The title of, and setting for this blog post may seem odd given last week’s post was on San Sebastián. Since last week’s post was inspired by preparations for my own birthday, this week’s was inspired by another’s. Enjoy!
While my mother’s approach to travel was an open-ended one-way trip to London, my uncle’s was to remain based in Perth – where he was gainfully employed as an academic – and take short trips to new destinations each year. Being the 1970s, their primary means of communication was letter writing.
One day, after she had been away from home for a number of years, my mother received a letter from my uncle informing her that he was planning a trip to Europe and – since she had been absent for a number of consecutive birthdays and Christmases, and since he had unfortunately missed a few travel opportunities – he would be using his bourgeoning savings to treat her to a rather extravagant gift: a culinary tour of three of the finest Michelin-star restaurants Paris had to offer. Although it’s entirely likely that my uncle’s altruism was in fact motivated by a desire to not dine alone, my mother – who had hitherto flitted between jobs as a bar tender, cleaner, and shop assistant, and who often found herself pinching pennies to pay for coffee – found it within her to magnanimously accept the gift on the generous face-value terms in which it was offered.
My mother, along with some of her friends, organised a trip to Paris that coincided with the dates my uncle had given her. They travelled in the (still-trusty) combi-van and spent their nights in campsites and youth hostels, running to the ablutions block with their bathroom bags at first light to avoid the morning crush. They spent their days wandering the city, sharing small morsels of flakey pastry between the group. My uncle stayed in guesthouses and spent his days riding the metro between all the amazing sites that Paris has to offer.
At dinner time, my mother’s friends would drop her at the restaurant specified, making sure to park the combi van around the corner so that her exit was not noticed by the other diners. My mother had dressed in the best clothes she possessed – not an easy task for a professional traveller. It being a rather cold autumn, she was also forced to don her much-used, second-hand-when-she-bought-it, generally-left-at-the-bottom-of-the bag coat which had seen the worst of European winter. Bought for durability and comfort rather than style, it definitely drew attention.
At the first restaurant, my mother and uncle caught a glimpse of what was to follow at the next two. Whilst my uncle – in shirt, paints, and casual jacket (most likely his every-day work outfit) – had been greeted warmly, upon my mother’s entrance the Maître d’ gave a start:
“Are you lost, Madame?”
My mother explained she had a booking and gave the name. It wasn’t until my uncle – catching sight of her across the restaurant – gave a wave of recognition that they relented.
“Shall I take your…” he paused and my mother tried not to laugh, “…coat, Madame?”
He used a serviette.
Whilst my mother enjoyed the finest cuisine the city had to offer, her friends remained around the corner, huddled in the van with their simple cheese and baguette dinners, sharing jokes and carafe wine.
My mother would always try to sneak something of the meal back for them. At one restaurant the cheque was brought out with a bowl filled to the brim with house-made chocolates. One could, naturally, take as many as one wished, but given the surroundings and the considerable meal which had preceded them, it was understood that ‘as many as one wished’ would not be all that many.
When the waiter returned for my uncle to sign, he found the bowl bare save for the two empty chocolate wrappers from the pieces my mother and uncle had tasted. They had been divine. The rest were in my mother’s handbag. The waiter – though naturally, respectably, silent – was clearly not impressed. My mother’s friends – squealing with delight upon her triumphant return to the van – clearly were.