Sunday, August 21, 2005

Travels With Mother

I found this article from the New York Times to be quite touching. From a customer service standpoint, there's no doubt that the woman's mother was a total bitch, but her daughter is able to turn the tone of the piece around at the very end.

TRAVELS WITH MOTHER; When Luxury Is de Rigueur, Only Real Castles Will Do
Published: August 7, 2005

ON my childhood trips, there was First Class, Deluxe Class and Mother's Class. My mother didn't just arrange a meal in Rome; she reserved fettuccine at Alfredo's. She collected hotels the way other women collect jewelry, racking up holidays at the George V, Carlton, Claridge's, Hassler, Cipriani, Costa Smeralda, Voile d'Or, La Reserve. In her view, travel was a privilege not to be squandered by booking stingily or mechanically. And to my lasting gratitude, she believed firmly in taking along the children.

Parents may think children won't remember much of anything after being taken on holiday, but I recall every detail. Mother made our trips unforgettable -- even if that required, as it frequently did -- torturing the concierge.

My sister and I learned about foie gras and Champagne aboard the France. Mother arranged a private trek for us to the oracle at Delphi. We played vicious croquet on the green lawns of Barbados and sipped Swiss hot cocoa on a balcony with a 180-degree view of the Alps. In Spain, Mother induced the hotel chef to show us how to make a small-batch version of his tasty gazpacho Andaluz, a dish I still make today.

When we came home from school, our mother, surrounded by travel brochures, would be talking too loudly on the phone to Paris, Rome, the Algarve or the Galápagos, and in a foreign language comprehensible only to her, a cockeyed combination of French and Italian and smatterings of other languages in which she also had no fluency. Our father often went abroad on business, and she saw her job as making sure each trip was as luxurious and expensive as humanly possible -- and also included her and, when possible, my sister and me.

Mother gleaned the most from every moment, as she showed most graphically the day in Paris when she lost track of time and we arrived at the Louvre less than an hour before closing. Instead of turning away, she took my sister and me by the hand and literally ran with us through the rooms and hallways. ''Don't look! Don't look!'' she ordered breathlessly. ''These paintings are not important.''

An artist herself, she knew the Louvre layout, and she put on the brakes only for Tintoretto or the ''Venus de Milo'' or the ''Mona Lisa.'' From then on, ''Don't look!'' became something of a catchphrase in my family. But to this day I never suffer museum fatigue. I don't even try to see every treasure; in advance, I track down the most important works and map the quickest route to them.

When I begged to be taken to Disneyland to see Cinderella's castle, my mother responded, ''Why do you want to see fake castles when you've seen the real ones?'' She reminded me of the palaces we had visited or stayed in: Hampton Court, Chambord Chateau, Montreux Palais in Switzerland. She wanted the genuine. And after spending fantastic sums, she also wanted her money's worth.

''Don't touch the luggage!'' she would bark to the porter who dared put a hand on the family's set of Louis Vuitton as we entered a hotel. While the rest of us encamped in the lobby, she would ask the bewildered desk staff for five different room keys on a variety of floors and inspect the rooms. Under her intense scrutiny, this room smelled of mildew, that room had a stained rug, those bathrooms didn't have enough marble. Success was achieved if she came back down and pleasantly told the bellman that now it was time to take up the luggage. Failure was when she asked in an icy voice for another five room keys.

When my sister and I were teenagers, we skipped a lobby encampment in the Bahamas, stripped down to our bikinis and went to the beach. Several hours later, when we returned to the hotel and asked for our room key, the clerk informed us, ''I'm sorry, but your family has checked out.'' This was a first: Mother had not only left us stranded in our bathing suits with no clothes or money, but had not even thought to leave a forwarding address. When we finally found her at the hotel next door, she was gleefully unpacking and chatting about how much ''nicer'' this hotel was.

But nothing compared with our trip to Majorca, where Mother took one look around the suite she had reserved and swore she saw bugs. She scampered into a taxi, with us teenagers in tow, and said in her best Spanglish, ''Por favor, take us to a new luxury hotel. Nuevo, NUEVO!'' After some aimless driving around the island, then still mostly undeveloped, Mother spied a sign at the entrance to a modest promontory. ''There!'' she told the driver. ''Go there. Hotel. HOTEL!''
''No, no, no!'' the taxi man replied.

Needless to say, Mother got her way. But when we entered the hotel, we found it absolutely empty -- no doormen, bellmen or clerks; no guests. After 15 minutes of wandering, we found the skeleton staff dining at a faraway table in the cavernous dining room. Catching the manager in midbite, my mother politely but firmly demanded to check in. He said he would be delighted -- but only in two weeks, when the hotel officially opened.

Not for a minute did my sister and I doubt our mother's ability to get us into the hotel. And she did. We were not just the first guests, but also the only guests for those two weeks. It was weird and wacky and wonderful. Every day, something new would arrive to complete the rooms, like soap and shower curtains, and my mother happily spent her time instructing the staff on how to run a luxury hotel. We had a glorious summer in Majorca.

It was only after I had started supporting myself that I arrived at a very rude awakening about travel. My paltry beginner's salary made Motel 6 barely affordable, so when my parents invited me to accompany them to the Hôtel du Cap, I soaked up the fabulousness, from the splayed homard at Eden Roc to the sparkling pool perched cliffside. My parents headed off to another paradise, and after a few days solo, I went to check out. Of course, my room had been paid in advance. But the clerk, knowing nothing about this arrangement, presented me with a bill that gave new meaning to the term astronomical.

I panicked. Regulars know the Hôtel du Cap takes only cash, not credit cards, and I had $100 in my wallet. Finally, the hotel manager recognized my name and whisked the bill out of my hands, saying in halting Franglais, ''Please don't tell your mère about this.'' How nice to know the effect my mother had on people when she traveled hadn't changed in my absence.

Now, as I spend a portion of every day on the Internet planning my next imaginary vacation, I think of my mother, who requires round-the-clock care and rarely leaves her room. It's a far cry from the dotage she had predicted for herself: driving a white convertible Rolls-Royce Corniche through the winding roads of the French Riviera with a small dog on her lap. Which is why I'm so determined to go where she no longer can, and so glad she took all those trips when she was well. It comforts me to imagine that, during those many hours she spends neither alert nor awake, she returns in her mind to those marvelous hotels and gives orders to the staff.


Sangroncito said...

A wonderful story. And a wonderful newspaper, I might add. Heaven to me is lounging in bed with the Sunday New York Times and a hot cup of coffee.

BeckEye said...

I'm so determined to go where she no longer can.

That line really got me. Great stuff.

Neil said...

Touching. For some reason, I think I would have liked to have gone travelling with that mother.