I usually portray my mother and father, Fran and Lee, as two wretched, hateful and profoundly mentally ill dysfunctionals. One of my sisters is fond of referring to our mother as The Fran Monster. As for Lee, no one word or phrase seems to capture his essence. I think German was actually created so that people could describe someone like my father. You know how the Germans string together many words to create one new word? Very clever thing. It would work for my father: abusiveviolentdrunkmeancruelunethicalsexoffenderadultererchildbeater. See, that would never work in English and yet in German it would likely make perfect sense.
But life with my parents wasn't all nightmares. In all fairness to them, we had our good times as well. I'm certain that each one of my sisters can recount some wonderful adventure, the occasional abuse-free moment and heart-warmer like when my dying mother would hurl insults at the hospice nuns, likely driving the sisters of mercy to morphine (easily found in a hospice.) How my mother ended up in a Catholic hospice is still a mystery to me even though it does seem like justice was served on both sides of that equation.
Recently, I was reading an article in the Times about SIENNA, a small and beautiful gem of a city in the Tuscany region of northern Italy. The article reminded me of a peaceful moment with my parents as we stood in the center of the PIAZZA DEL CAMPO, discussing the PALIO and admiring the ancient towers. This moment is chief among my fond memories of our one and only European vacation.
It was the beginning of a talking time. Our family process of not talking, talking, not talking, talking, not talking had begun many years earlier. Our 1971 European Vacation was one of many attempted reconciliations. It was a talking period, actually one of the longer ones. It lasted for several months.
Forgive and forget, let's move on, blood is thicker than water...that kind of stuff. Of course, in retrospect that made about as much sense as the ex-gay movement. Nonetheless, it took me many years to accept that my parents could not be changed, I could not train them to be better and loving people, and the family model of Leave it To Beaver and Father Knows Best was not to be a part of my life. Ever. Never.
But the MYTH OF SISYPHUS be damned; I persevered for many years. I partly and briefly succeeded with my father during the last nine months of his life. I miserably failed with my mother who stubbornly lived more than four months beyond the time her doctors insisted she would expire so that--she would shout at the nuns each day-- she could die on the day and at the time of her son's birth. Although she missed her exact goal by eight minutes, she basically succeeded so that my birthdays are now the anniversary of my mother's death.
But I digress. We're talking about the European Vacation.
Perhaps the most valiant, stupid and glorious attempt at the "Let's be like a real and normal family" game was our three weeks in
Hell Europe. By 1971, the year of this ill-conceived venture, I had been to Europe several times, my French was moderately fluent and I was comfortable with some basic Italian and German. My parents had never been to Europe, partly because they were very much intimidated by foreign travel but also because they were very much intimidated by people who didn't sound or think like them. In their view, foreign travel included Connecticut for that very reason. Actually, it even blocked out certain parts of Manhattan, like the Upper East Side which was infested with gentiles.
Many years earlier, we had ventured into Quebec but my parents disappeared during the day at a local Jerry Lewis Film Festival (apparently in 1971, French Canadians were as perversely in love with this awful comic as the French). Beyond this bizarre decision after having driven all the way to Quebec City, Fran and Lee slept in late and then went nightclubbing. I don't think they ever saw much of Quebec, Montreal or Quebec City other than bed, Jerry Lewis and nightclubs. I was 10 at the time and well-accustomed to being alone, so I made my way around and enjoyed many of the sites. Oddly, it seemed to me that everyone actually spoke English in Quebec, and rather more clearly than my parents. That was probably because I had grown up assuming that English was a shouted language, punctuated by flying plates, dining room chairs and slamming doors.
The other impetus behind our European Vacation was my parents belief that I "owed" them. After all, they had given up their lives to raise me. My father in particular had given up sex with his wife on my behalf. My mother had sacrificed her body and her opportunity to leave my father, earn a high school diploma, attend university and teach history at Columbia University.
So Fran and Lee decided that I should take them to Europe, using my vast knowledge of European geography and strange tongues to guide them around. It would constitute some degree of compensation for all their sacrifices.
