May I borrow a cup of sugar, Monsieur?
My first international trip was to Paris, at 27. My generous Norwegian boyfriend sent me there for one month so he could remodel his kitchen in peace. He had no idea what he was setting in motion: Since that first taste of long distance travel, I’ve almost lost count of all the places I’ve been. Though it took guts to accept the offer, Paris is where I sprouted my wander-lusty wings and discovered my talent and confidence in singing and entertaining foreign audiences. In Paris, the development of my many characters (for example Star-Baby of Paris, the fame driven country and western singer) originated. Paris is also where this non-traditional Seattle,jazz singing native spent the most time outside the USA. One month turned into four years, with several transcontinental flights to make sure my boyfriend was still waiting patiently. Four years is a long time to spend anywhere, especially when you’re young and clueless. Even though I was mature in many ways, I was still pretty innocent: trusting freely, making friends with total strangers, and going with the crazy flow and emotional upheaval that comes with gullibility. I felt comfortable trusting everyone in Paris at first, because I had to. Trusting hotel managers not to break into my room and ravage me, trusting what other people said to me in French as kind and encouraging, trusting that the child I heard crying in the apartment a few doors down wasn’t being beaten by her frustrated, cruel father. I remember waking up early one Sunday morning to the sound of a child’s cries. “No, papa…no, papa.” And then, screams and the deep sobbing of a child in desperation. I heard the slow, continuous blunt thuds that went on too long. I wasn’t sure what to do, but it didn’t sound good. I called my Swedish friend Gunila, who was like the older, wiser sister I never had but really needed. She worked in Paris as an ex-ray technician and practiced Reiki. She loved collecting eccentric foreign visitors like me, and was crazy bout her African boyfriends. She cultivated them, and married them all, which was encouraged and legal with certain African tribes. Ah Parreeee! Gunila lived about a mile away from my apartment. I phoned her uncharacteristically early that Sunday morning, telling her I thought the child down the courtyard from my door was being beaten. In an almost hushed tone, she explained that in France, they don’t take notice of child abuse. It’s private and belongs to the family. To intrude would be considered very rude. Uncomfortable listening to the cries, Gunila encouraged me, if I was so concerned, to go knock on their door and ask to borrow a cup of sugar or something. “At seven in the morning? How do you even say that? Pardon Monsieur, puisse empruntez une tasse de sucre, s’il vous plait?” I couldn’t bring myself to that level of obtuse courage. I imagined him saying, “Sure, let me just stop beating my child for a minute, and see where I’ve put the sugar.” After involuntarily eavesdropping, for endless moments, on this child’s terror, it eerily stopped. I felt a chill. Going back to sleep was out of the question, even though I’d had an extremely late night singing at the Hollywood Savoy, in Les Halles—a popular American-styled cabaret in Paris at the time. I felt sick in my heart and mind. Not knowing exactly what to do, but knowing in my gut, not doing something was wrong. I dressed quickly and went out. I walked and walked, and finally found myself at the River Seine, a calming place to really “be” in Paris. I stopped at a café and bought an espresso, and a basket of croissant. Later, I found out that if you eat one, it’s inexpensive. But if you mindlessly eat the whole basket that is placed in front of you, it’s not only expensive, but strange. I was so unsettled, and I didn’t really know the correct behavior—even about this little part of the culture. As the thought of that child’s distress flooded into my mind once again, I wondered "Do I just swallow this foreign tradition I perceive as injustice, like I did those croissants and their cost?"
The sun, especially bright, at the beginning of spring, contrasted with my dark mood combined with a hangover from the early morning’s frightening wakeup call, not to mention too much champagne sipping throughout the night while singing and flirting with strangers. Returning to my home, I happened to run into the father and his young daughter coming out of the courtyard. His austere look scared me. The girl seemed about nine, holding onto her daddy’s neck, for a joyless piggyback ride. Her eyes looked tired, red, and cried out. Our eyes met. Her face was empty, expressionless. His face, harsh and pale, cold, hard like a craggy-edged cliff, yet she clung to him. I felt an unspoken knowing in her eyes: She knew, I knew. I was embarrassed that I hadn’t gone to their door and altered in some way what was happening. I could always use some sugar. What was wrong with me, that I had so little courage? Was it my fear because of being a foreigner, not feeling the right to intrude? Was I fearful of his wrath—that he might beat me? I vowed in silence never again to miss an opportunity to stand up for a child being abused. Since then, in all my travels--Istanbul, Bali, India, Mauritius, Hong Kong—whenever, wherever I feel called to the situation, I have kept my vow not to be concerned with what anyone thinks. It’s less stressful in the long run. As an adult, who’s made it through a difficult childhood, I know how hard it can be for kids. Once in a while an adult made a real difference in my life. Part of me gained strength from this, and guides me to know this is what I am supposed to do--be a vigilant guardian for the vulnerable ones. Taking the risks to be an entertainer, to go to Paris, to have a career set in numerous cultures are part of what taught me to be willing to take that awkward chance that, at times, can change the energy of the moment to something better. Even in Paris, the most beautiful city in the world, I discovered there can be a call to step in and “borrow a cup of sugar.” Who knows? I might sweeten someone’s day. “Puisse, empruntez un tasse du sucre? “Merci.”