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Pop goes to McDonald’s in Centre Pompidou…

Being in Europe while Pop’s birthday passes today, I couldn’t help but think about his last jaunt out here. It was courtesy of my ex-wife and me. The time I spent in Amsterdam during this jaunt particularly brought back memories. In the midst of it all, I’d find myself grinning or laughing out loud remembering his antics from those fateful weeks he spent with us road tripping from Holland to France. But I also had to shed a few tears.

It all began with my ex-wife Mahi’s summer break from UF in 1995. She had become particularly homesick in the five years she had spent away from Holland since we got married. I decided that I too needed a proper vacation, and figured if we were going to go anywhere, it was going to be Holland. I didn’t even think about an alternative venue. Though we were rather broke at the time, we did have a credit card with plenty of available balance on it. We decided it would be best used on our summer jaunt, we’d figure out how to pay it off later.

I would only agree to make it happen provided we could make a REAL vacation out of it, and not just stay at her parents’ house the whole time. I also insisted we rent a car, because there was no way in the world we would depend on her dad to drive us anywhere. He was by far the most dangerous driver on the planet.

After some further negotiations, and discussion, we decided that renting a car, doing a drive through Holland, Belgium and France would be a good call. We would spend one week in Holland, go on the trip, then come back for a few more days before flying back to the states. It was coming together, and we were excited.

So our trip for late spring/early summer 1995 was on! I was excited to make the plans, reservations, pick hotels and all the not-so-fun stuff associated with planning a proper vacation. Being that I had just gotten out of the travel business the year before after my partnership imploded, it felt good to deal with travel stuff again, it had been awhile. I also found myself getting utterly thrilled about getting out of the damn lame-ass college town we were living in for a few weeks. Living in Gainesville, Florida will do that to you.

In the course of my planning, I called Pop to ask him about the possibility of leaving our car at his apartment complex and having him drive us to the airport in his taxi to save us a few bucks on airport parking fees. When Pop answered his cel phone, he wasn’t his usual peppy self. I asked him how he was doing, and he replied that he wasn’t doing so well. Business had been terrible for the taxis of Orlando. He was in a major slump. There weren’t that many tourists coming now that easter and spring break had passed. Worse, the ones that were coming were mostly renting cars, thus not needing taxis. I can tell he was pretty depressed. Even more than usual when business sucks.

After hearing him whine a little more, I remembered to ask him about the parking/trip to the airport favor. He said no problem, he’d be GLAD to help us save a few bucks while getting out to Europe so we can have a “great time”. I detected the usual sarcasm in his voice, which he’d always do when he thought I was spending money on something he deemed unnecessary. But this time, I also detected a bit of envy. Sounded to me like he wished he can go to Europe too.

Later that evening, after Mahi came home from classes, I hit her with a strange idea. Why don’t we take Pop along on the trip? If I can talk him into shelling out for his airfare, and maybe kicking in a few bucks for the car rental and gas, it would be cheaper for us. But more importantly, it would give him a much-needed vacation. For the last few years, the only “vacation” Pop would ever take was to head down to Brazil every other year or so to visit his family there. The last few times, however, he would just come back a little more bitter or miserable than when he left. Things hadn’t always gone so well while he was there. I thought a European vacation that none of us could even afford would be the solution to his doldrums.

At first she didn’t seem keen on the idea. But she agreed that Pop could use a break. She also figured it would be a good way to keep her dad off her back since Pop would be there to distract him. She also figured it would give her more one-to-one time with her mom. When her dad was bored or miserable, which was pretty often, that kind of time with her mom was hard to come by.

The more we talked about it, the better the plan sounded, she gave a thumbs up. I called Pop the next day with my idea. He immediately dismissed the idea as utterly ludicrous. He didn’t make enough money to pay his rent that month, much less go on a transatlantic jaunt. “No way. impossible.” “You’re crazy for going too, what a dummy.”,”Why are you bothering me with this shit!?” , “Leave me alone, I gotta work!…”. The zingers kept coming, it was clear he wasn’t a fan of the plan.

After his tirade subsided what felt like twenty minutes later, I gingerly reminded him that he did have several grand saved up from when business was good. Maybe tapping into a grand or so of that money wouldn’t kill him?

He laughed for about another twenty minutes. The jagged zingers continued, yet I pressed on. I persuasively argued my points with him: This would be good for him, he needed the break. Business was slow anyway! Turn in the taxi for a couple of weeks, save on the lease fees! I can get him a decent discount on the plane ticket since my agents’ status was still good! He’ll get to see Mahi’s dad (they hit it off four years’ before when he was in Florida for our wedding, bonding over whiskey and cigars). They can relive their whiskey and cigar memories while my father-in-law showed him around Holland. Then, we can jump into the rental car and drive through Belgium and France…

Pop was in the middle of another dismissive rant while I was talking, talking over me, despite my pressing on with my pitch. I didn’t think he was even listening. Yet, his rant came to an abrupt end when he heard the word “France”.

