For the next few weeks, Kellen Burden will be covering his adventures in Paris, Germany and Switzerland, with his wife and parents. Together, they will eat. They will adventure. They will sing and dance. They will be asked to stop.
I come to in an all white room on an all grey couch in an all new city. I smell of dried sweat and disinfectant. My legs are wobbly and my vision is prone to bursts of static like a TV with a bad antenna, but I’m lucid and I am comfortable, free of the maddening tweep of medical equipment and the dizzying spin of a brain gone sideways. I right myself with effort, put my barefeet on the hardwoods. Paris like a row of teeth through the porthole window.
“Hey buddy.” My mom’s voice, pointed at me from the kitchen where I find her draped over the counter, looking worried. “How you feeling?”
“You want some scrambled eggs? A piece of toast?”
When you are recovering from a hospital stay, especially one that involved a good deal of vomiting in a less than clean hospital, any doctor, mother, or common sense enthusiast will tell you that you need plain food and rest. I am in none of those professions.
Ten minutes later finds us weaving through a crowded street in the 3rd Arrondissement with its youth and energy juxtaposed against its timelessness. Selfies and cheesemongers, Nikes and cobblestones.
Feeling squirrely in the foreign streets, I try to remember all the travel tips I’d read before the nap and hospital and the plane.
- Don’t smile at people, they’ll think you’re up to something.
- Don’t wear shirts with words on them. It’ll distinguish you as an American.
- Watch out for pickpockets
A man bumps into me. Is my wallet still there? Look down. Ah shit, I’m wearing a shirt that says BAZINGA on it. My wallet’s still there. Smile at the man. Three for three.
My dad points out a restaurant patio smushed full of happy looking people and I steer my one man shit show into it.
The host stands before me and I’m supposed to tell him something to indicate how many of us there are and whether we want to sit inside or out, but I don’t have any idea where to start and he’s being patently unhelpful in that department. A silence stretches out between us that would have been a testament to his patience if it hadn’t felt so hostile and vaguely enjoyable to him. I squirm. I should have rested. I should have had eggs.
But then mom jumps in, with some admirable improvised French linguistics and the four of us hack our way through an otherwise beautiful language to a table in the failing sunlight.
“How you doing?” Mom asks.
The waiter brings a bottle of water for the table and I glug it like a psychopath as though it isn’t for the table.
“Oh yeah?” Dad says. There’s a challenge in it that isn’t baseless and he’s right on the verge of telling me that we don’t have to overdo it. That it’s okay to just take it easy. But then his eyes flick down to the menu and go banging open like a firework and instead he says,
My stomach makes a sound like a car trying to start on an empty tank.
I spent the last 5 hours wretching into anything that anyone handed me. Nausea like deep rolling waves on an angry sea, trying to turn me inside out. I’ve always wanted to try escargot, but honestly, I don’t know if I’m ready to start cracking that whip at such a freshly soothed bronco. Smoke wafts through the seating area. Blowing in like sea fog from all directions. Tables pushed oppressively close to one another, foreign conversation like birds in the woods.
The waiter comes for drink orders and we point at our menus and he’s gone before we can turn the page to the food selections, but not before Dad can say “escargot.”
In the breaks between the plumes of tar smoke, I smell myself, stinky and stale and sterilized. Sirens somewhere far away, down an alley of cobblestone streets and whitewashed buildings.
“How was your flight?” I ask mom.
“Not bad, until we landed,” she says.
My wife started texting them from the plane when it seemed like I was having a stroke, but they were in the air too and their wifi hadn’t been activated. When they finally touched down in Paris and turned their phones on, the texts had come cascading down like tropical rain.
Kellen’s really sick.
We’re calling some medics to meet us on the tarmac.
We’re going to the Charles de Gaul clinic.
They’re calling an ambulance to take him to the emergency room.
“Sorry about that,” I offer. This was supposed to be their trip. We were just tagging along with them for the first half of it, and I’d thanked them for their kindness by fucking everything up right off the blocks.
“You don’t get to choose whether you’re going to be sick or not,” Mom says.
“Yeah, plus, this is an adventure,” Dad adds. “How often do you get to see the inside of a filthy hospital in a different country? And now, look!” he says, “Snails!” The escargot hits the table and the waiter is gone again. 6 snails with shells the color of the buildings around us, oozing pesto and steam.
Dad descends on them with a little fork. He’s smiling. Mom keeps her distance, but she’s smiling too.
So I smile. I take up a snail fork and I coax one of those rich little bastards out of his shell and chew it noisily and defiantly in my fogbank of cigarette smoke burnt brown by the setting sun, because Dad’s right. This is an adventure.
The rest of that meal is mediocre. A tourist trap of a restaurant that we walked right into. The steak is tough and the fries are greasy and yet it is arguably one of the most important meals of the trip, because it is the meal that sets the tone. During that dinner, we eat bravely and with abandon. During that dinner we do not complain. During that dinner we decide that we will be happy, regardless.