In two weeks, I will be going on the world’s most romantic trip.
… with my mother.
From the canals of Venice to the lights of the Eiffel Tower, I will be embarking on a breathtaking, incredible, once-in-a-lifetime journey that is supposed to end with either a marriage proposal or — at the very least — some voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir.
…But I will be with my mother.
(two weeks ago, on the phone)
Me: “Mom, at some point during this trip, you know you might have to put out a little.”
Mom: “I’m well aware.”
This story is five years in the making. And that’s just for me. For my mom, it’s decades.
My mother’s lifelong wish is to ride the Orient Express.
And if we’re going to be specific, my mother’s dream is to be in the Bar Car of the train, sipping a pink squirrel while the pianist plays “Sentimental Journey.”
Hey. My mom’s not sitting around judging your dream, okay? I can only assume this is her wish from when she was eighteen and first read Murder on the Orient Express.
I’ve heard her talk about this trip since I was little. I don’t even remember the first time I heard her mention the train. I just always knew she wanted to do it. The point is, about five years ago I realized — with my father gone, who will take my mom on her dream trip? To be fair, Dad did take her on her other lifelong dream trip — New Orleans. Thanks, Dad. You got Mom a hurricane and a couple of beads on Bourbon Street and then called it a night? Nice.
I had a four-point plan to get my mom on that train.
1. Save enough money for two tickets to what feels like you should be purchasing an actual compartment you get to keep for a month. Watch the American dollar fall against the Euro as the trip gets more and more expensive just by not going on it.
2. Put the money in a place I don’t touch unless I’m adding to the “Mom Turns Sixty Sooner Than You Think” fund.
3. Tell my mom that this trip was happening.
4. Spend the next five years convincing her that it was really, really happening and that she really, really needed to get a passport.
My family doesn’t do so well with promises. We tend to think that a promise is just you saying what you mean you wish you could do if you were actually going to do something, but really you’re not going to do it so why did you say that, now we’re in a fight.
It was Christmas Day many years ago, in a hotel lobby in Connecticut, waiting on the shuttle to take me to JFK when I told my mom that this was happening. “Mommy. We’re going to ride the Orient Express for your sixtieth birthday.”
And my mom began to cry and said, “That’s very nice of you, honey. But no, thank you. Merry Christmas.”
I can’t blame her for saying that. At the time I’d only just started working, I was still very, very much in debt, and it had to have seemed like five years was more like six million away. But she didn’t know about Step One!
The next couple of years I’d just gently remind her that it was going to happen, and that she should make sure she gets used to the fact that we were going to do this. Then: this year, the year my mother turned sixty (last week, actually)… everything lined up.
I didn’t get a job.
I didn’t get another job.
There was another job there that I almost got and then didn’t get.
After five continuous months of convincing… Mom got a passport.
Mom got laid off.
Success! We’re unemployed and going to Europe! We will be flying to Venice, Italy, where we will climb aboard the Orient Express (where cocktail attire is required at all times) for a birthday dinner celebration and some piano bar fun and wake up the next morning in Paris.
(phone call, three months ago)
Me: And then we will wake up in Paris!
Mom: Oh, good! You know, it’s always been my dream to see the Mona Lisa.
Me: What? How can you have MORE DREAMS? No more dreams, Mom!
And– before you email– yes, I’ve told her that it’s small. Everybody tells me to tell her that it’s small and possibly a little disappointing for the effort. Her answer: “It’s still the Mona Lisa, isn’t it?” Lifelong dream, people. You can’t argue with it.
The last time I was on a real trip with my mother I took her to Vegas for her fiftieth where she could go and gamble and I could meet all the people I worked with at Television Without Pity (who would soon become my best friends), and I think that entire time I only lost her once.
Listen. That’s way better than my dad’s track record. One time when I was in high school they went to Vegas for their twentieth anniversary or something. On the fourth day I got a call from Dad: “Well, I haven’t seen your mother since we checked into the hotel on Friday. But the flight’s in three hours. I’m sure she’ll show up by then. Have fun at school today. Bye.”
My mother has never been to Europe. She gets nervous when I tell her I’m on a rowboat. She’s terrified whenever I tell her I’m going to take the subway. She rarely gets from one place to another without getting lost.
