Zilla’s mother, who we call Amma, just sent us a message: “Hello from Katunayaka.” Katunayaka is the name of the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Amma is in Katunayaka because she is about to get on a plane to Dubai, and from there, after 9 hours in the airport, on another plane, to Seattle. She is coming to live with us. It is a long flight—from Dubai to Seattle alone is 16 hours.
When you are traveling half way around the world, it doesn’t really matter which way you go. Zilla and I have connected through Tokyo and London and Qatar. The last time we connected through Paris.
Before I knew Zilla, I never appreciated how complicated it could be to travel. When we met, Zilla had been living in the US for almost twenty years—and he’d just gotten a green card. This was fabulous. It meant that he didn’t have to worry about the technicalities of a visa. He could always come back to the United States—and me and his job. He could always come home.
But even with a green card Zilla was still traveling as a Sri Lankan citizen—or trying to. And because of Sri Lanka’s ongoing civil war sometimes that was hard. Without visiting the consulate, submitting tax information, bank statements, a complete itinerary and a return ticket many countries wouldn’t let Zilla visit. There’s a Japanese consulate in Seattle. That’s how we got to visit Tokyo. In Qatar and Dubai, Zilla had a landing visa only: meaning, he could change planes, but not leave the airport.
You know us. We love to eat. We’ve always wanted to go through Paris together, to visit France. But the closest French consulate is in San Francisco. Those were the years when Zilla’s father was ill. We were usually making last minute trips in the middle of the night to try reach his Zilla’s dad. We weren’t planning ahead. We didn’t have to time to get Zilla a French visa, or the energy or the money for vacation. As much as we wanted to, we never made it to Paris.
It is a strange feeling to realize that the man you love and live with and share a bank account with is not welcome in the same countries you are. It is equally strange to realize that their immigration status can change and all of that does too. In January 2010, twenty years after he arrived in the US and two months after his father died, Zilla became a US citizen. In Buddhist Sri Lanka families give an offering—a dhane—to the monks on the one year anniversary of a death. Zilla started booking flights. I remember him looking up from the computer. His face was full of wonder. “I have a US passport. We could fly through Paris.”
The way the flights worked out we ended up with seven hours. We would land in Charles de Gaulle at 7pm, take the train to Gare de Lyon station to save a few Euros and then catch a taxi and get something to eat. The plan was to splurge on the restaurant, take as long as possible eating, and then stumble back to the airport full and sated in time for our next flight.
Zilla emailed our friend S. “We have one night in Paris. Where should we eat?”
S lived in Paris years ago—and almost everywhere else that is wonderful to eat. He always knows the most quietly creative places. He used to organize rigorous tasting tours for his friends.
We got an email back almost instantly.
“The general plan would be:
-land, clear immigration, (7pm?)
-head into Paris (train or taxi, arrive at 9pm)
-get a late reservation at a bistro and eat for 2-3 hours
-head to a cocktail bar or simply wander around Paris, stopping at the occasional café
-taxi back to airport
-grab 2 hours of sleep
“I think you two would love Chateaubriand and as long as you make it there, you won’t care what you do before or after. I will call and get you a booking.”
Z looked at his watch. We’d been circling Charles De Gaulle for 30 minutes. Raindrops glistened on the small oval airplane window. Yellow lights mapped out the spider web of Paris below.
“We might not make our reservation.”
By the time we landed and cleared customs it was already 9pm. We headed to the train station just as the train was pulling out. Zilla grabbed my hand and we ran across the street.
“Taxis?” the driver asked.
“Oui,” Zilla said and opened the door for me.
The driver leaned back over the seat. His eyes looked like a child’s drawing of a seagull on the horizon. “Bonsoir monsieur.”
“Bonsoir,” Zilla said. “Le Chateaubriand, Rue 129 Avenue de Permentier.” In what sounded to me like a perfect accent.
“Ahh, vous parlez français.” The driver nodded deeply and entered the address into his GPS.
I jabbed Zilla with my elbow. “Vous parlez français?????
Zilla looked as surprised as I did. “I studied French at the Alliance Française in Sri Lanka when I was a kid. I didn’t realize I remembered.”
The things this man doesn’t tell me!
We flew down the highway. An accordion turn played on the radio. The wet road glowed with white tail lights. Then they turned red.
Zilla looked at his watch. The traffic came to a complete stop.
“Ooh la la,” driver sighed.
“Ooh la la,” I repeated softly to myself. “I don’t usually think of it as an expression for a traffic jam.”
“No,” Zilla said. We were now almost an hour late. “Not unless the traffic jam is wearing lingerie.”
When we reached the restaurant the curtains were drawn. Zilla peeked in the corner. Every table was full.
I looked around. A man passed us on the street carrying a baguette. Metal garage doors were pulled down over store fronts, some covered in graffiti. The sidewalk was glazed with warm yellow– not yet incandescent blue-cones of light. I wasn’t sure I wanted to just walk around.
Just then another couple arrived. Then five minutes later a third. Then the door opened.
The waiter wore an ironed shirt. He had a deep blue apron around his waist. His eyes crinkled. Then he said something in French that I did not understand.
Zilla looked amazed. Then he turned to me and smiled.
“We are just in time for the second seating.”
Delicious does not begin to describe it. And really, everyone was so kind.