Jennifer Coburn has always been terrified of dying young. So she decides to save up and drop everything to travel with her daughter, Katie, on a whirlwind European adventure before it's too late. Even though her husband can't join them, even though she's nervous about the journey, and even though she's perfectly healthy, Jennifer is determined to jam her daughter's mental photo album with memories—just in case.
From the cafés of Paris to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Jennifer and Katie take on Europe one city at a time, united by their desire to see the world and spend precious time together. In this heartwarming generational love story, Jennifer reveals how their adventures helped vanquish her fear of dying...for the sake of living.
"Brimming with joie de vivre!"—Jamie Cat Callan, author of Ooh La La! French Women's Secrets to Feeling Beautiful Every Day
"Coburn proves as adept at describing the terrain of the human heart as she is the gardens of Alcázar or the streets of Paris."—Claire and Mia Fontaine, authors of the bestselling Come Back and Have Mother, Will Travel
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About the Author
She has also published a mother-daughter travel memoir, We'll Always Have Paris, as well as six contemporary women's novels. Additionally, Jennifer has contributed to five literary anthologies, including A Paris All Your Own.
Jennifer lives in San Diego with her husband, William. Their daughter, Katie is currently in graduate school. When Jennifer is not going down historical research rabbit holes, she volunteers with So Say We All, a live storytelling organization, where she is a performer, producer, and performance coach. She is also an active volunteer with Reality Changers, a nonprofit that supports low-income high school students in becoming the first in their families to attend college.
Read an Excerpt
"Jail?!" my husband William shouted through the telephone.
"We were never actually in a jail cell," I explained, now safely back in our hotel room. "It was just a warning."
"A warning?" His incredulity was clear despite the crackling reception of our overseas connection. "From a police officer?"
"After you and Katie were arrested?"
"Detained," I replied.
He sighed audibly.
I probably should have known that climbing over a playground fence was illegal, but other families had jumped first, I explained. "I was trying to be one with the culture, do as the French were doing."
"Was there a lock on the gate?" William asked.
"Listen, in any culture around the world, a locked gate means don't enter," he said. "It's universal, got it? Locked gate equals go away. It never means hop over. How is Katie?"
"She's relieved they didn't get her name," I said. "She was concerned about having a record at eight years old."
William laughed at how similar he and his daughter were. "Did they book you? How did you get out?"
"One of the other...prisoners started yelling at the officer, and I think I kind of annoyed him by making a stupid reference to Jerry Lewis. I think he just got tired of dealing with us and decided to let the whole group of us go."
"Jen, I've got to tell you, this is not inspiring a lot of confidence."
This sentiment was one we had in common.
A trip to Paris had sounded so adventurous when I was first talking about it a year earlier. People spoke about the city with dreamy longing, as though Paris possessed a magic that could not be found elsewhere. I'd never heard anyone talk about Paris without sighing. The city was a Promised Land that held appeal for most everyone: artists, lovers, even people who just liked cheese.
Sitting across the table from the French police officer, though, I wondered what made me think I could handle an overseas trip with a child. I didn't speak French. I had practically zero travel experience. And clearly I did not understand the local customs.
It wasn't as though we had money to blow either. When I told William I wanted to take this trip, he gently reminded me of a few things. Both of our bathrooms were in serious need of repair. In one, we couldn't use the shower because the water leak would further damage the sinking floor, which was covered with a board. Our forty-year-old kitchen looked like it had parachuted in from the set of a sitcom like The Brady Bunch or The Partridge Family, complete with a mysterious metal appliance attached to the aqua blue formica splash wall. No one has ever figured out what this thing is or does, but some have guessed that it was once used to cook meat. Our oven had two temperatures: hot and off. The dilapidated louvered windows let in more air than they kept out.
And yet overseas travel was, somehow, my economic priority.
I know why, of course. My father died when I was nineteen years old. He was forty-nine, and after years of getting high with fellow musicians, lung cancer finally did him in. Marijuana was his drug of choice, but as he often said, he never met a buzz he didn't like. He also managed a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit.
Since my father's death in 1986, I've been checking my rear-view mirror to see if the Grim Reaper is tailgating.
When William and I started dating, I warned him I was kind of psychic and knew I was going to be killed in a car accident two years later. He said he'd take his chances. Whenever my doctor tells me I'm perfectly healthy, I lament the state of the American health care system. I shake my head, saddened that doctors are so inept that they haven't yet diagnosed my serious illness. Early detection is the key to survival, and these guys are clearly missing something in all the perfect blood work, the spotless MRIs, the immaculate lung X-rays I regularly request.
William says my only illness is neurosis, nothing a few monthly gab sessions with a therapist can't fix. My mother, on the other hand, becomes frenzied when I articulate my fear of dying young. "You cannot say things like that aloud!" she shrieks. "You can't even think them. The universe hears everything and manifests our thoughts." Then she demands I say, "Cancel, cancel," and affirm, "I am healthy and vibrant. My body is prepared to live a long life of abundant health."
As much as I love my mother, her New Age style of health insurance grates on me because at its core is the notion that people who are seriously ill caused their condition with negative thoughts. If only they would adopt a can-do attitude and chant the right fortune cookie wisdom, their cancer would run scared, like Satan from a cross. My mother argues that the power of positive thinking has helped millions of people, but it's a bit hard to swallow when you've watched someone you love be ravaged by disease and know that no positive thoughts would have saved him. When I challenge my mother's beliefs, I keep it light, telling her that I think about winning the lottery all the time. "I affirm that aloud," I tell her. "I creatively visualize all kinds of cool things I'll buy, and it hasn't happened yet." After these exchanges, my mother shakes her head pityingly. "That's not how it works, Jennifer."
But what if by genetic predisposition, or past habits, or just bad luck, I meet the same fate as my father and never live to see fifty? Which would Katie remember more: a trip to Europe with me or beautiful tile work in our bathroom?
My friend Evelyn was given the choice between a trip to Paris and a Rolex for her birthday. She took the watch. I thought she was out of her mind until she reminded me of her history. She was one of nine children in a working-class Puerto Rican family in Michigan. Having that watch was a reminder that she was successful. It was a symbol that she had made it. When the choice was given, Evelyn and her husband were both attorneys living in a home so well appointed that then-presidential candidate John Edwards chose to host a fundraiser there. "The trip would be over in ten days," Evelyn said, "but I will look at this watch every morning and it will make me happy." She says she'd make the same decision today.
There are no right choices. There are only our choices. As for mine, I'd take Paris.
My plan was to jam-pack Katie's mental scrapbook with beautiful memories of us walking hand-in-hand through the sepia-toned streets of Paris, stopping to listen to an accordion player whose monkey in a red beret begged us for tips. We would ride bikes, me holding a baguette, Katie a red balloon. We would see a mime and find him charming.
Whether I met my father's fate or lived a long life, I wanted to look at Katie as I lay on my deathbed and tell her it was wonderful being her mother. And with my last breath of life, I'd tell her that we'll always have Paris.
Table of Contents
Trip One: Paris and London, 2005,
Trip Two: Italy, 2008,
Trip Three: Spain, 2011,
12: The Dalí Triangle,
Trip Four: Amsterdam and Paris, 2013,
Reading Group Guide,
About the Author,