My aunt, my father's sister, had just been through a very disagreeable divorce and badly needed an escape, so, my otherwise brilliant aunt decided that accompanying her brother, his wife and her nephew to Europe would be just the cure. I'm not the only family fool with a very high IQ and serious case of the crazies.
If you think Paris Hilton travels heavy, you would think otherwise had you been at JFK International Airport on that fateful day. Fortunately, this was a time before terrorism, when airport security consisted of a closeted gay man or a woman who was clearly a prostitute by night who would point you to the appropriate check-in desk.
To be honest, I don't clearly remember just how many suitcases my mother had packed but I do clearly remember that she had, having scrupulously studied several issues of Vogue, National Geographic and Life Magazine, prepared for the various style and fashion changes that would occur between France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland, as well as packed two large suitcases with the assorted reliable and scientifically sound first aid products that would be necessary should something go awry in third world Europe.
The overweight charges would have been enough to cover an extra nights at the Crillon.
The flight to Paris was delightful. My mother puked three times and was too sick to clean herself. My father wouldn't do it because that's what stewardesses are paid to do. The stewardesses wouldn't do it. My aunt had taken almost as many sleeping pills as she had during her last suicide attempt. My mother loved puking. She puked on the Eiffel Tower (elevator-induced motion sickness). She puked on the vaporreto (water bus) in Venice, but into the canal. She puked in our rented Mercedes on the winding roads in the Swiss Alps. Mom loved to puke. I think the happiest time in her life was when she was pregnant with my twin sisters and had license to puke everywhere and anytime.
Paris, City of Fights
Our first destination: The city of
fights lights, the most elegant and beautiful city in the world. Unfortunately, we hated the French. I don't recall why we hated the French, but we did. My primary responsibility was to run interference between my parents and the hateful French. If I missed a beat it would immediately lead to a fight. A fight between my parents, between my parents and my aunt and between my father and any Frenchman who "refused" to speak English even though my father had personally prevented Hitler from burning down Paris. The fighting was worse in Paris than in any other part of Europe, likely due to jet lag. As our trip progressed and my parents adjusted to the different time zone, their tempers were less volatile. Slightly. By Italy we were being evicted from fewer hotels, restaurants and shops.
Fortunately, I was able to apologize fluently to our assorted victims and casualties. I was able to freely disparage my parents en francais so that our victims would feel sympathy and empathy for me, allowing me to participate in the contempt that the French would express for my parent's behavior. This came in most handy when my mother was almost arrested by a Parisian police officer after she was evicted from a sweater shop on the boulevard St- Germain.
It was half past twelve and the proprietor was in the process of locking the door for lunch. However, my mother had spied the perfect sweater in the window and wanted to purchase it. But it was lunch. The proprietor politely asked my mother to return after lunch. My mother protested that she was on vacation and would not waste her precious vacation time by retracing her steps to return to a shop that she'd already visited. The key turned, my mother shoved the door and forced her way in. She bullied her way behind the counter and started searching for her size. Things turned ugly. You did not stand in the way of my mother in a shopping frenzy. And in 1971 you did not stand in the way of a French person closing shop and heading for the traditional 2 1/2 hour lunch. Napoleon vs. Hurricane Frances. Not pretty. Gendarmes were summoned. Richard explained that his mother was terminally ill and not herself. This was her last wish dream vacation and her sense of urgency sometimes got the better of her. I was a closeted gay man with lying skills that Marvel would consider a superpower.
My aunt wondered what I had said to diffuse the situation. I never told her. I didn't like lying to my aunt and this was to be the first of many elaborate lies I would tell to the French, the Italians, the Swiss, the Austrians and other victims we would abuse along the way.
Fighting aside, the Louvre was certainly the nadir of our Paris experience. Our visit was years before the installation of I. M. Pei's Pyramid and in those days a tour of this colossal, ancient palace turned art museum was confusing, exhausting and overwhelming. Can't we just see the Mona Lisa and leave? Of course, we can, beloved mother and father, of course we can. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Why didn't they put it someplace more convenient? We have to stand on line? Oh, well, it took us so fucking long to get here, we might as well wait. What!? That's it? That little thing? You can't be serious? We walked all this way and waited all this time for that little painting? All this hullabaloo over a fucking postage stamp. And she's not even smiling? Where's the gift shop? Let's go shopping. If the Louvre had a gift shop in 1971, I couldn't find it. We walked and then walked some more and then more and then my mother had to pee...so we walked more and all along the way my father complained that the war had ended some 25 years earlier giving the French more than enough time to have made the Louvre American-friendly. It was the least they could have done. At this point, I'm growing concerned that the mob will find us, forget about Louis and Marie-Antoinette and take us all directly to the Guillotine. We find a toilet and my mother pees but is outraged that some fat old French lady expects a coin in her little basket. My father again reminds us that we saved them from the Nazis and the least they could do is let us pee for free. He pulls my mother out of the loo and stiffs the old French lady. When they aren't looking, which is usually the case, I slip Madame a few francs., overtipping, feeling so guilty.
My aunt attempts to change the conversation by expressing her desire to see The Kiss. I explain that The Kiss is housed, quite logically, in the Musee Rodin, not the Louvre. My father made it perfectly clear that we were not going to any more badly designed and over-rated Frog museums that clearly hadn't been cleaned since the Revolution (everything that is now white in Paris was still dark gray and grim in 1971.)
Where's the Galleries Lafayette? I hear it's just like Macy's. Let's go there. Wouldn't you like to see Sainte Chappelle? It's just a short walk from here. It's very beautiful. What is it? One of the most beautiful churches in Paris. Amazing interior. Amazing windows. It's a church. I've been in St. Patricks. How is it different?
It's not. You're right. Every church in Paris looks just like St. Patricks on Fifth Avenue. In fact, every church in Italy does as well. So that saves us a lot of time.
At this point, my aunt informs us that she'll meet us back in the hotel. She spends the rest of the day touring Paris and leaves me alone with Adolf and Eva.
My mother finds a discount bin on the Rue de Rivoli. She buys several shopping bags full of faux espadrilles and bras that she will never wear. But they are French bras and therefore very chic, even if they did come out of a discount bin on the street. My father has disappeared. We 360 until we see the nearest obvious bar. He's found something he really likes about the French. Everyone is chain smoking and drinking simultaneously. He's very happy. He suddenly loves Paris.
The windows are filthy. We've seen better blues in fabric stores on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Never mind that it's raining and dark. Nice shops, though. My mother stocks up on French brand toothpaste. The packaging is very chic. We 360, spot the nearest bar, find my father and leave Chartres.
Chateaux de la Loire
After Chenonceau and Azay-le-Rideau it becomes clear to my parents that every Chateau is empty, too big and essentially the same building repeated over and over and over again. I decide to take them to a famous three star restaurant along the river. The fish and the poultry are served with the heads intact. My mother is appalled and leaves the restaurant, my father demands a steak and my aunt starts to cry. I pay le note and we head back to Paris.
We check into a small charming hotel on the Ile St. Louis for our last night in Paris. The porter is about 100 years old and seems close to a myocardial infarction as he struggles to drag my mother's suitcases up the tiny stone winding staircase. He wryly asks"Madame" if she is transporting gold bullion. Fortunately, he asks this in French, And then, as if on cue, the largest suitcase pops open and about a dozen rolls of toilet paper and a dozen tubes of Crest toothpaste tumble down the stairs and settle around the reception desk and at our feet. The French don't brush their teeth and they use newspapers to wipe their asses. My mother came prepared. My aunt and I snap, gather up all the toilet paper and the toothpaste while my parents argue. With the permission of the proprietor, I donate all the toilet paper and Crest to the hotel. In exchange they allow us to stay the night.
In the morning, we notice that my parents are short two suitcases. My father informs me that during the night he tossed two of my mother's suitcases, the empty one and a second one packed with ointments, creams, bandages, cotton, lotions, lozenges and syrups out of their bedroom window and in to the hotel's courtyard. I suspect they have murdered a bread delivery boy or an old concierge. Before the police can be summonded, we escape France.
The rooftops of Florence are all of the same color. Apparently, this confirms my parents suspicions that other than good food, Italy is going to be boring.