“France? You mean as in Paris?”

“Yeah of course Paris, we love it there, we’ll spend a few days there before heading back to Holland.”

Silence.

Pop stayed silent for a little longer than I was comfortable with. I chimed in, “Why, do you like Paris too?”

“Son, I’ve been to many cities around Europe with your mother. Many times we went to wonderful places, Vienna, Venice, Portofino, Lisboa, Madrid, Geneva, London… but we never made it to Paris. It’s probably the only place in the world i’d still like to see.”

I had always believed that he had gone to Paris at some point in his life, He was even somewhat schooled in French, so it was only a logical assumption.

“Well, here’s your chance to go, are you in?” I retorted dryly.

“Let me think about it a little while, let me check my money situation, I’ll call you back tonight. Gotta go, I got a fare.”

He hung up.

I didn’t have to wait for the call back, I knew he was in. Mahi came home from classes a few minutes after the call was over, and I gave her the news. For better or for worse, Pop was coming along.

So the final plan was for a trip that would last a bit over three weeks. Pop would join us a week later. We’d hit the road, and do a nice 10-day long drive through Belgium and France. Spend a few days of it in Paris. Then drive back to Holland, where we would spend another week, then fly home.

So now the plans were being made in earnest. Everytime I called Pop about a trip-related detail, he’d grumble about the expenses or costs, but at the same time I can tell he was a bit excited about the upcoming trip. It came time for us to leave for Holland, since we were leaving a week earlier than Pop, we would leave our car at his apartment complex parking lot in Orlando, and he would drive us in. He was again bitching and moaning about how bad business was all the way to the airport. We also ended up taking our cat Aretha with us to Holland because it was cheaper and easier to do that than to put her in a kennel for three weeks. This was going to be an interesting trip to say the least.

Pop says goodbye to us at the airport in a rather quick way. He notices that there weren’t too many taxis in line coming in, so he wanted to hurry and get a good position to grab a quick fare from the airport. Through the haste, we can both tell that he’s rather giddy about the fact that the next time he’s going to see us, it’s going to be in Holland.

The first week in Holland goes by quick for us, despite the fact that it’s marred by crappy rainy and cold weather in late May. Aretha doesn’t seem to care about the weather at all and spends most of the time either on the roof of the ex-in-laws’ house, or on their patio. Endless family discussions, debates, squabbling, the usual rivalry banter between my ex-sister-in-law and me ensue during the week. Before we know it, it’s time to go get Pop at Schiphol airport.

The flight’s on time, and we find Pop at the international arrivals area with his bags. The first thing I notice is his arm is in a sling. Turns out he strained a shoulder muscle a couple of days before while loading some overweight luggage into his taxi van, and he’s been in pain ever since. Not a good way to start a vacation, I say to myself…

We get him back to the in-laws’ house, where he’s greeted by everyone. The plan is to stay there that night, then head off for the road trip. He would do his time in Holland when we got back. The road trip adventure would start the next morning.

We set off early in the morning in our rented Peugeot to avoid any rush hour traffic while making our way to Belgium. The first stop would be Antwerp, where we would spend a night. Having our sense of scale rather distorted by the distance between cities in the US, we realize that the drive to Antwerp really doesn’t take that long from the in-laws’ place in Zeeland. We’re there in probably less than two hours, and that’s with traffic. From there, we make our way down to Brussels, where we would spend another day or so. We liked Brussels better than Antwerp. Pop finds he especially likes the beer, and the chocolate. Things are looking up.

The city was alive and the weather was good. We found ourselves watching some fun festival activity that included a local beer company using the famed “Mannekin Pis” statue as a way to give out free beer to the thirsty festival-goers. Good timing on our part, great weather, and free Belgian beer. How can you go wrong? After a fun time of sightseeing, dining, and drinking a lot of beer, it was time to move. We continue on to France. We spend the first day driving through the countryside, and staying at a nice, clean and cheap roadside lodge. On our second night in France, we make it to Paris.

Our initial hotel arrangements fell through for some reason. We think it was because we were quoted the wrong rate when reserving over the internet (booking travel by internet was in its infancy back then) and the hotel didn’t want to honor it. But it didn’t matter. We weren’t going to get the rooms we wanted for the rate we wanted. Alternate plans would need to be made, and fast.

