by Jeff Vize
What happens when a road romance becomes true love?
I had been traveling with Charlotte for nearly six months when we arrived in her native France. I had begun my trip in Japan, where I had spent the last year working, and met Charlotte in China a mere two weeks into my journey. Our initial meeting was pure luck—she barged into my hostel room one morning at six o’clock. But the next half-year together was purely by design: After a week together, we found it impossible to part. We ended up wandering through India, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Europe together. Now, in what seemed like a blink of an eye, it was all ending.
Our arrival in France marked the bittersweet end of a long romantic road for us. The thing was, we didn’t want it to end. There was something about this relationship that transcended travel. Enduring six months of 24/7 contact in the Third World is perhaps the most difficult test for any couple, and we had passed with flying colors. It made no sense to end it now. Our bond seemed strong enough to overcome the distance between her home in Paris and mine in California.
Of course, our decision to go long-distance wasn’t entirely settled when we arrived in Paris. Before we could make plans for any future together, I still had one important test to pass: I had to meet her parents.
Parental introductions aren’t a ritual that any couple is especially fond of. But the ordeal is particularly daunting when you’re a foreign boyfriend hauled in after a Third World backpacking expedition. I wasn’t even sure these people would know who I was. And even if they did know – was that such a good thing?
I had been dreading the meeting for weeks, and I was to the point where I could almost imagine the reception I’d receive.
“So you’re the scheming lout who took advantage of our daughter while she was depressed and lonely in China?”
“So what do you do in ‘real life’?”
“You know – when you’re not out seducing travelers in hostels?”
And so on. My anxiety wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d have been able to share it with Charlotte. But she seemed as nervous as I did.
“I haven’t introduced my parents to any of my boyfriends in years,” she confided.
I asked her whether I should feel honored or terrified.
“Well, they’ll probably realize that this is serious,” she said.
That settled it. I was terrified.
Our designated meeting place was to be Charlotte’s grandparents’ house in Paris. The grandparents themselves were on vacation for the month, which was fortunate according to Charlotte. If they had been there, we’d have been forced to spend the week in a hotel. That was just protocol: Fornicators weren’t welcome at grandma and grandpa’s house. Neither were klutzes. Before arriving, Charlotte instructed me to not touch anything.
When we arrived, I saw why she was concerned. The house was a three-story dwelling in the middle of the 16th Arrondissement, one of the swankiest – and stodgiest – in Paris. Seemingly every parcel in the neighborhood was occupied by 20-floor luxury apartments, except theirs. Gramps had held out in the face of multimillion euro offers for the land. Apparently tradition was more important than money. My fear level ratcheted up yet another notch.
The rationale behind the “don’t touch” rule wasn’t obvious at first. While the house was in a posh neighborhood, it wasn’t especially impressive from the outside. But looks were deceiving: The inside was like a museum. Every wall and floor was covered in wood so old it had turned black. The staircase creaked as if it held the weight of centuries. Every shelf, mantle and table held an artifact of some sort – a shattered amphora recovered from a shipwreck and covered in barnacles, a row of original-print 18th century books, landscapes painted before my ancestors even arrived in America, and unclassifiable trinkets from somewhere in the South Pacific. And these were just in the guest room where we stayed. I didn’t dare venture out into the rest of the house.
“We can’t leave a trace,” Charlotte told me. “They can’t know that you were here.”
I didn’t argue. But her warnings were hardly comforting. Meeting her parents was bad enough. Now it seemed I was also arriving at the gates of heaven, preparing to stand before God in sumptuous surroundings and to justify my presence.
“So,” it all seemed to say, “you have seen the sophistication and culture of our family. You have witnessed its class, its history and its pure blood. Are you worthy?”
I was clearly not. At best I felt like some sort of novel souvenir that Charlotte had brought back. (“Look, an American who actually left his country!”) At worst, I felt like I was an incurable fungus that Charlotte had contracted and couldn’t shake. I didn’t speak French, I didn’t know a thing about the country or its history, and all signs pointed to me somehow fouling things up. I just hoped I wouldn’t be shouted down with cries of “fornicator!”
Then I actually met her parents. And remarkably, for a brief moment, it seemed that all of my fears were misplaced.
Charlotte’s parents were less grave than the setting let on. They arrived with familial shouts of “coucou,” and seemed genuinely glad to meet me. They even had a traveling background of their own: They had just returned from a five-year stay in Madagascar, where Charlotte’s dad was working. Most importantly, they both spoke excellent English. This skill was essential in attaining my goal: Charming them. Over the next few days, I set out on my mission.
Charlotte’s dad, Olivier, was easy, but that was to be expected. Most guys imagine meeting a girlfriend’s father to be the most intimidating of family encounters. In the States, pop might meet you at the door with instructions on when to bring his little girl home and a shotgun to enforce the demand.
That’s the stereotype at least. But by the time their daughters are adults, most fathers are happy to buddy up with whomever their little girl brings home. Depending on dad’s disposition, a good boyfriend can represent anything from a drinking buddy, to a sounding board for eccentric political opinions, to a fellow football fan. It’s not too hard to bond. The oft-repeated cliché that fathers treat boyfriends harshly because they know what guys “think about” hardly applies when the boyfriend is marriage material. The dad’s more likely to be sympathetic: They know what you’re getting into, and they almost feel sorry for you.
Olivier fit this mold of fathers quite well. Sure, we couldn’t talk football because the word meant two different things to us. But alcohol has no cultural boundaries. By the first night, I was well on my way winning the family’s blessings.
Moms, unfortunately, are different. Even the sweetest and most unobtrusive matriarch can bare her teeth at an unexpected moment. As well they should. Despite all concerns about patriarchy, it’s the women who run the family. You’re in their house, stealing their daughter.
More importantly, though, moms share their daughter’s gender. They know what marriage means for a woman. They have ideas about what qualities constitute a proper husband. As such, they’re the ones you have to impress. This maxim is as true in France as it is anywhere – maybe more so.
I should have expected this, but Charlotte’s dad had lulled me into complacency. Then, just as I was getting comfortable, her mom, Cilette, went for my jugular.
“So you lived in Japan,” she asked sweetly one afternoon after lunch. “How long did you spend there?”
“About two years,” I replied innocently.
“Oh, it must have been very interesting,” she said.
“It was,” I said, nodding vigorously and wondering where this was going.
Almost as an afterthought she added: “Did you date Japanese girls?”
I glanced sideways at Charlotte. Her eyeballs seemed to roll back in their sockets.
“Um … yeah, a few,” I said.
“Of course, I’m sure you did,” Cilette said.
There was a moment of silence before Cilette resumed.
“I just wonder, though, how do you find European women after having Japanese girlfriends?”
“Well, I’ve dated Western women too, of course,” I said.
“Well then, how did you find the adjustment with Charlotte?”
I was giving one-word answers. Not good. This woman wanted information – dirt!
“I’m sure,” she said. “But aren’t Europeans more demanding? “French women can be very demanding, you know.”
“Mom!” Charlotte said, before rambling off angrily in French.
“No,” I interjected, “It’s OK. People have asked me about this before.”
It was true. The problem was, it was usually other men who asked me – and it usually came framed in a much raunchier context. It’s a hot topic among foreigners in Japan. My roommate in Tokyo – who, ironically, was French – once told me that he would never again date a European.
“Why?” I asked.
“Women are like cars,” he replied. “Once you’ve driven a Ferrari, you can never go back to driving a Volkswagen.”
I struggled to come up with a more appropriate answer.
“I’m not quite sure what you mean,” I began. “But I don’t want my girlfriend to be my servant or anything like that.”
My answer was too politically correct to close the case.
“Well, I don’t mean that Japanese women can’t have a mind of their own,” she said. “But isn’t the culture very macho? Aren’t the women expected to do as their man says? To please their men?”
I looked to Charlotte for help. She was beet red – too angry to talk. I was on my own.
“That’s the stereotype,” I said. “But actually, Japanese women aren’t as timid as you might think. Maybe even more aggressive than French women.”
“Absolutely. In Japan they say that the women run everything – the house, the family, the budget. The men are their puppets in a way. You should hear them complain about it.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“But the men are never home, they’re all out all cheating, and the women never leave the house. I’ve been there, I know …”
“Mom!” Charlotte said again.
This was getting fierce, and with each exchange it became increasingly clear that this was an argument I would not be allowed to win. My past residence in Asia was a demerit. Period. What puzzled me, though, was the root of this suspicion. It wasn’t anything I had said or done – they barely knew me. Had I breached some invisible cultural barrier? Was it this cultural purity thing? Did I break a vase? The fornication? I figured it was best for me to shut up – before I made matters any worse.
Cilette ended the conversation delicately with an announcement that it was time for tea. But my confusion persisted. Later, I pulled Charlotte aside and asked for an explanation.
“It’s not you,” she said. “It’s because of what she saw in Madagascar.”
Apparently the European men had made quite a sport of exploiting local women in the most repugnant ways. It wasn’t so much the prostitution, although that certainly went on. It was the married men – with wives back in France – who had multiple Malagasy girlfriends who essentially traded their bodies for food, clothes and pocket money. Their patrons were usually well past their prime. Their girls, on the other hand, were invariably beautiful, elegant and young.
And this was similar to Japan because?
“I don’t know,” Charlotte said. “She went there once or something.”
I thought back to my initial fears about meeting Charlotte’s parents and laughed. I had made it through two days without breaking a vase, spilling my wine, or getting any flack for being a jobless, homeless vagabond. Yet I was considered damaged goods because … some middle-aged Europeans in Madagascar were trading Western trinkets for sex?
“This is bad,” I told Charlotte.
“Relationships aren’t exactly easy when the girl’s mom hates you,” I said.
“Sure,” she said.
“Know where I learned that?”
Charlotte stared silently at me.
“Japan,” I said.
“Well this isn’t Japan,” she said. “French girls are very demanding, you know. We get what we want.”
“Oh yeah? What do you want?”
My answer came one year later, when we got married.
After that first meeting, I was a bit worried about how things would work out. But ultimately Charlotte’s parents accepted me unconditionally, and Cilette never raised the issue of my past residence in Japan again.
I can’t say exactly why the subject never came up, but I do have a hunch. Let’s just say that sometimes demanding women can be very convincing.
Jeff Vize is a writer who lives in Southern California. This story won the Gold Award for Men’s Travel in the First Annual Solas Awards.
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