(DON’T TELL MY MOM): If I know she’s the one taking me the airport for my return flight, I always lie about my flight time by at least an hour. Because, you guys, we need the extra hour. One time Mom printed the directions to the airport and then immediately said, “Okay! Let’s go! The directions are in my hand!” We closed the front door and locked it, then walked the fifteen feet to the car and — the directions were gone.
We searched for half an hour (because printing another set would be stupid, I mean, SHE JUST HAD THOSE DIRECTIONS). Inside the house. Inside the car. Inside my luggage. Her purse. My pockets. The street. Those directions were so immediately, unfathomably lost that I began to believe in gremlins and ghosts. I was standing next to her the entire time, and I am telling you I still don’t understand how that piece of paper disappeared. I barely made it onto my plane.
I’ve been trying to learn enough French that I can be a safe chaperone. Even though she’s not saying it, I know that Mom has to be a little worried that we’re about to be two ladies in some extremely unfamiliar areas. Mom can count to five in French, but just in case, I thought I might learn a few more phrases, ones that I feel I might need to say at some point.
I can say: “Excuse me, may I please have one glass of red wine, and for my mother, a cup of tea with milk? Thank you.” (If I’m being honest, this sentence is probably more for my sanity than hers.)
I can say: “Excuse me, can my mother smoke here? No? Is there a place where she can smoke near here?”
And most importantly, the one I learned last night: “Excuse me, please! I’ve lost my mother!”
phone call, yesterday
Me: Mom, my latest French lesson was all about what to say if either of us gets sick. I didn’t think it would come in handy, but listen: “Excusez-moi, s’il vous plaît. Ma mère est malade avec la diarrhée.”
Mom: Oh, that’s pretty. What does it mean?
Me: It means you have diarrhea.
Me: I didn’t think it would come in handy, but now it will. Because you didn’t learn any French for this trip, so now whenever I say anything to anyone in French, you will know that there’s a chance– always just a chance — that I am telling them you have diarrhea.
Mom: I’m always going to think that!
Me: And I’ll be asking them for a cup of tea for you, and you’ll be all, “No, she’s lying! I’m fine! Don’t listen to her! She’s trying to be funny!”
Last week the travel arrangements arrived. It includes our itineraries and our boarding passes to ride the train, bound in a little zippered book. With a pen! And — I’m not going to lie — I got emotional over them. Because a lot of work went into getting these two tickets, a lot of dreaming and scheming, a lot of luck, a number of scripts and novels, and a very forgiving mother. They look so pretty and official that my first instinct was to immediately send Mom the booklet that announces her ticket to ride.
But then I remembered: it is my mother. And if I send her that book that house will swallow it and neither of us will ever see it again.
Plus side if I do: she’d probably end up finding that piece of paper with the directions to the airport.
(phone call, four months ago)
Me: The extremely helpful staff at reservations suggested we take the train that goes overnight from Venice to Paris. I know we talked about going to Vienna, but it would involve more than one train, and this one has us sipping tea as we pass the Swiss Alps.
Mom: Oooh. Fancy.
Me: I know. I sent you a link to show you what Venice looks like.
Mom: Yes. I’m looking at it right now. …………. Hmmm… ………….. Hurmnmn.
Me: What’s wrong?
Mom: It looks wet.
Me: Well, that’s kinda the poi–
Mom: Look at those people in the video standing in the water. They’re getting all wet!
Me: I think it’s supposed to be romantic. See the string quartet outside? They’re dancing.
Mom: No, thank you. Why would you want to get that wet? And look at those people putting trash bags around their feet. Trash bags!
Mom: Dancing in the water. Then they’re going to just walk around wet the rest of the day? That’s how you catch pneumonia, Pamie.
Me: Listen. We have to take a boat from the airport. I’m warning you now.
Mom: Okay. People like Venice, right?
Me: They do.
Mom: Oh! Are we going to go on a gondola ride?
Me: Yes. I was going to surprise you with it, but now I think you need to know so you have something to look forward to.
Mom: Yay! Riding a gondola! You know, that’s always been my lifelong dream.
My mother’s a genius.