Despite the Italian appreciation for hand gestures and shouting, we are thrown out of two hotels on two consecutive nights as a result of my parent's endless battling. My aunt who never drinks, has started drinking too much wine. I have developed chronic diarrhea and nausea as result of stress, not the food. My mother's son, I have taken to vomiting therapy. It works. After a good puke my mood improves.
My father is growing impatient with the fact that no one in Europe will admit to speaking English. He knows that they do but won't out of spite. On our second day in Italy, he orders me to stop translating and insists on handling waiters, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and hotel clerks entirely on his own. The worst outcome of this decision is the taxi drivers. Italians are not shy about street fighting. I quickly learn to surreptitiously slip the driver a note with our destination; my father's shouting and and babbling is ignored. Unfortunatley, we always arrive at our destination further confirming my father's suspicions that they "all" speak English. He never learns about the notes.
Dinner on that first night after my father's decision to force Italians to understand him is delightful. My father orders the same pasta for both the appetizer and the main course. He doesn't believe that he has made this mistake and is convinced that it is a deliberate insult on the part of the waiter, likely an old friend of Mussolini. Actually, the waiter protested and tried to make some recommendations. I attempted to intervene. My father shuts us both up. My aunt is crying again and drinks more wine.
In the middle of all of this chaos, my father loses patience with two ridiculous European customs. He wants a proper salad and he wants it before his meal, not after. And a real salad includes tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, radishes and real lettuce (Iceberg). He heads to the kitchen to teach the Florentines how to make a real salad. We end up eating in our hotel via room service. The next morning we are asked to vacate the hotel, our one night stay is refunded. I'm embarrassed, upset and a bit flustered, but I think they gave us more money than we had actually paid in an attempt to bribe us to leave the country. I give the money to my aunt; she buys a flask.
The other custom that thoroughly disturbed my father was the fact that neither the French nor the Italians would serve coffee and dessert together. No matter how slowly my father would sip his coffee, the dessert would not arrive until he was done. He attempted various ploys to overcome this obvious anti-American tactic. In one restaurant he gulped down his coffee and then when his dessert was served, he ordered a second cup. Of course, they wouldn't bring it until he was finished with his gateau. He finally came up with a perfect solution. He would finish his coffee, get his dessert and then steal my mother's coffee (who was told to not drink it.) I proposed another solution. I would simply ask politely for his coffee and dessert to be served together, but as we had already discovered the French and the Italians fully understood English and were deliberately pretending not to understand my father. It was a waiting game, psychological anti-American warfare and he knew that ultimately he would win. So I was not allowed to ask.
Seeking a peaceful afternoon, I took my parents and my aunt up to Fiesole, overlooking Florence, to enjoy the Etruscan ruins. Much to our surprise, the Etruscan ruins were, well, in ruins. We could have gone to the South Bronx if we'd wanted to see ruins. My aunt was crying again. Also, at this point she was getting kind of pungent. She had stopped changing her clothes several days earlier and was even sleeping in this white casual pants suit..not so white after a few days. Mostly, she was doing this for the sense of security it seemed to provide but also because it saved her time when we would be thrown out of hotels. So we kicked around the ruins for a bit, criticized the way the Italians had allowed the place to go to ruin and become overrun by weeds and then we went shopping.
On our third day in Florence, my mother discovered leather. Purses. Shoes. Gloves, Belts. Wallets. Handbags. Leather. My father, somewhat concerned that he would hurt our feelings, suggested that perhaps my aunt and I would like to visit Florence on our own since we seemed partial to churches, art galleries, ruins, museums and architecture. And now that my father was on to the Italians, he no longer needed me to translate. Furthermore, he pointed out, they were going to spend the next two days shopping and, he assured me, everyone in Italy spoke the language of dollars. I had always thought it was the language of romance, but apparently it was the language of greenbacks.
We didn't see them for almost two days. As much as I'm enjoying our our freedom and seeing my aunt's pleasure grow with each new Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raffaello, I find my anxiety growing as I contemplate all the extra "leather" suitcases that my mother was surely buying to carry the riches of Europe back to New York.
Fortunately, the reproduction paintings, the stone and marble garden fountains, the ceramics and the bolts of fashionable Florentine fabrics were all shipped. Oh, as were a dozen pair of leather gloves in assorted colors and lengths. My mother kept all the handbags because she could pack stuff inside of them which she wisely anticipated would be a godsend at Duty Free. So it made sense to take them home with us.
As we prepare to leave Florence, my mother proudly "reveals" that in addition to shopping, and without my help and guidance, they managed to find the Statue of David on their own. They were as interested in art and culture as anyone. However, she was rather disappointed. My father, she explained was far better endowed than David.
I guess everything in America is bigger, she says. First the little Mona Lisa and now David's diminutive pecker. Europe seems to be overrated.
Venice smelled. And just looking at the vaporettos and gondolas made my mother seasick. She puked in a canal. I can learn. I can. We checked into the Danieli and I immediately led mommy and daddy to the Rialto Bridge bypassing the piazzas, the canals, the cathedrals, the whispers, the sighs and the secrets of this marvelous city.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Venice and, more importantly with the Rialto, it is a bridge that is one long jewelry store with a few Murano glass shops to interrupt the monotony of gold. The shopper is treated to an endless array of emeralds, rubies, sapphires and some diamonds (the Italians like color) and happy shiny 18k gold. Back then it was illegal to buy and sell 18k gold in the United States. The best you could buy was 14k gold. I have no recollection of why this was the case, but it was. So not only was this an amazing shopping opportunity, it was almost like buying forbidden goods, almost like stealing which was something very close to the family business, something my parents knew how to do and do well. Furthermore, dripping with all that 18k gold, it would be obvious to everyone that my mother had been to Italy. Could one buy too much Rialto Venetian jewelry? Probably, but there were so many Florentine leather handbags to fill that it seemed unlikely.
We didn't even need to suggest a separation. As my parents drifted into the Rialto jewelry bazaar, like two little children wandering into some fantasy candy land, my aunt and I faded unnoticed into the city to spend several delightful days absorbing the flavor and wonder of Venice. We went swimming on the Lido, took a boat out to Torcello and even spent one afternoon doing nothing but reading and sipping coffee on the terrace of the Danieli overlooking the canal.
My parents ended up loving Venice. And Venice, at least the merchants on the Rialto, ended up loving my parents.
Bellagio, Lake Como (the original, not Vegas)
Our first day in Bellagio was spent hunting for a hotel that was not near a church. My parents hadn't been sleeping well in Italy because the Italians like to ring church bells at all kinds of ungodly hours in a subtle attempt to kill Jews. My father assumed this was a vestige of fascist anti-semitism. Eventually we found a rather beautiful hotel on a hill. We looked in every direction, circled the streets for a while in our car but could not find a church. As it turned out, this was because the church was hidden in the hotel's central courtyard on lower ground. Best of all, the church bell tower rose just to the level of guest room windows. At around 530 in the morning, while my aunt and I were rolling on the floor in paroxysms of laughter, Fran and Lee were hanging by their claws from the ceiling like cats, hissing and spitting. When we all met for breakfast, no one spoke. The bags under my parents' eyes told the story. My aunt and I kept giggling through breakfast and for most of the morning. Revenge is sweet.
The lake was beautiful, not as beautiful as Lake Wallenpaupack in the Pennsylvania Poconos, but pretty nice. But there really was nothing to buy in Bellagio. It was a shopping wasteland. My Aunt bought a battered old brass trumpet from a street vendor. My mother hated it and thought it was ugly and stupid. But it was an antique and there was nothing else to buy in Bellagio so she offered my aunt twice what she had paid for it. Three times. Four times. My aunt refused. Five times. My aunt still refused. It was an ugly old horn, but my aunt was not going to succumb to my mother's mania. They didn't talk to each other for almost three days. The trumpet remained an issue for almost thirty years.
Fucking Nazis. Why did you bring us here? Ah, but the pastry is really, really good and they give you all the coffee and cake you want, and simultaneously. We're full, let's leave. After all, the only thing to buy in Vienna is Lederhosen, Loden and Lipizzaner souvenirs.
