My Greatest Affair, Part I: Honeymoon in Paris

For anyone expecting to read salacious details of my love life, you’ll need to check back once I have finally met my eternal demise, as any such details will not be forthcoming as long as I trod this earth, and for any myriad of reasons from not wanting to embarrass my son to not wanting long-since-left men to drag themselves from the recesses of my personal history and feel compelled to get in touch. No, the past is very much that and far from living with the regret or reflection — or what I refer to as the woulda/shoulda/coulda —  which I find especially common in women of southern progeny, I move only forward.  There are no men who have earned such a lofty moniker in any event, and even the ones who could potentially compete for it would never be able to hold a candle to the place which I only realized recently is actually title holder of my longest and greatest affair. I am currently in London – as I often am — and in my happiest of places; not just the city itself, but the hotel I have been blessed to call a second home for more than twenty years. It has been there for me and my family through thick and thin, good and bad, its protective staff and gilded halls carrying me through celebrations and devastations alike. Things go well in my life, I come here; things go badly in my life, I do the same. This is no fair-weathered love we have, and nor is it one that could ever be trumped or even threatened by any other place in the world.

The first time I stayed here was July 1996. My son was just over six months old and though very young, I was on a business trip for my first employer out of school, having already made enough of a name for myself — for better or worse — to be working directly for the co-founders of the company who allowed me perhaps more latitude than they should have, and in no other area was this as true as it was with travel. They were a married couple and though their company was considerable and successful, they could still be very hands on and involved when it came to the arrangements made — especially for their younger female charges — and would often give us their personal upgrades to first for our transatlantic flights and would similarly insist that if we were alone, we should stay in only the finest hotels in order to be as safe as possible. I, being a spoiled and unapologetic daddy’s girl, also still had a secondary card on my dad’s Platinum American Express card account. My parents worked very hard for everything they ever had in life, neither of them having graduated from college and both being born into poor southern families, and perhaps as a result of their hard graft as well as the guilt that was (and likely still is) poured onto parishioners every Sunday in many southern churches, never felt comfortable indulging in or enjoying the fruits of their labors. Dad used the platinum card for all things practical, from business related expenditures to paying for my wedding, but never once — in all the years he was a member — for anything frivolous or superfluous, and similarly never opened the Departures magazines that came with it or thumbed through the Platinum Card Hotel Guide which arrived annually. No, those were reserved for me and my lofty dreams as the kid who had seen one too many repeats of the I Love Lucy European episodes and just as much of The Love Boat. For as long as I could remember, I wanted to break free and explore, Departures along with the hotel guide serving as representatives of a life others lived and in which I longed to partake. But whereas this at least partially explains my initial taste of and for all things 5 star, the ongoing and severe repellant reaction to anything ‘less than’ was likely borne of and shaped by a singular, definitive event: the trauma of the Great Honeymoon Fiasco of ’92.

Originally meant to be scuba diving trip to Belize, my then newly minted husband decided to surprise me and instead booked a trip to London and Paris, which to the as yet uninitiated will seem quite sweet, especially with the added knowledge that he had been to both many times in his life; he truly preferred Belize, but knew that I had always longed for Europe. Whereas my family’s material position was the product of extraordinary hard work and discipline, his family’s was the result of Texas oil and Mississippi Delta land. I had attended public school in a small town in the South to which my mother had driven me every single day of my life until I turned sixteen, stopping at the same intersection each morning to put her lipstick on before we came to the street where all school traffic converged; he had attended boarding school and was frequently flown to and from on his family’s plane. So was it therefore too much for one to reasonably expect that for our honeymoon, we would have stayed at places similar to those he had on previous trips: the Georges V in Paris, Ritz in London or Hassler in Rome? The answer to that is simultaneously complex and brief: it was far too great an expectation and by quite some way. Though we are still not just friends, but in fact as close as family, I have not — to this day — asked him what precipitated the manifest hatred he must have developed for me between our wedding day and our trip several weeks later that led us first to the two star hotel in an unfashionable part of the 1oth Arrondissement in Paris and onwards to a descent into honeymoon hell.

