Wednesday, July 27, 2011

My back to the Seine, and my front to the Samaritaine

From ages one to five, my best friend was a twelve-inch doll with waxy blonde hair, blue eyes, and a pink jumper, on which was embroidered the name Corolle. Actually, it was a brand name (Corolle Dolls remain popular toys for French girls), but I interpreted it as the name "Carol" in French form, and called my baby doll just so. In time, her hair fell out in fistfuls chemotherapy-style. Her clothing tore off. But her plastic skin smelled like something delicious, and I kept her with me always.

My father bought dear Corolle for me in Paris. When I was a squabbling, chubby little toddler with black eyes and hair to match, my dad accepted a job at a laboratory there. My mother took me at one point to visit him, and his tiny apartment was the site of the most embarrassing photograph of me ever taken. It's me as a toddler, naked, in the arms of my also naked father. Both of us are in the shower. Thankfully, only the upper half of his body is seen. In the picture I'm crying, because I know that in fifteen years I'll be subject to my friends' ceaseless taunts in regards to this slimy nude shot. Other less incriminating photographs from that visit include my waddling with the ducks and chomping on baguettes, but understandably, the Shower Photo is the most memorable.

This month, I returned to Paris for my first cognizant visit. My dad was there too, twenty-two years later. My fourteen-year-old sister was also in tow, shuffling her feet and shuffling her iPod. Together, we trampled the cobblestone walks and strolled along the Seine, chowing down on crepes at every possible opportunity. We took in the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay, Notre Dame and Versailles. We stared up at the Eiffel Tower from the bottom, but didn't go up. Looking up into it, I felt like I was staring at the nose of an oncoming ship. "Can you take a picture of me?" English-speaking tourists would ask me in excruciatingly enunciated speech, pointing like clowns at their cameras. "Yes," I'd respond. "I speak English." Calm yourself.

On Bastille Day, my dad, my sister and I passed a dark building on the Seine with windows so gothic, it could nearly pass for a cathedral. "That's a department store," said my dad. "That's where I got your doll that you liked so much."

"Corolle!" I exclaimed. Instantly, I remembered her smell. She smelled like a dessert: fragrant, sweet, delectable.

"Samaritaine," announced my father. He likes to say French words. "That's the name of the store."

It was closed, so I remembered it and went back on a day when I was walking around by myself. I planned on tromping to the toy section to find today's version of Corolle, but to my disappointment the store remained dark. It was closed for good. With my back to the Seine and my front to Samaritaine, I imagined by stick-figure father in 1988, blindly putting one foot in front of the other amongst walls of boxed dolls, trying to find the perfect one for his young daughter.

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