The first time I went to Paris, I was a newlywed. The last time, I was a mother. Both times, I was disabused of any notion that Paris is the most romantic city on earth.
When my husband John and I went to Paris two years into our marriage, I thought it would be like a "real" honeymoon, our first having been just two gray days in Chicago.
For weeks leading up to our departure, I hummed a calliope of French movie themes while slow-motion images flickered through my mind: John and I strolling hand-in-hand along the Seine . . . gazing into each other's eyes, whispering "je t'aime" over romantic dinners in candlelit bistros . . . sipping champagne atop the Eiffel Tower as the sun set and the city lights twinkled below.
In every scene, I wore a little black dress. My lips were pouty, plump and red, and my hair was swept into an elegant chignon. I weighed 15 pounds less and glided down the Champs-Elysees in an ethereal cloud of Chanel No. 5.
I awoke from my reverie when reality whacked the needle on the imaginary record player in my head. The theme from A Man and a Woman scratched to an abrupt halt and my fantasy film snapped and flopped round and round on the reel like a broken projector in a discount movie house.
In my Paris directorial debut, I'd forgotten about a major character: I'd left my mother-in-law on the cutting room floor. C'est vrai. My husband and I were spending Christmas in the most romantic city in the world. With. His. Mother.
But my mother-in-law had offered to take us and, well, who turns down a free trip to Paris? Besides, it wasn't like the three of us would be sharing a room. I wasn't quite ready to let go of the myth that Paris is for lovers.
Unlike the questionable truth of a romantic Paris, once we arrived at our hotel on the Rue de Rivoli, I learned that it is true that the French despise us. I also found out why. It's because of my mother-in-law, who - no matter where in the world she was - would never unpack her Louis Vuittons in the first room assigned by the front desk.
She was an adventurous traveller who once accepted strangers' invitation to enter their home on a side street in the capital of Yemen. She took a train across China and thought nothing of riding an elephant in Nepal or a camel in Egypt. She was a good sport about all of it - as long as she could stay in a five-star hotel that night.
"This just doesn't suit," she told the clerk as we tramped up and down the stairs looking for a room that met her exceedingly high standards.
Here was a woman who traveled with a can of Lysol to sanitise even the most immaculate bathrooms. Convinced that the majority of hotel housekeepers were "on pot" and, consequently, that most hotel linens reeked of marijuana, she never left home without her own Egyptian cotton pillowcase and a top sheet to cover the infused hotel bedspread.
My mother-in-law was not intimidated by the desk clerk's eye rolling and heaving sighs as she unlocked one door after another for inspection. "I'm sorry. . . . Isn't this your job?" she asked with the kind of smile on her face that told you it was not a friendly question. John and I cringed and followed along obediently, like poodles.
Finally, my mother-in-law found a room that did suit her - a lovely, large corner suite with a king-size bed, a balcony overlooking the Tuileries Garden and a view of the Eiffel Tower beyond. Meanwhile, in a tiny room down the hall, John and I pushed our lumpy twin beds together. I guess it was romantic in a "Barefoot in the Park" sort of way.
Honestly, I was knackered by jet lag for most of the trip. I didn't sleep well and, most days, I was spent by mid afternoon. Then, as my biorhythms wreaked havoc, I was wide awake in the middle of the night, sitting in an empty bathtub reading and doing crossword puzzles in a lacy romantic nightgown while John slept - alone.
For some, a love affair with Paris is strictly about the shopping, which is said to be the best in the world. And it is, if money is no object. I was intimidated by the likes of Hermes, Chanel and Saint Laurent. Meanwhile, my mother-in-law was like Eva Gabor shouting "the stores!" in the Green Acres theme song.
There were silk blouses and French perfume; she even dragged us to a couturier and was fitted for a custom-made, red leather suit. Later she bought four purses - one alligator, three ostrich. I treated myself to a $5 scarf from a street vendor.
Twenty years later, I was in the City of Retail - rather, romance - again, as a chaperon for my teenage daughter's advanced placement European history class.
There were 39 high school juniors and we only lost a kid once, a princess-y little fashionista who went rogue on the Champs-Elysees.
Come to think of it, she may have been the reincarnation of my now-deceased mother-in-law because when she rejoined the group, Ashley was laden with so many designer shopping bags that she had to buy an extra suitcase to lug home all her loot.
Me? I picked up more $5 scarves.
When you're travelling with a bunch of teenagers, the most frequently asked question - after "Where's the ATM?" and "When are we going to eat?" - is "Where's the bathroom?"
On that long-ago trip with my mother-in-law, we had visited a ghastly restroom near Barbizon that was literally a hole in the floor. It was called a pissoir. Today, the toilettes in Paris are fairly modern, and, in case you're going anytime soon, I can tell you that the best public restrooms in all of Europe just might be at Paris's Austerlitz train station - well worth a half-euro for pretty sinks, cleanliness and toilet paper, which seems to be in short supply across the pond.
The hotels all had bidets of course, much to the banal amusement and confusion of the adolescent boys in our group. They may have missed a few French classes, or else the hotel housekeepers were still "on pot" and had forgotten how to make a bed because one of the kids informed me that his bathroom had a duvet.
I feel like it's polite to at least try to speak a few words of the native tongue when you're visiting a foreign country, although, the French don't necessarily agree. It took me two days to figure out how to ask for postage stamps: Avez-vous des timbres-Poste? Only to have the insulted store clerk respond to me in dour English: "No, I do not sell stamps."
On that first trip to Paris, as we piled into a cab on Christmas Eve, I spoke to the driver: "45 Rue La Boetie, s'il vous plait." "Ah, oui madame. Parlez-vous Francais?" he said. "Un petit peu," I answered. "Un petit petit peu," my mother-in-law mocked me, lest three measly years of high school French go to my head. Granted, earlier that day I had accidentally ordered kidneys at a cafe at the Place de Vosges. I bit back a "fermez la bouche" and realised I was in serious danger of losing my joie de vivre.
But you know who did have joie de vivre? Those 39 high school students. They embraced Paris with gusto! My daughter's classmates climbed atop every available statue. The girls ate ice cream and croissants every day. They changed out of their short shorts and donned flowery dresses before striking cheeky Audrey Hepburn poses in front of the Moulin Rouge.
The boys started an impromptu flash mob and danced with beautiful strangers along the banks of the Seine. There were a couple of love triangles and heartaches as some of the kids paired off into couples, hand-holding in the Louvre and snuggling up to each other on the tour bus to Versailles, French kissing at twilight, while the moon rose over Montmartre, falling in love with each other and, even more so, with Paris.
And, unlike moi, they actually did sip champagne atop the Eiffel Tower because, apparently, 17-year-olds know more about finding romance in Paris than I do.
Mary Novaria is a Los Angeles-based writer.