Ch. 28 – Boxing Day
Christmas went by in a blur. It was quite cold, and there was little to do except to lounge around the hotel room. We went out at around noontime, only to find very little open for lunch. That was not a big surprise, and when we passed by a Wimpy’s hamburger shop, we went in. We did not mind that we were eating fast food for our Christmas meal. We were just happy to find something familiar to eat. Most of the restaurants that were open were quite exotic to Jillian’s folks, even though I had no problem eating Indian or Asian foods.
That night, in Louisiana, Mom and William were starting their journey toward England. They were taking an evening flight, which I believed connected through New York City. I called the Pan Am counter to try and figure out just what time they left the United States, thinking that I could then calculate the time that they would arrive at Heathrow. I got four or five different answers to that question, ranging from 7:30 to 10:00 PM. I didn’t sleep at all that night. I ended up getting up at 3:00 AM and reading for two hours.
The first thing that morning (around 5 or 6AM), I bade farewell to Jillian, her mother, and her grandmother, and headed to the Kenilworth to drop off my bags. Then, I set off for the nearest Underground station, only to find it closed! The day after Christmas is called Boxing Day, and it is a holiday in Great Britain. Evidently, this meant that some of the stations would not be open that day – or it may have simply meant that they were not open yet. Either way, this was inconvenient.
I walked down the road to the next stop, and it was closed as well. I didn’t quite know what to do. I considered calling the Pan Am counter at Heathrow, and leaving a message for Mom, but then I couldn’t find a red phone box. Great!
Eventually, I found a major station that was actually open, and navigated the series of stops necessary to arrive at Heathrow. I managed to get there before the flight, and was very happy to see Mom and William get off the plane from New York. They were both rather tired, and jet-lagged, and were happy to let me call the shots necessary to get them back to the Kenilworth. We were very pleased with the hotel, and did a little bit of sightseeing in the area. We ate at a pub – again, the pickings were very slim, as it was a national holiday.
I didn’t even know what Boxing Day was for – I thought vaguely that it might be a day to get rid of all of the boxes left over from gift giving. I was pretty sure it didn’t have anything to do with fighting – not during the Christmas season. The holiday’s roots can be traced to Britain, where Boxing Day is also known as St. Stephen’s Day. Reduced to the simplest essence, its origins are found in a long-ago practice of giving cash or durable goods to those of the lower classes. Gifts among equals were exchanged on or before Christmas Day, but beneficences to those less fortunate were bestowed the day after.
Now, that was interesting. Apparently, I fell into the second category, because I was finally allowed to open my gifts when we arrived at the hotel. From my sister and Chad, there was a photo album and a pair of long underwear. I would be using those right away, because the weather had turned rather frigid. Dad sent along some of his famous pralines and various other gifts – he was fond of picking up things at garage sales and swap meets. Mom brought me a sort of vest or short-sleeved “sweater” woven of leather. She was also going to pay for my ticket to a London musical or play. I was very thrilled to see a small box from Pablo – it was a pair of garnet earrings! I put them on immediately!
That night, we turned in early. I believe that we had two double beds, and Mom and I shared one of them, while William slept in the other. William was an old family friend. He had been the protégé of my parents’ friends, the Vermilions, and he ran a tennis and social club in Lafayette. He was the perfect choice of a traveling companion for my mother and myself – he was easygoing and up for anything.
It was a good thing, too, because we were “up” for something that night. At around 3:00 or 4:00 AM, we were awakened by a siren, and by knocks on our door. It was the fire alarm for the hotel, going off. We hurriedly got into coats and slippers or shoes, and joined the rest of the guests in a group outside and across the street from the hotel. It turned out to be a false alarm, and everyone was in high spirits and jolly, but it was a while before we were able to regain our sleep.
