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9 May 2017

In Paris my mother, who is 90, disapprovingly takes a cigarette from my fingers – and finishes it

The rest of the weekend . . . well, I had better pass over some of it in silence

By Nicholas Lezard

To Paris, for a little weekend jaunt. “Oh, how lovely,” I can hear you say sarcastically, “and you calling your column ‘Down and Out’ and all. Wish I was that down and out myself.”

Wait, I say, it’s not like that. This is no ordinary jaunt to Paris. This is my mother’s 90th-birthday trip to Paris, organised by my brother. This is a three-line whip trip to Paris, and my brother, who is a living example of the wisdom of going into computers rather than writing upon graduation, will be paying for my Eurostar ticket. He offers to pay for my hotel, too, but I say I will stay for free with my great friend A——, who has a lovely little attic flat in the 11th, and a cat that I’ve not seen in years.

I also consider it prudent to put a little distance between myself and the surviving immediate members of my family. This is not something that can be done on the Eurostar, though, where we share a table and I reflect that it’s all very well having an utterly original, outspoken mother in situ in the family home, but it’s another matter to go with her on public transport, where, being American, she disdains the proprieties of the English middle class and speaks freely, and with a singer’s voice that has been trained to reach the back rows without a microphone. It is said that one of the symptoms of a certain kind of mental decay is a tendency to make jokes on subjects that are considered inappropriate. If this is the case, then she’s had it since at least 1970, when she told me the joke about Jesus on the cross being asked by one of the disciples if it hurt. “Only when I laugh,” is the Messiah’s withering reply, and my mother, also an actress, put all her talent into her portrayal of the disciple’s stupidity, and Jesus’s suffering. I was seven and that was the first joke I remember her telling me. You get the idea?

Anyway, at 90, she is still going strong, and don’t be surprised if in about thirty years’ time, not that I’ll get that far, you see a dimly familiar surname under headlines saying “World’s oldest woman”.

Meanwhile, to my friend A——’s. I stride off down the Boulevard Magenta from the Gare du Nord while my brother and mother take a taxi to their hotel. The weather is warm, and I am walking fast. Without a Plan de Paris – those lovely pocket-book maps by arrondissement which, from a distance, look as though they are leatherbound – I pause when I see a map on the back of a bus shelter and check that the route is as simple as I remember. Hilariously, the only place you can stand to inspect these public maps is in the middle of the cycleways, and so you have only half a second to inspect them before an enraged Parisian, pinging his or her bell, comes bearing down on you like a crop-duster biplane bears down on Cary Grant. I call A—— up and she says she’s not back yet. Her voice sounds strange, as if I’ve interrupted her in the middle of having sex and, as it turns out, this is precisely the case. Ah, Paris!

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You’d have thought the city would be in one of its funny moods, because the first round of the presidential elections is coming up and a policeman has been shot the previous day. The British press has been making a meal of this, but Paris has just gone “bof” and shrugged its shoulders. It has seen much worse (A—— lives just round the corner from the Bataclan, shot up horribly in 2015, and I pause to make a little hommage. There is a plaque commemorating the event, but otherwise it’s business as usual).

The rest of the weekend . . . well, I had better pass over some of it in silence. I had the pleasing coincidence of reading, for review, a thriller, set in Paris, in Paris; on the other hand, because I’d lost my debit card a few days earlier, I had to suffer the ignominy of borrowing hard cash off my brother for the trip, most of which disappeared on the first evening, leading to a rather tetchy exchange that included the memorable line: “We both had the same start in life.”

The following night, after a meal at Bofinger, which I can confirm is exactly twice as expensive as the Hôtel du Nord, but whose oysters are to die for, I lit a pensive cigarette outside: a filterless Camel – as it happens, the only filterless cigarette you can buy in France any more, it seems. My mother takes it from my fingers. Not because she disapproves of my smoking – though she does – but to finish it off herself. Well, she is 90. You can’t say, “It’s bad for you.” 

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This article appears in the 03 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution