17

Where the author and her mother travel to Switzerland to check a secret bank account.

Now Mother wants to go to Switzerland to check the secret bank account. She says that she wants to make an appointment with the account manager but would rather not call from the home phone in case it is tapped. So she leaves and comes back an hour later with an appointment date and time.

Since I apprehend a long journey on the road I suggest that we take a plane from Paris to Geneva and back, and rent a car for our stay in Geneva. But as is customary when I suggest something that clashes with her plans, Mother exclaims "Ah ben non!" So we'll cross France from Normandy to Paris to Switzerland. A long day on the highway.

We start in the morning of October 10. One of the last things she does before leaving the house is to put away some valuables in a hiding place in case the house is broken into while we are away, and for the same reason she puts on all her jewelry. She doesn't own nor wear a lot of jewelry, my father having never considered it a sound investment, but there's one piece that I like. It's a gold chain-mail bracelet as wide as a man's watch strap that closes with a gold buckle. Very simple. I notice it when we're on our way in her Peugeot Turbo because she wears it on her right wrist and during the whole trip it will be tantaliz- ing me. Yet I won't say a word about it. Mother knows that I like it and maybe she's waiting for me to ask her to give it to me. But I know too well how she reacts when I ask her for something. On the other hand, so to speak, I could pocket the sapphire ring without asking. Maybe she put it by the kitchen sink with the expectation that I do just that. Maybe she wants me to have it but she wants me to steal it instead of receiving it as a gift from her, so that I have guilt feelings together with the ring.

In Paris she leaves the highway at Porte d'Orleans and asks me to buy something to drink and munch on for the road while she has the gas tank filled. After I'm back in the car with my purchases there's a heavy silence where she is both tense and half-smiling. I don't understand why and ask if what I bought, a twelve-pack of Evian and some cookies, is alright with her. It's only three years later that I realize that she was waiting to see if I was going to ask her to reimburse me.

Then we return to the "p‚riph‚rique", the highway that rings Paris, and take the Autoroute A6, the Southern highway. Now we're on the road for good. My mother is an excellent driver and soon my apprehension recedes. The day is sunny and cool and I look forward to crossing different regions of France. I feel a visceral tie to my country. The place names sound like "home", the landscapes, the essences of trees, the breeds of cows, the architecture of the old castles, their stones golden in the afternoon light, all this is part of the foundation of my being. I have my camera with me and I snap away.

When Mother wants a cookie or a drink, she doesn't ask for it in a simple way like: "Can you give me a cookie please?" or "I'd like a cookie, please." She says "Je veux bien un biscuit." Which means "I'll accept a cookie." As if I were plying her with them, begging her to deign to accept them! She does not have enough simplicity to admit that she wants a cookie. She has to pretend that she's eating it to do me a favor! In fact she and my father have made ample use of this form of command. Instead of saying "I want you to..." they added "well" after "I want" and with this little word the meaning changed from "I want" to "I condescend to accept." So when she or my father ordered me to do something I loathed, it infuriated me when they "condescended to accept" from me something that I never intended to offer them in the first place. Example: "I condescend to accept that you stop playing and set the table." "I condescend to accept that you start doing your homework now." Etc. Or maybe it's just that she can't bring herself to say "please".

Along the way a tree-lined road ran parallel to the highway for a short distance. The trees were at the peak of their fall splendor, and alternated regularly between yellow, dark purple, orange and green. "I'm sure that whoever planted these trees did it on purpose!" I exclaim, as if my troubled subconscious were busy sorting out intentional and unintentional acts. Mother does not comment.

The night is falling when we cross Burgundy and I read with amusement and fascination the names of famous crus written on the highway's direction panels: Beaune, Nuits St. Georges... And I take pictures of the sky at nightfall because the French sky is so French too.

When we reach the Alps and the department of Haute-Savoie where I grew up and where my three younger siblings were born, I know that we're almost there. Geneva is just on the other side of the border, and now, unlike in the old days, the highway cuts through the mountains and spans the precipices in a more recti- linear way that allows a good speed and we'll be there in no time.

Mother gives me a map of the region that I follow carefully. When we pass a sign for the city of Annemasse, she says that it's the direction to follow, but Annemasse is not on the road to Geneva. She insists that you pass Annemasse to go to Geneva. The map says differently. I'm afraid that we're going to miss the exit to Geneva, which makes me angry, but at the last moment Mother switches lanes and takes the exit I had indicated to her. Several years later I'll understand that she was doing this, and what she did later and the day after, to make me believe that she wasn't familiar with the trip to Geneva.

After leaving the highway we arrive in a small, dark village and Mother stops in front of a washed out sign and asks why I don't go ask if they have rooms. They don't. I get back into the car with my stiff leg, we go a little farther and see another decrepit looking hotel. Mother asks me to inquire there. No rooms. We try three or four more mean-looking inns with the same results. It reminds me of the birth of Christ.

I'm just starting to think that all the hotels are full in this village when we arrive at a huge, modern and well lit chalet-like hotel and there, of course, are plenty of rooms. We have dinner and later in our bedroom with two single beds Mother's voice is so hoarse suddenly that she cannot speak a full sentence. She clears her throat every half-minute even after she has turned off the lights. But I'm tired, happy to be alive and I fall asleep immediately.


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