We had a wonderful time together in London. We visited all of the sights – the London Bridge, the Tower of London, Big Ben, and the Houses of Parliament. We tried to wake up early enough to get to the changing of the guard, but we were unsuccessful. William and I did head toward Downing Street – Mother was in need of rest that morning – to look at where the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, lived. William tried to make his way down the street, but I called him back, as I was afraid that the cops would warn us away. Maggie was pretty unpopular at the moment; with the coal miners’ strike receiving much attention in the press.
We enjoyed visiting the museums of London –we went to the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum. Mom and William particularly loved the Victoria and Albert, since it focused on interiors and clothing. I liked the British Museum – it was full of mummies and sarcophagi. I also loved seeing the crown jewels, which were housed in the Tower of London. We went shopping at Selfridges and Harrods and Boot’s and we had tea at cute little teashops.
Through their travel agent, Mother and William were able to secure tickets to see Cats, which was a very popular Andrew Lloyd Weber musical based on T. S. Eliot’s collection of poems, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Nowadays, Cats has been placed on the back burner of old theatre standards that are only for the tourists to go and see. Back then, it was the hottest show in the theatre district, and we were very lucky to have seats. I was entranced by the songs, and by the stage and production design, which had the actors in cat costumes emerging from secret entries in the audience. I loved it! The very next day, I went out and bought the T. S. Eliot book. I also bought the album and a black sweatshirt with big green cat eyes on it.
On December 31st, we left London to cross the channel for Paris. We planned on staying in Paris for 4 days, and then moving on to Strasbourg. From Strasbourg, we were going to take a day trip to Baccarat, to go shopping for crystal. Finally, we would end up in Angers, where Mom and William would get to see where I was living. We had tentative plans to make side trips to Saumur and to visit the Chateaux. My classes would be starting on January the 10th, and they would head back to Louisiana on the 12th.
Ch. 29 – Cabin Fever
Most of the records of my trip with my Mother and William are in photographs. I didn’t take the time to write in my journal beyond the 27th of December, so my memories are not as clear. I do remember the cold – it was frigidly cold in Paris by the time we arrived there on New Years’ Eve. We got into Paris at around 2:00 PM, and went directly our hotel. The travel agent had booked rooms in the Hotel California, a little tourist class hotel not far off of the Champs-Elysees. It was comfortable, and there were quite a lot of other Americans there. We didn’t do much on New Years’ Eve – I took them down the Champs-Elysees to see the lighted trees and the Printemps department store windows and we retired after we had made it to midnight.
We had a pretty full agenda in Paris. I took them to see the Eiffel Tower and Montmartre with Sacre-Coeur. We went to the Orangerie museum to see the Impressionist works, and even to a small museum called the Cluny, to see all manner of sculpture and tapestries. I am ashamed to say that, the morning that Mom and William set off for a full day at the Louvre, I decided to stay in bed. I figured that it was only January, and surely I would get to see the Louvre later on that year. To tell the truth, I lived in France in 1987 and visited again in the 1990’s without going to the Louvre. I finally went with my future husband in 2000 and he insisted that we go.
To tell the truth, I was exhausted. Just as I had with my jet lag, my mother and William had both come down with colds. They were miserable, and relied heavily on me to be the guide and to do all of the translation for them. Both of them had taken French in high school (and my mother had even won medals in French!), but that was a long time ago, and they could not speak a word of French. I got more and more irritable as I was constantly asked to communicate for them. I came to dread the question, “Claudine, would you ask…”
The weather was very cold. I was grateful for not being able to make the conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit, for this kept me blissfully ignorant of the actual temperature. This, I found out later, was the coldest winter snap that France had experienced in 20 years, and people were actually dying of exposure. Of course, most of those people were homeless, but it was still impressive. We just layered our clothing – I felt and looked like a sausage, with my long underwear, and shirts and sweaters and pants and socks and furry boots and coat and scarf and hat.
As their condition worsened, Mother and William entreated me to inquire for them at a pharmacy as to suitable medication. As I have explained before, we could not just go around the corner and pick up some Nyquil or other cold medicine. I had to go into the pharmacie – signaled by a large green cross – and talk to the pharmacist. I actually think that this was on New Years Eve! We got a wiseass for a pharmacist, and he was actually having fun making me repeat things to him – and correcting my French. Excuse me if I had not taking a class in French medical terminology!
When he had finally gotten a clear picture of their situation, he handed over a foil packet of bullet-shaped pills. They looked a little larger than regular cold medicine, and the bullet shape confounded me. That is when our friend, the pharmacist, explained that they were suppositoires (suppositories…) and then proceeded to try to explain just where they were “applied.” I got the idea quite quickly and relayed this to Mom and William. They both looked appalled. I did not know at the time that suppositories are commonly used in French prescriptions – it seemed odd to me, too. So, when they said that they were not “comfortable” with that solution, I had to turn to the wiseass again and lobby for alternative therapy. He finally handed over some fizzy pills and vitamin C. I believe that William actually opted for the suppositories, and when he seemed to get better sooner than my mother did, she sent me back to eat crow with our friend, the pharmacist and to extract some more of them for her.
I don’t think that we were given any cough medicine, because my mother’s coughing became a cause for concern. I would like to say that I was concerned for my mother – and I was – but, mostly, I was concerned about the quality of my sleep. The three of us shared a room, and she could be heard, coughing through the night. When she would wake me up after I had managed to finally get to sleep, I would sigh a longsuffering and exasperated sigh, whereupon she would pathetically come back with, “I’m sorry.” I kept suppressing the impulse to smother her with a pillow. It’s amazing what close quarters with a loved one and lack of sleep can do to you.
When we packed up and headed for Strasbourg, we were feeling the stress. I was familiar with London and Paris, having scouted them out before they arrived, but Strasbourg was a complete mystery to me. I would have to rely completely on my ability to speak French and to actually listen for answers. We arrived at the train station in the evening, and if it was possible, it was even colder there than it was in Paris. It had even snowed. Mother sat there, waiting for me to take charge, and I had a little tantrum. That’s when she burst out with a lament about being sick and cold and just wanting to go to a hotel. William just stood there, trying to be helpful, but also trying to stay out of the mother-daughter scene. I think we hit bottom there.
We were able to find a room at the Hotel Ibis, a common budget hotel – very modern and stark. In this room, Mom and I shared a double bed, and we requested a single foldaway bed for William. Weary from our travels, we went out and found a lovely Alsatian restaurant that served the local specialty of choucroute garni – a hearty serving of sauerkraut with ham and sausages. William and I had some wine with our meal, and that seemed to mellow me out a bit. When we got back to our room, we fell into bed. William must have literally done so, for when he sat down on his foldaway bed, both sides shot up and he hit the floor. We called and had another bed brought up, but not until we had taken a picture.
Strasbourg was beautiful, with its buildings and cathedral of rose granite. We scurried from place to place, trying as hard as possible to keep warm. I recall standing in the middle of the mighty cathedral – which was as cold as a meat locker. To keep warm, I started stamping my feet and clapping my mittens together. I tried to rally William, saying, “Look! This works – I am actually getting warmer!” He retorted with the only cross words I heard him say the whole trip, “I don’t give a shit – I want to go somewhere warm!” We went to a nearby restaurant for coffee and drinks to thaw out.
Baccarat was a lovely side trip. The town was small and quaint and covered with snow. It was Williams’ idea to go there – he dreamed of visiting the factory and paying discount priced for the crystal there. We spent half a day there, and he bought a lot of crystal. Mom bought a couple of pieces – an oak leaf shaped dish and a couple of animal figurines. I didn’t buy anything – I had spent a lot of money already, and was now trying to put a check on my spending. We made it back to Strasbourg without incident, and packed to leave for Anger, via Paris, the next day. I couldn’t wait to get back and show them where I was living.