It was my first time out of the country and the flight itself had been uncomfortable enough, the two of us seated in the middle of a row of five for the long flight from Atlanta to Charles de Gaulle. Now here we were, in a hotel whose name I intentionally and quickly forgot, in a room the size of my walk-in closet and a bathroom even smaller, which itself doubled as a shower with tile walls and floor, a drain in the center of it and a shower head hanging down from the ceiling. As for the room itself, the bed took up so much space that our luggage barely fit and I found myself pushing open the small, juliet balcony doors enough to be able to place my case on the floor alongside the bed and in doing so was treated to both a rich stew of foreign odors from the surrounding neighborhood as well as the frequent wails of the distinctive French gendarme sirens. I do not know who was in the next room, but the walls were paper thin and as a result I can at least confirm that they were absolutely fascinated with Madonna’s club remixed single of Vogue, and played it repeatedly, 24/7 to the extent that i still cannot hear it today without also smelling a blend of baguette and curry, and shivering at the thought of showering in the tiny room with the door open so that it did not overheat and render it useless as I tried to continue with the remainder of my daily grooming ritual.

In further, ongoing evidence our divergent preferences, whereas on our first day I wanted to go directly to the Champs Elysees and then visit Musee D’Orsay, Notre Dame and perhaps Galleries Lafayette (it’s Paris – you have to shop), my ex-husband wanted to first go to McDonald’s and then Fnac. (For those who do not know, Fnac is a brand of French electronics stores which then were far nicer and more extensive than anything that we had in the U.S. And now, even as I write this, I’m caught wondering if it wasn’t his desire for the over the top expensive camera of which he was in search that led to the budget level accommodation in which we found ourselves.) But I digress, because here’s the real headline: on my first morning in Paris, we did indeed go to the Champs Elysees, to the McDonald’s at the very top near the Arc de Triomphe, for breakfast. It was a Sunday and it was packed with locals and tourists alike, and though I begged that we simply take our leave and eat at a nearby creperie stand, my ex persisted, and soon — in absence of seating elsewhere in the restaurant — we were upstairs in the children’s play area where I sat on Hamburgler’s head while he rested on Fry Guy as we partook in our stereotypical ugly American abroad meal.

The evening prior, however, not long after arriving in Paris, we had attended the Moulin Rouge, which had been enough of a foreign experience to both please me and to lull me into a sense that I might actually thereafter enjoy a truly French vacation. During the performance, though, we had imbibed perhaps a bit too much champagne (I was not a drinker — yet), and it was this coupled with dehydration and jet-lag from my first long haul trip ever, and the fact that I had — because of the time difference — doubled up on my birth control pills which led to what happened next. Dogged and determined to find his camera and a very specific lens to accompany it, we schlepped from one Fnac to another, eventually ending up at one of the largest inside the city. Already feeling unwell, and having shared this with my loving ex as we bumped along on the metro en route to Fnac number 3, he quickly abandoned me upon arrival as he went in search of his treasure, leaving me leaning against a large round column in the center of the store. Not believing for one second that anything was actually wrong with me, he never looked back, and nor did he notice when a crowd soon gathered around that column, asking in French if anyone knew this young woman; this young woman who had passed out cold in a strange city in a foreign country on her honeymoon while her brand new husband shopped for a camera. I’m not sure my nonplussed portrayal of this can do it justice, but once he had completed his purchases, he eventually came in search of me and found me sitting on the floor against the column with a store employee kneeling beside me, holding a paper cup filled with cold water which they had used to both revive me and re-hydrate me and said simply, “Oh, there you are. Come on – I got it — now we can go to the museums,” lifted me to my feet and then walked off yet again, out the front door, I wobbling along in his wake.

The next morning, I awoke to him standing over me, his camera strapped across his body in one direction, his extra lens in the other forming an “X” across his chest, guide map in hand and a University of Tennessee bright orange “T” cap on his head imploring, “Come on, honey — get up! We’re in Paris and we’ve got sightseeing to do.” He was the veritable poster child for all of the“what not-tos” of travel abroad, and resistant though I was to arising at that early hour while on holiday (or being seen with him in Paris), as he went downstairs to ask for some directional assistance from the one person who worked in the tiny lobby while I was meant to be readying myself to go, I picked up the phone in our room and called my mother collect. “Mom,” I said, “do you think it’s possible to gain an American divorce in France?” to which she replied, “What have you done now?” Not enough, I thought. I should’ve suffocated him in his sleep when I was awoken in the middle of the night by his rhino-jealousy-inducing snoring and gone on from Paris without him, but I did not, which leads us to England.

