobby fingers that were made for delivering poisoned apples. I had no idea what she was saying, but she was clearly begging for money. She was telling her story with dramatic flair, her voice fluctuating brilliantly for effect. She wept; she beat her own chest.
I wondered where her breaking point was. Had she been born into the life of a street urchin and never managed to escape? Or did she once live on a quiet street and host ladies’ bridge games? What went wrong? My heart beat faster with the realization that most of us were a few strokes of bum luck away from her fate. This woman was a few bad weeks away from the grave.
“Give her some money,” Katie said, breaking my trance. “Stop staring and give her some money.”
“Oh, right, of course,” I jolted, then reached for my wallet.
The old woman thanked us with even more drama. She beat her chest again and moaned with gratitude.
After a few steps, Katie broke the silence. “That was really sad.”
“No, she was a street performer,” I insisted, swallowing hard. “You know how we see people in Balboa Park playing music for tips?”
“A street performer?” Katie asked.
“Yes, a street performer,” I said, repeating silently, red balloons, mimes, and baguettes.
After a few moments of contemplating my proposal, Katie said, “I hate to break it to you, Mommy, but that was a homeless lady.”
Hours later, Katie and I lay awake, weeping in our beds. Katie sobbed that she wanted to go home. She missed Daddy. I tickled her arm and told her everything was going to be fine. “We just have jet lag,” I explained as tears rolled down my face in our darkened hotel room. I tried to keep my tone calm, but my heart ached because I knew she was right. I had made a huge mistake. She was too young for a trip like this. Maybe I wasn’t up to the task, either.
“Are you crying, Mommy?”
“No, my nose is just a little stuffed.”
As I assured Katie that we would be fine, another part of my brain was frantically devising a plan: we would stay in our hotel room for ten days, order room service, and soon enough it would be time to leave Paris. My mind was racing in tiny circles as I planned our lockdown. Our hotel became a fallout shelter in my mind. There was food in the lobby restaurant, running water, and even a minibar with soft drinks. We had books, a sketch pad, and crayons. If we got desperate, we could channel surf until we found American sitcoms with a laugh track and a thirty-­minute resolution to all problems.
Katie and I rose at noon and felt a little better. My sanity was slowly starting to return, so I suggested that since we were in Paris, we should at least walk to the Louvre, which was only six blocks away. I looked at my map and realized it was a straight shot to the museum. Even I couldn’t get lost. That evening, we would have dinner with my cousin Janine, whom I’d never met, her husband Bruno, and their miracle baby, Luca.
Janine was a war correspondent. After twenty years of writing from Bosnia, Chechnya, Somalia, Rwanda, Iraq, and dozens of war zones, she married a French photographer and settled in Paris. Before Katie and I left San Diego, Janine sent an email inviting us to her flat for dinner. She asked if we could bring instant oatmeal from the United States for Luca. These were small steps we could take. We could see the Mona Lisa. We could show up for dinner with a variety pack of Quaker Oats. I kept the option to quarantine in my back pocket, or more accurately, in my slash-­proof travel purse with multiple safety locks.
The Louvre was magnificent, but my only impression of Mona Lisa was that someone really ought to clean the glass box protecting the masterpiece. My Windex trigger finger reflexively extended, wishing I could wipe away all the cloudy smudging.
“It’s smaller than I thought,” Katie said as we bobbed and weaved our heads in order to see through the four layers of tourists in front of us. Camera shutters crackled as people frantically snapped photos. I quickly remembered the camera in my purse and reminded Katie that this shot was a must. She shrugged and continued to look at the painting, shifting and tiptoeing as needed. After taking a dozen terrible photographs of the iconic painting, I glanced at Katie, who had finally found a spot with an unobstructed view of da Vinci’s girl with the enigmatic smile.
“Do you want to take some pictures?” I asked, offering her the camera.
“I see it,” she chirped.
“Not impressed?” I asked.
“I want to look at it for real.”
I tucked my camera back in my purse. “You’re right, it’s not like we won’t be able to find a good picture of Mona Lisa on a postcard,” I said.
“Or Google,” Katie said, not taking her eyes off the painting.
After moving to a different area of the museum, I sat on a black leather bench and Katie began to sketch the paintings. When she finally turned her picture for me to see, it was a portrait of me with a glowing halo around my head in Crayola gold. “Wanna know why Mama Lisa is smiling?” she asked.
“Because I just told her a joke,” Katie replied.
I considered asking her about our sob-­fest the night before. My bad instincts wanted to revisit and hyper­analyze to be sure that everything was now all right. Thankfully, I realized that this would likely have the opposite effect and refrained from launching a hand-­wringing talk-­a-­thon. Katie was coloring at the Louvre. That was my answer.
I often fretted about whether or not Katie was enjoying her childhood, or if I was screwing up as a mother. On one level, I knew her life was nearly idyllic. She was well cared for and loved. Katie had everything she needed and much of what she wanted. She got to visit Paris, for God’s sake! Still, I worried that somehow I wasn’t doing enough. That I wasn’t enough. Or maybe I was doing too much and that I was overbearing. I judged myself mercilessly and grew terrified that, as she got older, Katie would too. My great fear was that at the very moment she decided I was a woefully inadequate mother, I would drop dead. Life had become a series of preemptive apologies for my transgressions, both real and imagined. Every year, I placed notes for her in a file cabinet so she could read them as an adult. Ostensibly they were annual updates about her life, but the subtext was very clear: I love you. I tried my best.
