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The Southwest -- so very ‘beeg’

Special to The Times

While my mother’s French cousins were visiting her in Denver before traveling on to California, they expressed a desire to see Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. With a tenuous grasp of geography, Mom offered my services as a tour guide, telling Tomy and Janine that from Santa Monica (where I live), Las Vegas is only a three-hour drive and the Grand Canyon just a couple of hours beyond.

Was it comedian Rita Rudner who said, “Neurotics build castles in the air, psychotics live in them and my mother cleans them”?

With a 60-hour window of availability, a reliable car and a willingness to use my rudimentary high school French, I agreed to take Tomy and Janine to Las Vegas and arrange an aerial tour of the Grand Canyon. I expected to show my foreign charges that, as we Americans travel from our most artificial commercial center to our most significant natural feature, we embrace both the ridiculous and the sublime. I didn’t expect them to show me that both places can be the same.

I reserved rooms at the Sahara and booked a Grand Canyon flyover for two. “Allons” (Let’s go), I said, and off we went on a toasty Tuesday morning.

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We drove east through endless L.A. suburbs, and then north on Interstate 15, past scores of tile-roofed houses sprouting across the highway from the vestigial grape vines of Rancho Cucamonga. In tortured past-tense French verbology, I told Tomy and Janine how the citrus and wine industries had succumbed to Southern California’s booming population and that urban sprawl also defined the Las Vegas landscape.

As we drove through the Mojave Desert, I explained how to tell the difference between low and high desert by the presence or lack of Joshua trees. I wanted to explain how they got that name from 19th century Mormons who found the yuccas’ signature configuration reminiscent of the biblical Joshua raising his arms to heaven, but you try explaining that in fractured French.

Not being gamblers or interested in shows, Tomy and Janine said that what intrigued them about Vegas were “les lumieres, l’excitation” (lights, excitement). But what these Parisians will most remember about America’s own City of Light is what Janine called, simply, “la chaleur” -- the 103-degree heat.

In our two-plus days, we saw a volcano erupt at the Mirage; watched a silly immorality play about pirates and sirens at Treasure Island; window-shopped at the swanky new Wynn for Maseratis, Cartier, Chanel and Christian Dior. Tomy and Janine admired the gondolas at the Venetian and enjoyed a snack at the Paris Las Vegas patisserie, whose bread Janine pronounced “authentique.”

At one point, Janine asked in perfect English, “Is Las Vegas a tourist trap?”

Well, as they say, one person’s ceiling is another person’s floor. Walking through the Imperial Palace, we passed a section where an Elvis impersonator was singing and pelvising from a tiny stage elevated above a semicircle of blackjack tables. All the dealers here were dressed as show-biz icons -- a fake Cher, a fake Tina Turner, a fake Dolly Parton. A sign identified this corner of the casino as “Dealertainment.” You try explaining that in fractured French.

We paused at a craps table. Tomy watched for a moment, shook his head and asked me how to play the game. Well, on the coming out roll, the shooter sets her point, a number on the dice that she must roll again before she rolls a seven, and everyone bets on her luck in that as well as her luck in rolling a variety of other numbers along the way, in a variety of combinations for a variety of odds, and, ooh la la, you try explaining that in fractured French.

Vegas -- on a full stomach

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Unfortunately, Tomy and Janine did not get the full effect of the Grand Canyon. Their aerial tour was abbreviated by equipment problems, so how much awe can you muster in a 10-minute flyover? They summarized the world’s largest canyon with an economical “magnifique.”

Still, they came to appreciate that in America, size matters. My cousins couldn’t stop talking about the distances between hotels and attractions along the Strip. How “beeg,” as Janine would say, everything was. How “beeg” the meal portions were.

The first night, we decided to eat dinner outside the hotel. But in 24/7 Las Vegas, the first two restaurants we tried off the Strip were closed at 10 p.m. Disappointed and embarrassed, I drove into the parking lot of -- mon Dieu! -- T.G.I. Friday’s.

Janine loved it: “Can we come here again tomorrow?”

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Non. Dinner the next night was classic Vegas -- a buffet at the Mirage. Americans are fat, I said, because of places like this. Whatever you want, as much as you want, 22 bucks. Bon appetit!

Janine returned to the table with a plate bearing lots of bread. She is the only French person I know who butters her bread. She asked me why, in this huge restaurant, there wasn’t any butter. Right behind our table was the bread station, and a huge bowl of thumb-sized butter curls. I pointed. She walked over, leaned toward the bowl and narrowed her eyes. She poked one curl with the end of a knife. “Ahh,” she said, realizing that American butter doesn’t come exclusively in a flat pat.

Tomy’s first course was gefilte fish; for people unfamiliar with this assemblage, it’s not a recognizable fish; it’s barely food. But plenty else was, although in true buffet fashion, it looked better than it tasted. Like good Americans, we ate too much and waddled out into the warm night to buy (extra-large) Cirque du Soleil T-shirts.

I was on my best behavior for this trip, and still, the ugliest American was me.

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The hotel gave Tomy and Janine an unrequested room upgrade; a shopping-bag-laden woman in the hotel lobby gave us her unused monorail ticket; two pasty-white people at the station offered us neophytes instructions on how to use the monorail. In the elevator, in the restaurant, along the sidewalk, folks stopped to eavesdrop and smile as we conversed in French. It felt good to share my country with such nice people.

“Americans,” Janine offered, “are like leetle children.”

“Pourquoi?” Why?

In French, she explained that Americans are curious, open and friendly. And that the French weren’t anything like that.

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The bottomless cup

The next morning on our way back to L.A., we stopped for breakfast at Coco’s in Baker, Calif. Janine scanned the plastic tuck-and-roll booths and the cheerful depictions of grains and vegetables painted frieze-like above generous windows.

“I like thees place,” she said. When the waitress arrived to pour coffee and proffer menus, she said, “Thees I don’t see before I come to America.”

“Quoi?” (What?)

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“She comes always to the table holding coffee,” Janine said. “Each time at the table she has a coffee pot in her hand.”

I nodded and leafed through the English-French dictionary for a word that wasn’t there. “C’est une tasse sans derriere,” I boldly ventured, only to be met with two blank stares. OK, you try explaining “bottomless cup” in fractured French.

Tomy and Janine were taking a train that afternoon to San Diego. At Union Station, I told them that it was built in the 1930s and that it is so beautiful that countless movies have been filmed there. This was my last chance to teach them something about my world, my America. Only as I drove home alone on the Santa Monica Freeway did I realize how much they had taught me.

That travel isn’t only, or even mostly, about grand structures and astonishing wilderness and regional cuisine exquisitely prepared. That America is about space and enthusiastic people who move through it, smiling; it’s about the way an artful portion of butter curls against the plate, and how one cup of coffee is really four. That lucky travelers can stay home and still see a new picture drawn by people who do not live here.

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