Actually, I had really close friends in Austria who were dying to meet my legendary parents. No one ever believed my family stories until they actually met Fran and Lee; but once my friends did meet them, I would start to receive much more generous Birthday and Christmas presents. The fruits of sympathy. This was one of the few benefits I ever enjoyed from having such parents. Happily, my parents liked my friends, even though they were Nazis, so they acted very much like themselves. My shocked friends couldn't spend enough on my gifts after that visit.
I wonder what happened to all those watches? My favorite was the gold watch with the peacock feather under the crystal. And that was for my father. I don't remember any of the other watches, but I do remember that my father was especially fond of Seikos and bought several. For some reason, he didn't seem bothered by the fact that he was buying Japanese watches in Switzerland.
Other than shopping, we hated the food in Switzerland and the mountains were way too high. My parents were also very disappointed that there didn't seem to be much of a difference between famous Swiss chocolate and your average Hershey Bar. Of course, alcoholic, chain-smoking dad had long ago lost the use of his taste buds. And mom was too busy shopping to notice what was going into her mouth.
My father was still demanding that everyone speak English and, in fact, the Swiss pretty much did but wouldn't when confronted with Lee's attitude. The exception to this was in the watch shops. Lee was shopping with such a vengence that the Swiss would have spoken anything to please him.
The reason we hated Swiss food was due to our first meal experience. This involved a clear broth with a raw egg floating on the surface. My parents lost their appetites. I wasn't too fond of the raw egg thing either, but I stirred it around and gleefully ate it as my parents' faces turned green. Yum. Yum. Slurp. Slurp. Raw egg on my lips. Following this, my parents decided that if the Swiss ate floating raw eggs, everything else in that little Nazi-loving, Jewish gold stealing country was equally unpalatable.
But Switzerland did have its pleasures. Mountain driving terrified my father, so I put aside my caution and timidity and quickly learn to drive like a European. After all, there are no speed limits and passing a truck at 120 kph at 10,000 feet with nothing but blue sky on one side, the stone wall of a mountain on the other side and your father pissing his pants and cowering on the floor of the Mercedes is, well, as they say over at MasterCard headquarters, priceless.
Our final two days in Europe are icy at best. It is very, painfully, joyfully clear that my father remains traumatized from Alpine driving; he is not going to forgive me. My punishment is that for our last two days in Europe, in Paris, I am on my own. My aunt attempts to join me in my exile, but she is ordered to join my parents and I am cast out like the evil son I am. I am forced to fend for myself in that dreadful, American-hating city. My banishment is unendurable and I am forced to read books in the Jardin du Luxembourg, wander aimlessly through the Louvre, explore little shops and galleries on the Left Bank, sip hot chocolate on the Ile Sainte-Louis, attend a concert in Notre Dame...it is hell, but I'm strong. I pretend to be French: the Parisians do not kill me.
On her own, my mother has discovered that the Galleries Lafayette will ship anything you purchase directly to your home. She has also discovered that the Samaritaine heavily discounts shit, but the shit is French and therefore much nicer than American shit. On his own, my father has discovered a bar off the Boule Mich, owned by English speaking Greeks. My aunt seems to have disappeared in the Louvre but miraculously reappears in time to make the plane at Orly. Just.
Upon our arrival at Orly, my father has conveniently forgiven me in time to carry the many suitcases stuffed with my mother's booty. Dreading a fight on the flight and imagining being cast off the plane with parachutes mid-Atlantic, I smile and play along knowing that once we're through customs (can I get them arrested, I wonder?) it will be time to "not talk" again and for quite some time.
Confirming for me that life stinks, I am caught at Kennedy with some of my partly-eaten unpasteurized, unhomogenized cheese from the Orly food shop while my parents lie to the customs agent about everything. My father bought nothing. The solid gold watch on his wrist is "Japanese." My mother pays an extra few dollars in customs for the 18k gold and emerald broach she is wearing on her very ample bosom. The customs agent never asks them to open their suitcases. I hate life. I hate God. I assume that since the good die young, I will likely perish during the cab ride back into Manhattan and my parents will live until the year 3,000.
My aunt goes home to Brooklyn, discards the white pants suit and finally takes a shower.