"I laughed hard on nearly every page of this shockingly intimate travel memoir and deeply funny book." - Stephen Colbert
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Judging from appearances, Mom and I had no business attending the spring fashion shows in Paris. Even though she had press credentials and I hadn’t lived in Indiana for seven years, when compared to the streamlined, expensively dressed whippets circulating outside the I. M. Pei pyramid where the collections were shown, everything about us screamed Hoosier imposter. Mom’s first overseas assignment for the Indianapolis Star was also her first trip abroad, not counting day trips into Nogales for cheap liquor and Polaroids in donkey carts when we visited my grandmother in Tucson. She’d have gotten to Europe a lot earlier if it hadn’t been for me.
She had served as the Star’s fashion editor in her early twenties, when attractive professional women modeled themselves on Jackie Kennedy. She met LBJ, who reportedly clasped her white-gloved hand, drawling, “Now I know why they say the girls from Indiana are so pretty.” I have a photograph of her and several other fashion editors flanking gun-nut Charlton Heston, costumed as the hunky young Moses on the set of The Ten Commandments. Clearly, she was going places. She gave it all up to have me. In that Moses picture, she looks like she’s hiding a watermelon under her pretty spring suit.
She stayed at home until I was in third grade, then returned to the part-time society beat, sandwiching stories about Junior League fundraisers and the annual 500-Mile Race hoopla between Brownie Scout meetings and the assorted weekly lessons that turned me into the dilettante I am today. When the fashion editor gave notice, my mother resumed her title, covering the semiannual collections in New York for a readership whose tastes ran to bright golf sweaters appliquéd with funny animals.
By the time we hit Paris, in the fall of 1990, the chic hats she favored as a slim young journalist had long before been sacrificed to the carelessly theatrical dress-up play of yours truly. She wore the short hair, bright lipstick, and distinctive spectacle frames of the fashion pen’s reigning queen bees. But whereas they knifed their way through the crowd in expensive, body-skimming shades of charcoal, battleship, and ink, Mom’s uniform ran toward pleated, pale denim shirtwaists tucked into the darker denim ranch skirts that rode high over the abdomen. There was nothing remotely sharklike about her jackets, one of which—a Frankenstein’s monster of plaid flannel shirts cut into fringe and reassembled in tiers—she referred to as her “flannel fur.” Further distancing herself from the Cruella De Ville crowd in the City of Lights, she’d taken to wearing Birkenstock sandals with socks, a crime against la mode she’d picked up from her daughter.
I operated—then as now—twenty thousand leagues below the radar of the Glamour Fashion Don’ts editor. My anachronistic, anti-ironing-board, kitchen-sink romanticism was perfectly suited to my Salvation Army budget. Alas, the thrift store plunder bursting from my closet never congealed into an identifiable style. I was a little bit country, a little bit rock ’n’ roll, slightly ratty, rarely flattered, ever stained, mostly Shakespearean by way of Woodstock. I packed my bag with an eye toward cutting a dashing figure.
This would be my third trip to Paris. The first time, my father escorted me on a trip organized by my eighth-grade French teacher. We stayed in a two-star hotel near the Gare du Nord. Every night, we ate omelettes, frites, and mousse au chocolat in noisy bistros, where the regulars discredited the myth of Parisian hauteur by engaging us in as much friendly conversation as our midwestern-accented, academic French—mine current, Daddy’s creaking with decades of rust—permitted. I had been given some early birthday presents to use on the trip: a straw purse, a high-collared trench coat that I considered far more feminine than the classic Burberry model, and some wood-soled sandals that attached via cream-colored, canvas ankle straps the width of fettuccine. I was, in a word, gorgeous: an eighth-grade woman of mystery in thick bangs cut to emulate Mork and Mindy’s Pam Dawber. The shop windows were bright with jonquils and chocolate molded into lambs, rabbits, and chickens.
Unfortunately, the weather did not share the merchants’ sunny Easter vision, treating me to my first taste of travelers’ bane, the cold rain that pisses down from a pewter-colored sky for days on end. Freezing in my insubstantial off-brand trench coat, I clip-clopped from Notre Dame to Sacré Cœur, nearly breaking my tightly strapped ankles whenever my wooden soles hydroplaned on the wet cobblestones. I had a wonderful time, despite bunking with two ninth-graders who awarded themselves the choicest bathroom mirror time and both twin beds. I wheeled my rollaway cot next to our French (!) windows, dreaming of a not-too-distant future when I would return to this most romantic of cities with a handsome, artistically inclined man, temporarily played by whatever unsuspecting eighth-grade boy I felt like tapping for the fantasy. On my fourteenth birthday, the ninth-graders and I dressed up like French hookers and photographed each other posed seductively on my cot with Monsieur J.J., a worldly ten-year-old whose wealthy parents had sent him on the school-sponsored trip sans chaperone.
As I had predicted, the next time I saw Paris, I was in the company of a handsome, artistically inclined man, but, as shoestring travelers with only public facilities at our disposal, Nate and I were rank as goats. No doubt Paris has suffered its share of stenchy lovers. Napoleon and Joséphine come to mind. Juliette Gréco and Miles Davis had access to modern plumbing, but I’ll bet they reeked of the bars in which they frisked. But with our constant stink further augmented by our poor diet, financial anxiety, and sleep deprivation, my libido didn’t stand a chance of measuring up to the eighth-grade ideal.
Excerpted from No Touch Monkey!: And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late by Ayun Halliday. Available from Seal Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015.
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(And other travel lessons learned too late)
By Ayun Halliday
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