That evening, Katie and I arrived at Janine’s home, a sprawling fifth-­floor flat flooded with sunlight. The hardwood floors were covered with soft wicker rugs, and the white couches and seats were knotted cotton, comfy chic. At the dinner table, the adults sipped red wine from thin, bulbous glasses, trying to figure out how Janine and I were related. There were several branches of the family tree separating us, though we were somehow intertwined by our grandmothers. In the end, we decided “cousin” was a close-­enough classification.
I caught her up on family gossip, and we giggled over how she could not translate the word “closure” for Bruno when I told her of our cousin’s “severance” ceremony with her ex-­fiancé. The couple had gone into the woods, (carefully) burned their marriage license, and told each other every reason why they weren’t meant to be. “They needed to have a proper ending,” Janine explained to her perplexed husband, a rugged-­looking guy with three-­day stubble on his face. Janine tried again. “They needed to talk about what went wrong and say their good-­byes.”
“Why?” Bruno asked, blowing a cloud of blue cigarette smoke.
“Because they wanted closure,” Janine said.
“Thees ees silly.”
Janine had a sexy Italian look with voluptuousness that extended to her wavy brown hair. She looked as if she might roll up her linen pants and romp through a fountain at any given moment. My cousin spoke with the indefinable accent of global nomads and laughed generously before suggesting that Katie and I come to the Alps with her family for the weekend. Bruno’s eyes widened with the fear that we might accept.
Janine poured another glass of wine and opened the French windows—­or, I guess, just windows—­and I saw Paris unfolding at dusk. From the fifth-­floor balcony, the city seemed manageable, even inviting. The height made Paris look almost as the map had promised. Directly in front of us was the Tuileries Garden with its orderly rows of bushes, elegant statues, and duck pond surrounded by grass and yellow blossoms.
Pointing at a narrow body of water, I asked, “Is that the Seine River?” Janine confirmed. I watched people walking on each side of the stone-­lined riverbank and crossing small bridges. Perhaps I could do that if I remember exactly where to turn to get back to the hotel. “And is that the train station?” I asked of the mammoth structure with arched windows and a clock.
“That is the Musée d’Orsay,” Janine told me. To the right a few miles, I saw the Eiffel Tower.
I know how to get to the Louvre, I silently assured myself. So if I just cross that bridge over the river, I could also get to the Musée d’Orsay.
As if reading my mind, Bruno asked for my map, offering to show me the best streets for people-­watching. “What are all these marks?” he asked, examining the spots of color-­coded masking tape dotting the map, marking the important sites. He barely refrained from rolling his eyes and began jotting pen marks on my map, telling me which streets were truly special and which were tourist traps. “To know Paris,” Bruno began, pulling on his cigarette, “you need to relax, have a glass of wine, and enjoy life.” Exhale. His smoke rose like a ghost.
Enjoy life? I thought about my travel notebook filled with essential sites. Beside each one was an empty box, which I would have the immense pleasure of checking once we visited them. How would I even know if I had succeeded in the task of enjoying life? When did I get to check that box? Did I get a new box every day, or did I have to sit uncomfortably with an unchecked box until the very end of the trip when I could properly assess whether I had or had not enjoyed life?
I explained to Bruno that I am an American mother and asked if he understood what that meant. I took my daughter to art school, piano lessons, and her doctor and dentist appointments. I regularly volunteered in Katie’s classroom and chaperoned field trips. I coached her soccer team and even spent one year as a Girl Scout troop leader. When I wasn’t shuttling Katie from one activity to the next, I was ordering in the enrichment classes like they were Chinese food. I hired a student at San Diego State University to be Katie’s study buddy on Tuesday afternoons. I even hired a show-­and-­tell coach when Katie was in first grade. I was a model helicopter parent.
I wanted to parent (okay, micromanage) Bruno, though he was a few years my senior. When he lit his fifth cigarette of the night, I felt like telling him that smoking could kill him, but a combination of propriety and fear stopped me. Plus, my history with my father had proven that smokers never heed the admonitions of others.
The candle on the dinner table had burned to its final inch, and yellow wax had melted onto the rustic wood table. Janine shared how she and Bruno met while covering a war in Sarajevo. During their long careers, they had each dodged bullets and survived bombing raids that left others dead. Equally painful, they had been through multiple miscarriages. They had gone through several cycles of in vitro fertilization to produce Baby Luca, who now toddled about their beautiful home playing peek-­a-­boo with Katie. I knew if Janine and Bruno had survived all of this and still advised me to “enjoy life,” it would be utterly pathetic to lock myself in a sterile hotel room while visiting Paris.
First, though, we had to make it out of Janine’s apartment building. Ten minutes after we left Janine and a very restless Bruno, we were still struggling with the main door in the lobby. We pulled it, we pushed it. We twisted the knob and jiggled the gate and still couldn’t get out.
“We’re locked in?” Katie asked.
“I know, weird.” I called upstairs to Janine’s apartment, mortified to have to ask for her help. She and her husband had just shared horrific stories of escaping sniper’s fire, and I couldn’t manage to make it out the front door.
“See the button on the left?” Janine asked patiently.
I scanned the lobby, then saw a small red button. “I see a button with the word porte.”
“That means door. Press the button and the door will open,” Janine explained.
“I feel like a dolt,” I told her.
“Don’t,” Janine said. “Now you know.” I shuddered at the thought of Bruno’s reaction when he heard about the American idiot who couldn’t open a door. He would snort and say, “Enjoy life, but first leave the building!”

***Material graciously provided by the publisher

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