Aug 14 2013

Getting Down

All of Paris was spread out before us, the giant floor-to-ceiling windows of the restaurant put her in perfect view. We were halfway up the Eiffel Tower, at the Jules Verne, noted for its view as much as its gastronomic cuisine. It’s not an every-day kind of restaurant. It’s a having-a-special-experience-in-Paris destination, the kind of place you go with a friend who’s visiting from out of town, or to take your nearly young-adult children for a memorable experience in Paris – or both.

My college roommate came to spend a few days in Paris, with her daughter who is the same age as Short-pants. I remember being pregnant together; I visited her at her summer home in the south of France just a month before Short-pants’ due-date. We posed for pictures, belly-to-belly, showing the girth of our pregnant bodies, smiling at the fact that our children would be born about a month apart, imagining how they might be playmates over the years. I didn’t envision us having lunch at the Jules Verne, but here salmon_entreewe were, her daughter seated between Short-pants and Buddy-roo, the three of them looking beyond us, out the window, at the breath-taking view.

De-facto had ordered a main dish and no starter, guessing correctly that the girls would only pick at their appetizers and he could finish their plates. The gastronomic menu was a bit on the sophisticated side for their palates, though Short-pants devoured her côte de cochon (pork-shops) and whipped potatoes, and Buddy-roo relished her râble de lapin (rabbit) once I cut it into bite-size pieces for her.

We were waiting for dessert, wild strawberries with coconut shortbread and mascarpone sorbet, when my friend pointed out an annoying repetitive noise, like a microwave beeping or an oven alarm. I called the maitre’d over to ask what it was.

“It’s Al Qaeda,” he said, a joke that I didn’t find humorous. When I did not laugh, he brushed it off: just a security alarm but nothing to be concerned about. I asked if it could do something to turn it off. Now that my friend had brought it to my attention, I found it a painful accompaniment to our expensive meal. “We are working on it,” he said.

Fifteen minutes later, our bottle of Mersault finished but still no dessert, the maitre’d returned to our table.

“I apologize for the joke I made earlier,” he said, this time without his sneer. “There has been a bomb threat. The entire tower is being evacuated. You have to leave, now.”

“But we haven’t had dessert yet,” I said, the way you say something stupid when you can’t believe what you’re hearing.

“You haven’t had the bill, either.”

He pointed us to the exit, and we passed other tables of empty chairs with plates of food half-eaten. Some people waited for the restaurant’s elevator, but we were ushered beyond them, to a stairway that leads to the second-level public observation deck.
“There is a larger elevator there,” one of the restaurant employees said. “Take that one, it is better not to wait.” I had a vague memory of the lift; years ago with other friends we’d eaten here and left the restaurant via the observation deck, lingering after our meal and enjoying the view. It was one of those room-sized elevators that could fit 25 or 30 people.

We walked down a flight of stairs to the public level. At the bottom we found a huge elevator, its doors stretched open while the kitchen staff, uniformed in black and white, filed into it from another stairway behind ours. They did not fill up the entire lift, so I made a gesture to collect De-facto and the girls and my friend and her daughter and pull them into the elevator as it was shutting. Every one of the restaurant staffers shook their head no and waved us away, and the doors closed, locking us out.

Cursing at the closing service elevator wouldn’t have been very assuring to the young girls, so I swore under my breath. Perhaps there was some rule, I told myself, about employees-only spaces. But do such rules apply now? Would you turn children away from an elevator that’s only two-thirds full during an emergency evacuation?

There were no throngs of people pushing or running, but the gates on the concessions and souvenir kiosks were shut and locked, the security alarm was louder than in the restaurant. It was eerie. We hunted around until we found the public elevator, a crowd waiting in front of the doors. Counting the people, I calculated that we wouldn’t fit into the next elevator, we might make the one after that; but we’d probably have to push into the crowd to hold our place. The vibe felt weird. I didn’t want to be there.

“Why did we have to leave the restaurant?” Buddy-roo whined. I told her the police wanted everyone to leave the tower so they could check it to make sure something bad wouldn’t happen. I didn’t say the word bomb. I didn’t want to alarm the kids and I didn’t want the tourists within earshot to panic. Though given the closed embassies and other security alerts this year, most people could probably guess the reason for our evacuation.
I looked at De-facto and then at my friend, “You up for going down the stairs?”

Later I checked online: there are 55 flights of stairs, roughly 700 steps, from the second level where the Jules Verne restaurant is located, to the ground. We walked them all, circling down the long staircase within the east platform of the iron tower. There was steady flow of foot traffic, an occasional bottleneck but mostly fluid. It helped to move; it felt like we were doing something, getting somewhere – getting down.

“But we didn’t have dessert.” Buddy-roo said. The girls had been asking for Slushies on their way to the restaurant, a request that was dismissed given the refined dessert that would top off our elegant lunch. Now Slushies would be dessert, offered as a reward for walking all the way down from the middle of the Eiffel Tower.

A part of me believed that this was just a scare. Another part couldn’t be so cavalier. I held the girls’ hands, tightly, as we made our way down the stairs. I kept looking back at De-facto, taking him in. I’d glance at my friend, picturing her in our wilder college days. Is this where we would all finish? No, of course not, I kept telling myself. But just in case, I kept holding tight and I kept looking back.

