File this one under “Stupid Shit Kids Do.”
The year: 1996.
The trip: 2 week road-trip around Europe, in the car, National Lampoon style.
Let me set the scene for you: I’m 11 years old, love wearing bike shorts and oversized t-shirts, baseball caps and white sneakers. My favorite movie is Aladdin and I’m crushing on JTT. My brother is 5 and a half, has a mullet, and is a huge pain in the ass. We have a film camera. My mother’s hair is permed. My father’s socks are too tall. And the whole reason for this trip, as far as I know, is that my dad has work in Basel, Switzerland, so why not turn a work trip into a family trip?
The plan: Fly into Venice. Drive through the alps to Switzerland. While he’s working, my mother will take us to a castle in Germany. After he’s done working, we’ll drive to Paris to spend a few days before taking the Chunnel to London, to hang out with some of my parents’ friends for a few days.
If you’ve never driven through the Alps in the summer, oh boy. You need to. It’s stunning. The photos we have from back then do not do it justice. If my memory serves me at all, it was one of the most gorgeous sights of my short life. At one point, we pulled off the side of the road and refilled our bottles with fresh, ice cold glacier water.
At another one of these stops, when my mother took the photo below, I did something. I did something really dumb. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was a smart kid. Gifted. But sometimes the smartest people do the dumbest things.
I picked a rock up from the ground, opened the back car door and, while everyone else was looking at the majestic view in front of us… I stood on the floorboard, leaned against the roof… and carved “Ashley Wuz Here” in the green paint of our rental car.
Maybe I did it to get back at my dad for lying to me about the squid. Maybe I did it because as beautiful as the Alps are, you can only look at mountains for so long before getting bored. Or maybe I was just a dumbass kid who wanted to rebel a little bit. I never did anything wrong on purpose, and here I was, doing something very wrong, very much on purpose. (I even spelled ‘was’ wrong, cringing as I did so, but feeling that much more rebellious.)
Upon finishing my handiwork, I tossed the rock aside and joined my family. We got back in the car and continued our journey through the Swiss Alps. And I honestly forgot about my little act of vandalism over the next few days. My dad went to a conference in Basel, we ate overpriced McDonalds, visited the zoo, and drove to Germany.
It wasn’t until we made it to our next destination that the whole sordid event came back to haunt me.
Our hotel was near the Eiffel Tower, and my dad left us outside to gather our things while he went inside to check us in. He came back out to help us load the luggage cart, and from the added height of standing on the curb, he could easily see the roof of the car.
“Ashley Marie Schwartau.”
When my dad’s mad, he doesn’t yell. His voice gets low. Sinister. It’s happened so rarely in my life that whenever I hear it, my blood runs cold. (In our family, my mom was the one who yelled, who kept us in line. And while my dad often needed to be kept in line with us, there were always those few times that “don’t make me tell your father!” was very effective.)
His voice was low. He wasn’t making a scene. But he was pissed.
“What is this?” He may have cursed, I don’t know. It wouldn’t have been odd for my dad to throw out an R-rated word, but there’s a big difference between parents cursing at something funny and cursing at you. If he directed any expletives at me, I’ve blocked that memory. It’s already guilt-inducing enough.
“Uh, I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” This was not an acceptable answer.
I can’t remember if my mom had gotten involved at this point, but what I do remember happening next is that my father gave me the cold shoulder. We had just arrived in Paris, were getting ready to go up to our hotel room in this amazing city, a city he adored and probably couldn’t wait to share with his offspring, and I had ruined it by purposefully defacing rental property he was legally responsible for.
What the hell was I thinking?
For years, this memory plagued me, gave me nightmares, as a shameful moment in an otherwise mostly spotless record. I was the straight-A student, teacher’s pet, the child who only had to be told once, the one who always remembered to say please and thank you, the one they didn’t have to worry about. Now, as an adult, the memory no longer induces a red face of shame, but it still makes me wonder. Not about my mindset, but about that of my parents. I can’t begin to imagine what must’ve gone through their minds as this happened; now we laugh about it. But then, did they worry about me? I was about to go into middle school and enter the dark years. Did they wonder if I’d become a sullen, moody teenager? Did they think this was the beginning of the end? Was my dad more pissed off because he’d have to pay to fix the car, or because the implications of my out-of-character behavior scared him?
I have no other memories from that trip to Paris. We returned three summers later and I remember a lot from that one: Euro Disney; going down the slide in a park even though I was 13; my brother falling and me running into a cafe on Rue Soufflot and asking for “la glâce! la glâce!” (that means ice cream… I should’ve asked for les glâçons).
But Paris in 1996? Zilch. Nada. Rien. Except that my dad did not speak to me.
Okay, maybe that’s not entirely true. I remember crying on the curb outside the hotel. I remember my mother comforting me, but still giving me the “how could you?” look. I remember her trying to talk to him, and later in the hotel room telling me to give him time, that he was very disappointed. And I remember buying a forest green permanent marker to try and fill in my bad decision before returning the car to the rental company and hopping on the train to London.
Whatever my reason was for writing my name on the car, and acting so unlike myself, it was not my only act of vandalism. On our return trip to Paris, in 1999, my brother and I joined masses of tourists before us and wrote our names on the Eiffel Tower. We didn’t get in trouble that time. And that trip, and every subsequent visit to Paris, has more than made up for the first one.
In just a few weeks, I’ll be returning to the City of Lights for the first time without my dad. It has become one of my favorite places in the whole world, and this time I get to share it with someone I love. Thankfully, we’re not renting a car, or else I might worry about karma paying me back. 🙂 Though, perhaps in the future, should Justin and I have offspring of our own, we should think twice about taking them on any road trips. And always check their pockets for rocks.