The problem was that Paris’ peak tourist season was almost in full swing. Most hotels were filled up or getting there, making the rates rather lofty. We managed to find a decent room close by the center, but it was a bit over our budget. Worse, we can only get one room, so we had to share a room with Pop. This quirk caused quite a trial for obvious reasons. But the real reason would be due to Pop’s incessantly loud snoring. Having shared rooms with him many times in the past, I had forgotten how atrocious his snoring was, until then, that is. It was clear that this situation wasn’t going to work. At least not for long.

We opted to move to a hotel a little more outside of the center so we can have separate rooms. We ended up near St. Denis, which was accessible enough to the City Center via Paris’ metro and trams, but far enough where room rates were fairly affordable. Plus the hotel had free parking for the rental car so we wouldn’t get killed when parking the car around the city. Making the change was our trip’s salvation.

The next few days involved just taking in all of the typical sights of Paris. We went to the Eiffel Tower, Champs d’Elysee, Rue d’ Rivoli among other places. We bought tickets for the convenient ParisBus so it would be easy for us to get around town. We walked along the River Seine, drank lots of wine, ate lots of great cheese, and tried to make the best of Paris on our limited budget. While dinners were farely pricey, we managed to eek out some great French Cuisine at prices we could live with.

We spared no expense, time, money, or otherwise, however, at the Louvre. While most people wanted to just swing by the main attractions like the Mona Lisa and Michaelangelo’s David and get out, we wanted to see the whole museum. It would take us two FULL days. I was actually surprised to see that even during the latter part of the second day that Pop didn’t get “museum’ed out” like even I was starting to. It was refreshingly fun to watch Mahi and him discuss different types of art, and the surrounding history, and other related subjects. We were both actually impressed at how much Pop knew about the subjects and topics. We had many great discussions, and lots of laughs, during those two days at the Louvre.

Yet, there were times when Pop would get a little impatient or grumble about how much money he was spending. A few times, it got downright annoying, and it would turn into an argument over something stupid. Things ended up not always being hunky-dory during the time in Paris. There were quite a few rough spots, oddly enough.

Watching Pop in Paris was a fascinating if not always a pleasant thing to do. At times we can see how happy he was to be walking the streets he had always dreamed about walking on. He would have moments of complete awe at the scenery and the architecture that is unique only to Paris. I remember him almost coming to tears standing outside Notre Dame, though he did his best to try to hide it behind his glasses.

Other times, he would get rather brooding and impatient, and very negative. I tried to figure out why, and it would just somehow make matters worse when I asked why he was being like that.

One particular afternoon, Pop decided on what we considered the rather repulsive idea of having lunch at McDonald’s. In Paris. Our looks back at him more than reflected our utter disdain for his idea. He bitched that he wanted to go to McDonald’s until we finally agreed to go. For awhile there, it felt like Pop reverted to age five to get what he wanted. Our eyes rolled and we cringed at the concept of setting foot in one on such hallowed gastronomic grounds.

When we got there, Pop was thrilled beyond words that he can order a beer or wine with his LeBig Mac Combo meal. For the first five minutes of his lunch, all he could do was marvel at the fact that he was having a cold Kronenbourg in a Mickey D’s with his well-warmed burger. It was almost a religious experience. Mahi and I looked at each other and decided that maybe coming to McD’s in Paris may not have been a bad thing after all. To see it make him this happy was probably worth the horrific dining faux pas we were committing.

Unfortunately, the joy was short-lived. Some unknown random thing was said, triggered an emotional response, and Pop reverted back to his cranky, brooding self. I found myself losing patience.

“What is your problem? A minute ago you were happy, you were enjoying yourself! What now?”

“Tony, you wouldn’t understand.”

“Understand what?” It sounded like he wanted me to probe a little bit. “Explain it to me!” I was almost yelling now.

“My life! If you had asked me 30 years ago if I was going to be driving a taxi to make ends meet, I would have called you crazy. There were so many things I wanted to do, especially for you kids, that I couldn’t do, and now it’s too late.”

Ok, so I didn’t expect his answer to be quite so existential.

“I have been struggling my whole life, broke my back, made so many stupid mistakes, and for what? So I can be stressed, tired and broke at the end of my life? Driving a cab twelve hours a day, six-seven days a week? So I can be distanced from my own children (he had been going through a recent rough spot with my brother at the time)? What was it all for?” He bowed his head down in dramatic self-sorrow.

I found it odd that he was telling us all this with a Big Mac in one hand, and a large cup of sweating beer in the other, in a McDonald’s by the Centre Pompidou. But that’s how it all unfolded.

Though I was a bit annoyed at his self-flagellating, I tried to take the rough edges off.

