In less than a week my wife and I are Paris bound. In two days we will be on a high-speed train from the south of France to the City of Lights. Arriving at the Gare de Lyon, one of the central train stations in the country’s capital, we will act like Parisians, and rather than hop in a cab we will join the throngs of locals on the public transit system and take the RER (Paris’s version of Toronto’s GO Transit) to my brother’s house just outside the city. We will stay with him for one week, spend one night in an airport hotel to ease the morning of departure and then… Toronto, where we will be greeted at the airport by our “couple bffs” and then driven to the house of “our boys.”
The past year has been a grand adventure, a collection of unbelievable events and places and people, and a series of ups and downs. But more than anything else it has been a test of wills, a challenge of everything I have known to be true about the world and myself, and more enlightening than I expected when we set out at the beginning of January.
Since we are rich in love and poor in cash, we have at times relied on the kindness of others for things that I had come to take for granted — restaurant meals, lodging and new experiences. And for the last seven days of our journey, we find ourselves leaning on blood family, something that my wife and I rarely if ever do, due to our perspective on assistance and the reality of our family trees.
I am the “love child” of my parents. Both my mother and father had previous relationships before they found each other, thanks to a party and some drunken antics that involved my father in drag and my mother as a Class “A” reveller. My mother had five children (two boys and three girls) from two previous relationships, and my father had three girls with his first wife. As love would have it, they landed together, moved to Canada – my father’s native land and my mother’s reluctantly adopted home – and had me, hence the “love child” moniker.
As with any blended family, and I use the term loosely, there were challenges. My mother, a feisty woman who is unable to truly see any wrong she may have perpetrated, was not warmly received by my father’s children, who were naturally mourning the loss of their nuclear family and protective of their mother, who was still mourning the loss of her marriage. And for many years my mother’s children were unable to appreciate my father’s strict rules and conservative views on life and how it should be lived. A confusing place for an only child with six sisters and two brothers, but the place where I grew up, the environment that informed how I see family and the perspective from where I often find it difficult to understand deep bonds between siblings and the need for parents and children to share openly their current phone numbers.
And even though in an after-school special, calling upon one’s sibling to put you up for a week at the end of a yearlong trip is not only normal but expected, in my universe it’s a crapshoot.
My brother has lived in Paris for the past 19 years. And the four previous times I have found myself in his hometown, I have seen him twice — once for lunch and once for dinner. There were no home visits, he did not bring my nephews who I have not seen in 17 years, and there was little talk of family. Over the years we have had sporadic email contact, often long missives recapping years of life past, but in all truth, we really do not know each other. I know that he was a Buddhist Monk in Thailand in the ’80s, that he works in the La Défense neighbourhood of Paris (one of my favourites), and that he is now an IT guy who can make international phone calls for free and who uses all of his France-allocated annual vacation of six weeks to travel the world, most recently to Sydney and Shanghai.
My wife on the other hand I know quite well. We have spent 336 days together, in a row. We can not only finish each other’s sentences but can start a conversation midway through, addressing the thought of the other that was never expressed aloud. That doesn’t come as a huge surprise considering we have been doing the same things for a year and for the past few months have been running the same conversations through an endless loop. What colour do you want to paint the living room? What box do you think my winter coat is in? Do you remember if we sold the slow-cooker? When was the last time I spoke to my mother?
Despite our obvious co-dependency, we consider ourselves to be good guests. We are respectful of others’ spaces, make meals to share and always leave behind a thank-you gift for our hosts. This year we have stayed in many homes of people that we didn’t know, or those we barely knew. And even though this home belongs to my big brother, it’s kind of like staying with a celebrity stranger. Someone whom I don’t really know personally, but know a whole lot about through third-party sources. I know his birthday but never call him. I know how many kids he has and what their names are but have never met them. And I have seen pictures of him at events looking dapper, and on the beach and accepting awards but don’t know what the awards are for.
Going to Paris for our grand finale though is not about reconnecting with family. It is about the Centre Pompidou, Paris’s elaborate contemporary art gallery designed by famed architect Renzo Piano; visiting the Hammam at the Mosque with steam so thick you can barely see in front of you; hanging out with friends who are living in the city; walking the streets of the Marais (the gaybourhood); renting a Velo and riding along the Seine; celebrating my birthday at a restaurant called Derrière that still provides its patrons with a smoking room (albeit through an armoire that makes you feel like part of The Chronicles of Narnia); and soaking in the end of our voyage.
Although starring in a Hallmark movie where estranged siblings, a lesbian lover, some nephews and a girlfriend discover they’ve wasted decades of good times and trans-Atlantic family love wouldn’t be a bad way to end.