I do not know how many days we were in Paris, and though it felt like 30 I believe it was closer to 3. In any event, we were next headed to London and whereas I was once filled with anticipatory excitement about it, I was — post-Paris — deflated and wishing that this would all soon end. Still, young, stupid and buoyed by the hope that at least having a language in common would provide some relief, I soldiered on and clung to hope. Rather than flying to London, we were due to travel by train and ferry, this being in ’92 P.E. (pre-Eurostar), and I do not recall much about getting on the train itself, though I do remember the impressiveness of Gare du Nord station and the multitudes of people and languages on display there. The first thing I recall about the journey itself, though, was probably close to an hour outside of Paris when the conductor came by to check our tickets. His English was bad and perhaps ours was even worse, but he said something to the effect that we were in the wrong car, or at least that’s what we agreed we heard. Thinking that we were being scolded for being in a part of the train for which we did not have tickets, we collected our bags and began walking down the length of it, between cars and in search of something that would perhaps correspond to the somewhat vague indices we could locate on our actual travel document. Finally settling into a car that did actually look like it was straight out of I Love Lucy circa 1952, we found ourselves sitting across from a stern, yet bemused Irishman – who,  years later, I now realize was uncharacteristically unfriendly — bumping along towards the coast and our inevitable destination.

The train made several stops, and because we had moved quite a substantial distance from our original car, our tickets were checked again by a different conductor who again tried to communicate that we had made some sort of error with regard to what our tickets said vs. where we were. Frustrated, but resigned, and the Irishman offering no help, the conductor managed, “Oh, never mind. Stay,” in English and as we were tired and frankly clueless, we did. Only once we arrived at the station where we were meant to board a bus to take us to the port to catch the ferry was it made clear to us the mistake which had transpired as a result of our ignorance of French (and other things). Immediately after stepping off of the train, my then husband stopped the first person he saw to ask for directions to the specific bus, in order to ensure no further misunderstandings ensued. Whilst perusing our permissive itinerary — which back then was printed all on one document — the man at the station looked at us and our naive, blank faces, then back at the car from which we had disembarked and said, “Did you travel here in this car?” To which we responded in the affirmative, only for him to retort, “But these tickets are for a private First Class carriage, there,” and pointed to the other end of the train where porters were helping passengers remove their belongings and make their way to the appropriate waiting bus. “This,” he continued, “Is like, umm…how you say, steerage.”

From there we continued to the bus and onwards to the ferry, and all I remember of the trip across the channel was seeing the white cliffs of Dover and wishing my husband would fall overboard while clicking away at them as though they were a quickly flying bird that would soon exit his visage. The journey was otherwise unremarkable and upon arrival we were transferred to yet another bus which lastly deposited us at Victoria Station in central London. By then it was late in the evening, very dark, even more cold and I was absolutely exhausted. I had — clearly not having read the figurative sign posts from the experience thus far — expected that we would at this point simply pile ourselves into a taxi and be deposited on the doorstep of our hotel wherein I could at least fall into a warm bed and sleep. Then, once rested, I would the following day take up my opposition to whatever the other half of my marital party had in store for us next. Mais, non. Taxis are expensive, he said, buses are tradition and an experience, he remonstrated. For the uninitiated, in fact London buses and the system on which they operate is a puzzle of numbers and corresponding stops dreamed up by a sadist on hallucinogens, and we were about to be its willfully submitting masochists.

