By Lauryn Ash
My sister has a way of posing for pictures. She juts her chin out. She looks towards the sky. She salutes. She points. She turns her body sideways and spreads her arms out wide. Me? I just flash a peace sign every so often and pray that my face doesn’t look like a duck. Then there is my sister—the crane, the swan, the bird not afraid to show her wings.
My sister had never seen the European sun before. Should I have been surprised she always craned her neck to see it? We were in Paris. The skies were mainly grey. The streets were convoluted. The cafes were on every corner. And all my mother could talk about was how cold it was. She’s from Texas. I should have expected that too. My father on the other hand rarely wore a jacket. We had to climb the Eiffel Tower just for him to shout—IT’S CHILLY—over the wind in his beautiful professionally southern accent. I snapped the photo as my sister hid her face in my shoulder. She is still a fledgling teenager, embarrassed by her father’s actions. When I showed her, she argued it was just the cold. I would call it a conditioned response.
My father devotes his life to learning. We had to drop my mother at the hotel. The Eiffel Tower completely chilled her. The three of us backtracked to a little Niche of a German-French café bar. It was that time after dinner service but before the acceptable drinking hours. The restaurant was empty, save us three, nestled in the middle row of booths, trying to decipher the menu. My tastes are simple. Café Americano, no sugar, no cream, no milk, no spoon. My father’s tastes are cream, and milk, and sugar, and a little coffee for taste. My sister doesn’t choose. So of course she was the one having the most trouble. I pointed her to the Café Vienna Blanca. I knew what it would be; she was glad someone did.
The waiter was too polite. The brass fixtures and leather seating were uncomfortably upscale. This place is right posh, my British-soaked mind affirmed. My father didn’t notice. His hands were flipping through the pages of his travel journal. He proceeded to list all the fruits and vegetables, first in French, then in English. When our drinks arrived, he had to stop to enviously look at my sister.
Her drink was served warmed in a long thermal glass, held above the plate by metal rings. Topped with whipped shavings, and cinnamon powder, it was a mixture of milk and white chocolate with foamed milk. I had to convince my father, no, he did not need a taste. There was no time to take a proper picture. She had already slurped half of it down. My father looked at his sugar packets. He started collecting them from our plates and shoved them in my messenger bag. They were wrapped in white paper with colored swirls and he wanted to show Mother. They were adorable, worth saving; but back to the language.
The word for grape in French is raisin. The word for plum is prune. It’s ironic the English made the French words for what happens to the fruit when it is dried. That’s the result of the 100 years war. In all seriousness, English words became much less English when we compared to the foreign languages we knew. In Britain, a zucchini is a courgette, which is French; but “zucchini” is from Tuscany, even though both courgettes and zucchinis originated where all squash originated—the Americas. This knowledge was crucial when getting my mother to eat.
My mother loves trying new things off other people’s plates. She’ll order the most bland—and thus most likely tasteless—option on the menu. True, it reads well; but when you’re reading in French, it never tells you much. She leaves a portion of her food untouched when it is despicable. She finishes her plate only when she had been beyond hunger. She delicately picks her food full of holes only if it was the most delicious meal she had ever had. She is dairy-free, sugar-free, wheat-free, and refuses to eat anyway else. I love her dedication to eating only perfect food. I only wish I could do the same.
My family quickly recognized I could pick a restaurant and navigate the streets of Paris at the same time. My sister would get lost in the architecture. My father had to read every single sign that wasn’t in English; no sign is in English in Paris. My mother just wanted to eat. It was like leading a circus. Keep one from walking ahead. Keep another from stopping. Reassure one that food was just around the corner, when you weren’t sure food was just around the corner, but if not this one then definitely the next. I digress. My family is beautiful. I will never know how we managed to get a table reserved for four at the offshoot, alleyway, cobblestoned entrance of a fish market in Paris cream, chocolate cobblestoned entrance of a fish market in Paris for Christmas day. But we did.
My mother knew the word for chicken in French and ordered. My father settled for the Chef’s Choice Meal for simplicity. My sister was left bewildered, but chose what she thought would be steak. I simply ordered the choice fish. My father ended up with a sausage starter, which my mother fondly approved. We also shared a sample of Escargot. The shells are hard to grasp, but keep the juices of the meat inside. It was lightly salty, tinge of lemon/lime acidity, but spiced with herbs such as basil. If it cost less than €9 for 6 tiny shells, I would eat them for every meal. The main courses arrived in a flurry. My father’s turned out to be scallions. My sister’s was not steak of beef, but steak of pork. My mother’s chicken was a thigh, wing, and leg with lots of potatoes. I got a whole fish.
We laughed. I snapped incognito photos of our food. My mother had already begun eating. I had to work the small bones from my fish. My sister easily cut her steak into sizable samples for my mother. My father let her have two of his four scallions. She even tried a bit of my fish. Halfway through our meal, her fork lay beside her plate. Her russet potatoes lay helpless on her plate. We helped them find hungrier mouths. She never finished her chicken.
My sister and I crashed into our hotel room. We walked from Notre Dame in the 1st arrondissement to the restaurant in the 9th and our hotel even further. On the nightstand was a small box of macaroons. Thank you for choosing us, and we hope you enjoy the rest of our stay. Happy Christmas! We knocked on our parents’ door to see if they had gotten any. There was no reply. My sister frowned and titled her head. I beckoned her to follow down the four flights of stairs to the ground floor. There sat my mother and father, in the nook of a lounge area. My mother sat nibbling from a bag of almonds and drinking the complimentary espresso machine coffee. My father laughing at her. Why not? We had just eaten at one of the best restaurants in France. Here she was eating Blue Diamond almonds and drinking watered down espresso. She said she was cold. That didn’t explain the almonds. It didn’t need to.
Paris was full of connoisseurs, specialty coffees, and exquisite gourmand delicacies. My mother was a woman of expensive tastes, but practical expenses. She did not need to spend money to enjoy Paris. She spent time. Outside time was spent to warming her. My sister would rub her shoulders to generate heat. My father never let go of her hand. Inside time was huddled as far away from the cold weather as possible. I made her Café Allongé with extra hot water and sat with her in museum cafes. We would watch my father and sister argue. My sister only posed for me. My father never relinquished the family camera. We watched as they went from dictation–go and stand over there–to frustration—your pictures are always terrible–and reconciliation—do you want a coffee, later? Pose. Coffee warms the body. Laughter warms the heart. & we always know how to best keep warm.
About the Author
Lauryn Ash earned a B.A. in English and Creative Writing at The University of Iowa.
This column was originally published on Niche’s website on February 7th, 2013.