An Innocent Abroad

Sandy Hingston sends her daughter on a European tour and herself into a fit of worry.

I’VE DONE ALL THE WORRYING, really, that can be done. I’ve issued warnings about pickpockets, passports and public toilets. I’ve paid all the goddamned money, and then some. Because when your eldest child is departing for Paris And The Château Country, you don’t want her to come up short of pocket change and be the only one who can’t afford to ride up the Eiffel Tower or go punting on the Seine. And now we parents have waved them off, our little A.P. European History scholars, with debit cards tucked in their pockets and iPod adapters in their backpacks and between them all, all 25 of them, plus four chaperones, the inability to say so much as “Where the hell is the bathroom?” in French.

Should be an interesting trip.

It seemed like such a good idea — the perfect way to reward my daughter Marcy for four years of hard work in high school and admission to a college with enough name recognition that I can hold my head up in front of my friends. She’s a fairly responsible child; she doesn’t drink or smoke or do drugs, and she’s not the type to miss a tour bus or run up the Visa card at Chanel. Besides, she begged. “It can be my Christmas and my birthday present,” she offered last autumn, when it was time to make the first deposit. And now she’s hopscotching across France, and I hardly think about her at all, except for the 10 times a day when I check what the weather is in the Loire Valley today and will be in Saint-Malo tomorrow, and try to figure out whether it actually already is tomorrow there because of that confusing time-difference thing, and visit to watch for downed airplanes and terrorist activity.

“Are you crying?” Marcy asked me, right before she got on the bus to the airport. “You’re crying, aren’t you?”

Of course I was. I’m not very good at transitions, and this was a big one, the journey that traditionally, for Anglo-Saxons of a certain class, marked the crossover from childhood to adultitude. And that, traditionally, you didn’t let your offspring take until you were ready to let go, because once they’ve seen gay Paree, how are you gonna keep them down on the farm?

“It was a transforming experience for Sam,” a good friend confides of his 17-year-old son’s first voyage abroad. “When he got home, he didn’t look like the same kid.”

That’s what scares me. I like Marcy the way she is — the way she was when she got on that bus. I don’t want her to be transformed.

She could maybe get a little braver, that’s all.

I’VE ONLY BEEN overseas twice in my life. The year before Marcy was born, my husband Doug and I, sensing the door of opportunity about to slam shut, bicycled across Scotland — the narrowest part of Scotland. It took us a week, and while it wasn’t a transforming experience, exactly, we did stay in funny little B&Bs and see lots of castles and discover what the concentric red circles on a relief map mean. The other time, we flew to Paris for a weekend for my friend Barb’s wedding, leaving the kids — Marcy was four, and her brother Jake one — at our house with Doug’s parents. When we returned home, Jake was transformed. He had ringworm, because I forgot to tell my mother-in-law to cover the sandbox at night.

To travel well requires that one be, essentially, an optimist. You have to trust that the plane won’t go down. I have trouble with that. And you have to go with the flow — be light on your feet, ready to switch plans at a moment’s notice. Travel-wise, I’m a diplodocus. “I can’t believe we did that,” Doug marvels whenever the subject of our bike trip through Scotland comes up. “That was the most spontaneous you’ve ever been in your life.”

Personally, I think spontaneity is way overrated. What I respect is carefully thinking through all the possible ramifications of any given action — and I mean all the way through. Example: If we hadn’t gone to Paris for my friend Barb’s wedding, Jake wouldn’t have gotten ringworm, and my mother-in-law wouldn’t have discovered that every cat in a five-mile radius was using her grandson’s sandbox to shit in. Doug and I will always have Paris. And my mother-in-law will always have that on me.

BACK IN HER junior year, after hearing yet another college admissions officer expound on the virtues of study abroad, Marcy asked me: “Do I have to do that?” “Of course not!” I assured her. “I never did.” Whereupon it occurred to me that maybe this was the problem — the reason I’m such a lousy traveler. When I was a kid, my family traipsed up and down the East Coast in a big station wagon crammed with tents and sleeping bags. We stayed in state parks, and cooked our meals on a Coleman stove. On the road, we lived pretty much the way we did at home — which is to say we never had to deal with tipping the valet or asking the concierge to make restaurant reservations. And as a consequence, as an adult, I’m profoundly awkward in those momentary interfaces of server and servee in which I’m supposed to summon up a little noblesse oblige — an anxiety I seemed to have passed on to Marcy.

Last year, she and a friend came into Philly with me on a day when they had off from school. They wanted to visit Eastern State Penitentiary, so I gave Marcy a $20 bill, packed them into a cab at our offices at 19th and Market, and sent them on their way. Hours later, exhausted, they crawled out of the elevator. Marcy had gotten flustered and given the cabbie the whole $20 for their fare to the prison; broke, they’d had to walk back, got lost, and were too timid to ask for directions. And I wasn’t even a little bit mad, because it was exactly the sort of thing I would do.

TRANSFORMED. I think about that word a lot as I check the French weather and ponder how I’m going to pay for four years at the small liberal-arts college where Marcy finally matriculated (hereafter known as “Dicklenburg” in these pages). The college has these “Outreach Orientation” programs just before the semester starts where you go kayaking or backpacking or rock climbing and bond with some fellow freshmen. Doug and Marcy backpack together every summer, hard-core backpacking where they eat desiccated meat and have to crap in little holes they dig. She loves it. So … “Are you interested in this?” I ask her when we get the brochure, right before she leaves for Paris.

She looks at me in horror. “God, no. I don’t want to meet people that way. What would we have in common?”

“That you like to backpack, and you’re all going to Dicklenburg?”

“You wouldn’t have done that when you were my age,” my little reincarnation says shrewdly. And she’s right. That’s the bitch about parenting — you have all the benefit of hindsight at the same time you’re reliving vicariously, through your child, the most exquisitely gauche years of your existence. You can see so clearly what that child should do to rise above the paralyzing discomfiture of embarrassment and shyness and self-consciousness. And at the same time, you understand why she can’t, and won’t. It’s what makes life with teenagers such torture for all involved.

OUR WORLD TRAVELER’S week is up. I get a call from her cell phone, and hurry to the high school to pick her up. My heart is beating: Trans-formed. Trans-formed. I picture her returning as a cross between Audrey Hepburn and Paris Hilton, blithe and unflappable, with a bored, blasé veneer laid over her usual excitable teen self. I envision her having acquired a Gallic fashion sense as well, exchanging her tight jeans and skimpy t-shirts for chic capris and boat-neck cotton sweaters.

There she is on the sidewalk — no capris, just sweats and a hoodie and an overflowing suitcase and big circles under her eyes. I pull up and hop out.

“Well?” I ask, beside myself with excitement. “How was it?”

Awww-ful,” she declares. “Horrible. Terrible. Awww-ful!”

I’m stunned, breathless. It’s the last thing I expected. “Awful?” I manage to say as we get in the car. “Why?”

“They hated me,” she says.

“Your friends?” I ask, perplexed.

“No! The French! They’re the meanest, most horrible people in the world!”

I fight an urge to laugh. “You must have been imagining things. Why would they hate you?”

“I don’t know, but they did! They could tell I was American even before I said anything. They’d just look at me and know. And they’d talk about me. I could tell they were talking about me.”

A paranoid in Paris. “Well,” I say, “everyone knows the French are snobs. But besides that, how was it? How was the food?”

Aww-ful,” she says again. “When we ate with the tour guide, we were all served the exact same meal. Chicken — everyone would get served chicken! We couldn’t even order from the menu. And when we were on our own, nobody would go anywhere but McDonald’s.”

I try to remember the itinerary, search for something positive. “What about the hotels? That converted 13th-century abbey you stayed in must have been — ”

“Oh, God, that place was a total pit. Dis-gust-ing. Dirty and dark and cold. And it rained, Mom. It rained the entire time we were there.”

I can call her on this, at least. “That’s not true! The second day in Paris, it was sunny and 64 degrees.”

“Sixty-four degrees is not warm! Not in Paris. Not when the French are so mean!”

All I can think of is the money — all that money, money we really can’t afford what with Dicklenburg looming, money meant to give her the glorious experience of being a world traveler, to stamp her the same way her passport has been stamped: sophisticate, cosmopolite, girl-of-the-world. Paris Hingston. I suppose I did want her to be transformed after all. And instead, her Grand Tour has just confirmed her instincts that the greater universe out there is a harsh, unwelcoming place. I second-guess, bitterly: Why the hell did the school decide on a trip to France? Why not to Spain, or Italy — or Bulgaria, where, I hear, they adore Americans? Now she’s scarred for life.

And yet there’s this little seed of pride deep down inside me, this small hard kernel of joy that she is so much like me. Oh, sure, it totally sucks that she’s so thin-skinned and self-conscious and timid, and that this (expensive!) foray has only made it less likely she’ll ever do a semester abroad. But on some totally irrational, biological, evolutionary level, I feel only delight and vindication that my wuss genes have triumphed. That I live on in her! I want to sing, like Sinatra: No, they can’t take that away from me.

Then she sits up in her seat, and her sleepy eyes widen. “You know what, though?” she says. “I’m not going to be scared at all to go to Dicklenburg now. Because the people there could never be as mean as the people in France.”

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