I cannot remember the beginning of the bus journey and what worries me more about that is the possibility that it’s because I blocked it out due to some unspeakable event which occurred during it that is somehow worse than what I do recall. We must have changed buses three times, my ex refusing to ask instructions or directions and being so very certain that he could manage without help (imagine an outspoken, loud southern lawyer then multiply that by 10). Referring back and forth between two different maps as we chugged along on bus number 3 plus, he somehow extrapolated that the next stop would be the one nearest our hotel and that it would be thereafter a walk of “just a block or two.” It is no exaggeration to say that had we asked for help by this time, no one on that bus would have offered. People had scattered from us as though our idiocy was contagious and were staring at us like captive alien creatures in a freak show, so strong was the scent of our discontented bickering. When the bus finally came to a halt on what appeared to be a largely deserted street in a very pretty, but almost certainly residential part of London, we stepped off via the back exit and began making our way in a direction I now know — years later — was west and somewhere in Kensington. But only a few seconds after we had departed, the bus came to a screeching halt and the driver opened the doors and screamed – SCREAMED – “YOU LEFT YOUR BAG ON THE BUS!” and threw it as far as he could away from the bus, down the street and onto the sidewalk. This was during a time when IRA campaigns and attacks on British soil were at their height, nerves were frayed and everyone was on high alert. And we, the whisper-bitching, obnoxious Americans, had just left a black duffle bag on a bus in central London.

I am a strong person, almost to the extent of occasionally being ferocious, intimidating and unbreakable. Yet there I stood on a sidewalk in Kensington, 23 years old, freezing, in the dead of night and almost entirely broken, held together only by the hope that we would die there and then from hypothermia thus greatly abbreviating the “ever after” portion of our nuptial promise. Still certain he knew the direction of the hotel, rather than staying on what was clearly a main road, we wandered into streets which became more and more obviously both residential and exclusive. Now halfway down a cemetery quiet, dead-end street filled with impressive, white stone-fronted homes, we happened across an older woman taking out her garbage in a full length mink coat at almost midnight. In isolation from the rest of this story, I presume this would seem preposterous and unbelievable, but when taken in context and totality it seems fitting in a “well of course you did” sort of way. I do not know if she was sympathetic or suspicious, but for whatever reason she called out to us from across the street and enquired as to whether we were lost. That much, at least, should have been evident. In order to not shout our reply and thereby further punctuate the stillness, we walked over to where she stood and explained our situation and provided her with the address of our hotel. Though she said she did not know of the actual establishment, the address itself, she reasoned, could not have been far, and looking at me with what can best be described as pain-inducing empathy she offered to have “her driver” take us there in order to get us out of the cold. But just as I spoke out to say, “Oh yes, please!” my darling ex-husband contradicted me and stated that we would never inconvenience her or any stranger in such a way; we simply needed directions. Oh irony, where art thou. Not willing to leave us there, possibly for fear of being robbed, lowering the property values or both, she insisted that we at least let her go inside and call us a taxi. To this we replied with thanks and insisted on waiting outside, resting on the small, low brick wall which surrounded her front garden until the cab arrived.

From there it was only a short five minute drive back in the direction from which we had walked to our 2.5 star hotel. A larger, more dowdy repeat of the one in Paris, it had old, floral carpets that reminded me of an aged Victorian casino, a smokey smelling lobby and no restaurant on site. Our room was — albeit large — sparse and oddly laid out, with a bathroom which consisted of a tub with a hand held shower head, no shower curtain or partition of any sort, and a permanent northerly breeze. If I had held out marginal hope that our time in London would be any more culturally fulfilling than that in Paris, I would again be proven to be laboring under the most egregious of apprehensions. Though I did manage to at least make it to Harrods, I suspect that this, too, was merely a means of my ex finding his way to another McDonald’s which was then almost next door. There was no Westminster Abbey, no museums, no anything of note other than one night at Phantom of the Opera followed by a visit to a massive indoor arcade near Piccadilly which featured adult video games and one of the earliest versions of a virtual reality experience. If Harrods had been an excuse for Mickey D’s, then the musical had been an excuse for the arcade. If I had wanted to divorce him in Paris, by the time our trip to London drew to a close I wanted him prosecuted for crimes against humanity.

I have not retold this story in years and I’m not entirely sure how I meandered onto it today, having meant to instead tell of how I arrived at this hotel which I consider to be one of the greatest stories and mainstays of my life. But in recounting my honeymoon now, perhaps it begins to paint a picture which goes some way in explaining both why I was and am so strongly drawn to ease and luxury, and why my greatest love is in fact a hotel and not a man.