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Joseph Keiley. A Bit of Paris. 1907.

Photogravure, from Camera Work XVII. 20 x 12.1 cm.

[End Page 54]

I’d picked up a few things in two years of French. I couldn’t speak the language, but I could tell you that life overseas cantered along at a slower pace. Women went topless and ate sensible portions supplemented with cheese. Salad came after the main course. Frenchmen smoked cigarettes without dropping dead and kissed each other on the cheek without being called faggots.

When Monsieur Baigue proposed a trip to Paris, the Loire Valley, Normandy, and Brittany the summer after eighth grade, I was one of the first kids to sign up. To walk among the cobblestone streets in soft-toed shoes, to talk with my hands and wear turtlenecks without fear of judgment—this was the life for me. I may not have been much in the classroom, but it would be a different story once I hit the Champs-Élysées. Travel is transformational. All I needed was a crash course in pastries and conversation. In Paris, as I palled around with schoolboys and fashioned my pants into culottes, I would not be Greg but Gregoire.

Because I lack both a sense of direction and the ability to put on my shoes in a timely fashion, Mom was reticent about sending me abroad. My friend Peter was coming along, but with his giant head and hyperactive thyroid, he hardly counted as security. Mom would have gone with me but she required Valium to fly. And anyway, she had lymphoma and two little girls whose perdis, she said, still needed wiping. When you really pressed her, she admitted that she’d never been to Europe and didn’t trust the water. That left my sweet, uncultured dad to act as chaperone.

Dad treated maladies with a glass of wine at dinner, and, if the weather was nice, a glass of wine after dinner on the gazebo. Get him started on the price of Qualcomm and a few hours later, one hardened drop of Costco Merlot at the bottom of his glass, he’d be telling me about the ranch he worked at as a boy: picking up stones or lighting trash on fire or riding a runaway mare, Ribbons, to the edge of a ravine.

This was years before he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Dad may not have been as sophisticated as a European, but he could still breathe and walk on his own. Fortunately, breathing and walking were about the only skills I required in a protégé. I would teach Dad to love bonbons and Gerard Depardieu movies. If he had a knack for this stuff (and why wouldn’t he? we were related) it wouldn’t be long before we were swinging around lampposts to the tune of my favorite Jacques Brel song, “Ne Me Quitte Pas.”

Don’t quitte me, I would sing to Dad.

Don’t quitte me, Dad would sing back.

It could be I was born a bad traveler, but it wasn’t until that summer I knew for sure. The day we left, Dad woke me at three to catch the first leg of our flight. As soon as we got to the gate, Baigue reached up and put his hand on my dad’s shoulder. A petite ex-pat with a well-groomed beard and Halloween teeth, Baigue was always smacking his lips and clearing the saliva from his throat. His goal was maximum articulation, but when he spoke it sounded like he was snacking on a banana. “We will all follow Bob because he is the tallest,” he said. “Plus haut.”

It was humid and overcast and our layover in St. Louis lasted all day. We visited a basilica, the botanical gardens and the arch but drove right by the world’s only floating McDonald’s. The skies opened up once we returned to the airport to catch our flight: thunder and lightning, the whole shebang. We were late departing and the plane wasn’t full because other incoming flights had...


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