Coffee with Mimi

By MIMI BECKER

Everyone is from somewhere else.  Unless you are fully Native American you are descended, at least in part, from someone who came from another country.  If the recent ad campaign for DNA testing is any indication, there is a decided uptick in the quest for knowledge of personal ancestry.  It seems many are surprised to find their story is different from that which has been shared through the years.

    That seems curious to me.  Our family, on both sides, has always been interested in our heritage.  A family member did go through the chemical process and within a few percentage points, our ancestry is just what we had expected.  We are fairly equally English, German and Italian with the usual smattering of this that and the other.  

        By the time you read this column, I will be back from my Spring Break adventure to London and Paris.  In my life I have been lucky enough to have travelled both around the United States and to other countries. Each trip was special in its own right, reflecting my place in life and shaping my curiosity and philosophical growth through the years.

    My first trip abroad was while I was of high school age. Historically speaking that was 25 years after the end of World War II.  As planning for my current trip progressed, I began reflecting on the world then and the world now.  Given the the fact that I was a teenager then and I am a retired grandmother now with a few experiences under my belt, not to mention having read a few books,  I wondered how I would be viewed and how I would view these two countries which have experienced much over the years since my first visit.  

    On my first trip, I lived for several weeks with an aunt and uncle in a quaint little village outside of London.  Letchworth is a short train commute to London.  It was a wonderful opportunity.  My experience was more that of a resident than a tourist.  We lived in what be the quintessential English village.  The houses were Tudor in style, the shops were small and mostly carried specialty items staffed with real service people.  Large department stores were beginning to populate the towns.

    The Post Office was the center of mail and some banking activity where I exchanged dollars for pounds and bought those tissue thin papers that folded into a mailing envelope.  The local cricket club had a social one Saturday night.  We went to an auction where I bid on, and won, an antique cast iron mechanical bank for my dad.  Apparently travelers weren’t concerned about weight limits on luggage in those days.

     We shopped and ran errands to mind a home for a family with three school aged children.  My aunt and I would take the train into London about once a week to tour the historic sites and shop.  One of my favorite places, of course, was Harrods.  

    Harrods is, and was, the largest department store in the world.  To a teenager it was magical.  I bought a Scottish kilt which I still have to this day.  I was waited on by a staff of several very polite British gentlemen, who I am quite sure were so attentive due to the novelty of a young American customer.   

    Towards the middle of my visit, we all piled in the car and rode the Hovercraft over to drive around the countryside of Belgium, France, Germany and Luxembourg.  We stayed one night at a bed and breakfast on the banks of the Mosel River eating wienerschnitzel on an open air stone terrace.  It was delicious I am sure, but how could it not be?  The sun was setting on the grape vines which lined the side of the hills rising from the river. There was no superhighway in sight or sound.

    Today, London is still the city which draws millions of Americans to drink in the history of our shared past. However, London is frantic.  I simply do not remember the masses of people rushing here and there (talking on cell phones now).  Could my memory be that faulty or is life that much changed?  I think it is a bit of both.

     I simply had to go to Harrods, of course.  There was a plan in mind for a specific item, or two and in my memory if it was to be gotten, it would be gotten at Harrods.  

    Oh, my!  The attendants were still as absolutely attentive as many years ago.  No fewer than three assisted me in my search for a piece of fabric for a project.  However, this time there were two impeccably dressed young gentlemen with decidedly International flair and an absolutely gorgeous young women in traditional, exquisite and obviously expensive Muslim dress.  In that particular department, there was no sale.  

    Three stops later, I was assisted by, again, an incredibly polite, impeccable and helpful young man who searched the entire department to locate a single tea towel.  The sale was completed (Do you have a Harrod’s card?) for the sum of 17 pounds, with today’s exchange rate that is about $21.00.  To put the purchase in perspective, a set of pillow cases was 124 pounds.  I like my current stock just fine.

    The Harrods of today is a mega store filled with every imaginable luxury item from every corner of the world and catering to an international clientele of shoppers for whom a simple length of fabric is probably immaterial.  They are however, completely dedicated to making every sale a pleasant experience and every employee was faultless in attention to me.  What a relief.   

   Today there is Paris.  For reasons unclear to me, I wasn’t sure I was prepared to like Paris. It isn’t in my DNA.   I was skeptical of the purported “magic” of the place.  There can’t really be any truth to that thing about light.  I wanted to analyze the history and the culture of a country at the center of a Europe in a  changing world.  My visit was to be academic in nature.

    Well, the evening light over Notre Dame on the banks of the river surrounded by budding trees is pretty close to perfect.  We strolled the little streets around the square, able to have a conversation with those around us not worried about being knocked down by someone talking into a phone.  We walked for hours, covering miles of the city.  Clearly, this is a city which is proud of its place in history, defiant of a world swirling around it.

    Everywhere, Pariesiennes are out eating at the famous cafes, shopping at bookstores, visiting their own popular nightspots.  The presence of fully armed military personnel conducting multiple searches of personal belongings at iconic locations such as Versailles and Notre Dame does not deter the French people from participation in public activities.  Every search was conducted with good humor and cheerful conversation by polite and respectful guards and staff.  Please have a good day and enjoy your visit ma’am.

    I was taken in completely.

    As it turns out, some of those folks back in our family tree are from the Alsace-Lorraine region of France.  While those strong, practical German genes in our family often are clearly dominant, I can accept the fact that the light and lights in Paris can be claimed and appreciated as part of my DNA.