“Pop, so things didn’t turn out the way you wanted them to. That’s life. It’s still not too late. You still have lots of life to live, and time to do the things you want to do.”

“Nahhh… it’s too late for me. I’m out of time…”, I of course asked him if he found out he was dying or something.

“No, nothing like that… ”

“Then what?”

“I just feel like I wasted all my chances, and that I’m out of time.”

During the tirade, I think I figured him out. His being in Paris was a bit of a reminder of dreams past that never came to be. Somehow, his being there now, spurred some feelings and aspirations he had long associated with Paris. Being here forced him to come to terms with all the failures, real or imagined, that he had incurred through his life. I wasn’t sure why that was, only he can answer that to himself.

Let me repeat that this was all happening in a McDonalds’ over by Centre Pompidou.

“Ok listen, you’re not dying, we’re glad to hear that. You’re still here, and you still have plenty of time to at least do things that you want to do.” I tried to be pragmatic, “And besides, you’ve also been pretty lucky in your life too, you know. Lots of GOOD things have happened to you, maybe you should focus on that a little more?”

Pop just kept shaking his head, dismissing what I was saying, and it was making me a bit angry.

“Your life is not over yet. Look at yourself! You’re in fucking Paris eating a fucking Big Mac and having a fucking BEER!” I might have gotten a little loud during that last part, because the rest of the dining room got a bit quiet.

Pop looked at me a bit surprised, kept his brooding face a little longer, for maybe a minute, but didn’t say anything else. Then, in his classic style, changed the subject. He turned to Mahi and asked her where that particular church she wanted to see next was in relation to where we were. The conversation went that direction, and even though I was still a bit irritated, I let it go.

The rest of the time, Pop seemed to be in somewhat better spirits. His cranky episodes didn’t get quite as bad as they had before the McDonald’s episode. He seemed to be a bit more at ease, and even bitched less about his shoulder pain. A couple of nights later, we were headed back to Holland to spend the remainder of the week there.

That week blasted by with trips to Amsterdam with the whole family, checking out the Delta Project, and seeing lots of sights and people. It was a nice week, particularly since the weather had gotten better since we hit the road. We had fun watching Pop and my ex-father-in-law misunderstand each other completely due to language barriers, only to have the misconstrued discussions end with lit cigars, laughing and more whiskey. Mahi got to have her solo time with her mom, and I even got a day of peace to go to Amsterdam and visit some old friends there. Before long, it was time to get back on the plane, get Aretha back in her pet taxi and checked in, and fly home.

Once we got back to Gainesville, it was soon time for us to figure out how we were going to pay our now staggering credit card bill. I had started my internet consulting business a few months before the vacation, and it had been slow going. I was going to have to work even harder to stay above water. Mahi managed to score a part-time job at the university which took some of the short-term pressure off. And Pop went back to grumbling about how bad business still was, and how it wasn’t going to change anytime soon. Oddly, we didn’t even talk our usual 2-3 times a week for a solid couple of weeks due to real life setting back in. I didn’t think much of it, because I was pretty busy.

One afternoon though, the phone rang. It was Pop, he was more or less back to his ol’ joking self.

“Hey, it’s Pop! What’s the matter, your phone broken? You can’t call? You forget my phone number? You should put me on speed dial by now. Obviously your phone didn’t get disconnected yet… hehehehe… ”

We joked a little, talked about mundane crap for about ten minutes, with me mostly telling him how I was trying to kick-start business, make some sales calls, get some flyers out, stuff like that. He bitched about business still sucking, but oddly didn’t seem to be all that down about it. Abruptly, my business line lights up, another call I had to take. It was hopefully a good sales callback, I had to jump off…

“Son, before you go, I wanted to… ”

“What Pop? I really gotta take this other call…”

“I just wanted to thank you. I wanted to thank you, for giving me Paris.”

7 Comments

  1. Maria F Altamirano says:

    You are a great story teller Tony. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Yeoman Amy says:

    Thanks for the story, Tony. I like your dad. My dad’s birthday was today, too. He would have been 71. You’ll have to tell me more about him when I make you drink a bunch of rum again in August. At least this time I’ll have someone to talk to besides Dino!

  3. Cay Hickson says:

    great story

  4. Elizabeth Gay Lannon says:

    Beautiful story, Tony. You were so lucky to have such a moment with your dad.

  5. Angeline says:

    Are you in Paris now?

  6. Tony says:

    Thanks everybody for the really nice comments… this one was a tough one to write. I’m glad I was able to pull it off. 🙂

  7. Lynn Langdon says:

    Although I love all your stories I especially love the ones
    involving your father. You write so well it’s as if I’m there.
    Please keep up the good work.