I can’t call this a harrowing experience. It was orderly, without panic. We all knew there was a good chance that it would turn out to be nothing. We even teased De-facto about calling in the threat, just to avoid paying the check. But there was something else, something seeping in the cracks around my logical, reasonable conclusions about what was happening: tiny shards of the terror that other souls before us have known, in a plane about to go down, eiffel_tower_evacuatedor stumbling down the stairway of the World Trade Center, or being pressed into a train headed toward a work camp. An event like this reminds me of how randomly vulnerable we are and how precious it is to feel safe and secure.

At the ground level, we walked away from the tower, relieved. The rest of the day, though, I kept thinking about how often innocent people don’t get the chance to walk away because they don’t get out, can’t get down or just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The evacuation of the Eiffel Tower made the news, but the story pales in comparison to reports from war-torn conflict-zones, and stories about what war and terrorism do to children. We were lucky. Ours was a happy ending, getting down safely with a free lunch, a good story to tell – a memorable experience in Paris – and a renewed awareness of the things we should never take for granted.

Mar 25 2009

The Lonely Lunch

She was sobbing on the stairs this morning. Short-pants – who does homework without being asked and is usually happy to hoist that enormous book-bag on her back and head off to school – wouldn’t budge. “I don’t want to go to school.”

She’d been following De-facto out the door, but then opted out, in protest, and planted herself on the steps. She watched her own sour facial expressions in the mirror, happy at least to have her own company while she pouted. I went and sat beside her, this put my own pre-ablution image in the mirror, too, which I did my best not to look at.

“It’s Wednesday,” she spit out between sobs. “It’s my lonely lunch.”

Most elementary schools in France don’t hold classes on Wednesday. Many of these same schools do have classes on Saturday, posing obvious problems for working parents struggling with childcare mid-week or wishing to steal out of town with the family for the weekend. Short-pants attends a school that, thankfully, gives us our Saturdays, however it requires her presence on Wednesdays – though only in the morning. At noon, most of the children rush out to meet their parents, who take them home for lunch and then on to the activities on their rosters: gymnastics, judo, music, fencing, chess. But
school_courtyardwe’re rarely among that cluster of waiting parents. Short-pants stays and eats at the cantine.

We’ve enrolled her in a theater class on Wednesday afternoons. It made perfect sense, to us: school in the morning, stay for lunch, go to theater and finish at 3:00. She really likes the class. Last year – even as the youngest student – she had an important role in the end-of-year play. But none of her classmates are signed up. She says she feels a bit lost at lunch, with nobody to sit with, and then there’s a long stretch of time alone in the courtyard before the theater class starts at 1:30.

I’ve remedied this by coming to get her at noon on random Wednesdays, making a big deal out of lunch out at a café with mom, and returning her to the school in time for theater class. These are memorable lunches. Her little voice ordering from the menu, her proud smile across the table from me – she’s thrilled to be having such sophisticated one-on-one time with mom.

But we haven’t done it in a while.

I knew what she was going to say before she said it. “I want mama to come take me to lunch.” Then she started to cry. Actually, she started to wail. She’s not the tantrum type. But this was close.

I leaned my head against hers. Oh I wanted to say it, I wanted to say it so bad: okay I’ll come get you and we’ll go to lunch, just you and me. I mean it wasn’t impossible. I had a long ‘to-do’ list, like every day. But I could re-arrange that and give up 90 minutes to go hang with her.

But I didn’t.

It was the near-tantrum state the stopped me. I didn’t want to respond affirmatively, didn’t want the out-of-control crying to be rewarded. If this is how she gets her way today, I thought, then she’ll use it tomorrow. Yes, it’s just one lunch, one day. But this is how we start down the slippery slope. So I didn’t say a word. I didn’t dare. To be caught in a web of promises? I’m out of town next week, and it’s too hard to look further ahead.

“Come on,” De-facto finally said, “We’re going to be late.”

She stood up and followed him out, shrieking. I felt like shit.

Later I told him that it took everything in me not to tell her I’d come get her and take her to lunch. “Me, too,” he said, “but I knew we couldn’t, not like that.” I guess this is telepathic parenting.

At least he didn’t hang her out to dry. On the way to school, they found a few newspapers (I don’t want to tell you this, but apparently they rummaged through a trash bin) and cut out the Sudoku puzzles (she’s a pro) so she’d have something to do in the courtyard after lunch. Leave it to De-facto to find a creative (and cheap) solution.

This evening I met a friend for drinks. Her kids are older – young teenagers. She shocked me with a story about serious, heavy drug use in their school and the fine line she and her husband are walking to stay connected to their 14-year old daughter.

It’s odd, isn’t it, how my girls are constantly vying for my attention and craving time with me, and sometimes I find it all so fatiguing. Yet in a few years, their little fingers will slide out of my grip. How important it is to listen and connect while the door is still so wide open. Soon enough, that door will close – but then at least a foundation will be laid.

I’m not saying I didn’t make the right decision not to pander to a tantrum this morning. But maybe now I’ll be more proactive about scheduling our Wednesday lunches.