"..." Paris by jadedmuse
Paris Travel Guide: 22,161 reviews and 53,866 photos
How many of us are familiar with the hustle and bustle personifying the arrival area at any given airport outside our country? The cacophony of a foreign language broadcasting over a loudspeaker as people push by; the urgency and the emotions and the confusion and the orchestra of dissonant sights and smells…This melody tends to play itself out at any airport, true enough - yet Paris really brings it all together in a passionate crescendo. It might be a cliché as far as feelings go, but disembarking from a transatlantic flight into the Roissy CDG airport is one of the most exhilarating sensations in the world – like you’re getting swept up into a love affair beyond your control - as though there’s a beautiful, magical, unexpected je ne se quai around the corner just waiting to be discovered.
The problem after the first blush of this warm embrace is that first of all, it doesn’t last for very long; and secondly, if you’re like me, then you might just find yourself stumbling out of Charles de Gaulle’s arms and into the impersonal and ever intimidating confusion know as the Parisien metro. What an awakening.
What a reality check!
I remember arriving at 9:00 am in the morning, knowing I'd be leaving for Tel Aviv the following day. Sure, I'd been to Paris before, and oui, I did all the checklist things that first time visitors to Paris do. But this time, I had just a little over 24 hours in the City of Lights and there were only two things I planned on doing during my layover: 1. have a coffee at the Café de Flore and people-watch; and 2. check out the little Picasso museum in the artist’s former house in the Le Marais district.
After collecting my luggage, I decided to save some money by skipping a taxi and braving the metro into the city. I don’t have a good sense of direction and I’m not a good listener – but mon dieu! I was in Paris (isn’t that good enough just by itself?) and I figured I had plenty of time (24 hours in fact) to get lost and eventually find my way to the hotel where I was supposed to be staying, pas probleme .
And get lost is precisely what I did.
I found myself smack in the middle of Le Marais, throngs of people pushing past me and my bag behind me. I must have had that stray look on my face - I know I was trying to get my bearings and figure out what my next move was going to be - when I heard this voice above the din, "Are you lost? Do you speak English? Are you American?!" I craned my neck to see beyond the crowd, and there, a few people deep, I saw her – a woman, probably in her mid 50s, wearing a beige trench coat, holding a bag with a lamp sticking out of it (a great eccentric touch), and smiling sympathetically at me. The most natural thing to do was to smile back.
She pushed against the flow of pedestrian traffic to reach me. “Where do you want to go?” she asked me. I told her I was looking for a hotel on the left bank and had no idea where I was. She shook her head, "No no no....you are far from there. Why did you get off at this exit? Come. I'll show you." She insisted on walking with me down the block, across the bridge and all the wy through the next neighborhood to my hotel.
I can still recall what a gorgeous walk it was - it reminded me of a Georges Seurat painting come to life: the sun was brilliant, children were lined up for a field trip as we crossed over one of the bridges, some old men were puffing away on their cigarettes and arguing politics, the Seine river was shimmering serenely below - and the whole time, my new friend was chattering away "look at this", do you see that"....
We couldn't pass by a shop without her pointing out how lovely the presentation of the white asparagus or approving the fruit and vegetable arrangements; pausing to smell the flowers in the flower market; chattering about the Bastille which was only just down the road; sharing an appreciation of specific architectural styles and window treatments; talking about her brother who lived in an apartment on the Left Bank, etc and etc....she was a treasure trove of information – a true character, and I was getting a real authentic grass roots tour of the surrounding Parisien neighborhoods. I couldn't believe my luck in that she had all this time to shepherd me around - and that she spoke English so fluently.
And what a conversant companion she was - turns out she had lived in New York City for ten years, working at the Berlitz language school there. She was well traveled, well educated, loved Americans and especially New York, and had a great time telling me some funny stories about her life there a few years back. We actually got along really well and had lots to talk about....it was even a bit odd - like finding an old friend I hadn't seen in years.....I suspected she might be kind of lonely, missing her life in New York and eager for some fresh conversation. Sometimes such moments with strangers provide that window.
Eventually we arrived to the hotel which she insisted checking out on my behalf (completely unnecessary but I indulged her - she seemed to want to do this and it wasn't any problem for me to play the role of the idiot visitor) .....she didn't care much for my choice of accomodations, but agreed it would be acceptable for one night. She was just getting ready to leave me when she asked if I needed anything while she was there, as she could easily help me and it would be a pleasure. I thought about it and realized that in fact, I did need to buy a hairdryer (I know how weird that sounds. But I didn't want to tote along a ginormous converter apparatus...it just seemed easier to purchase a hair dryer locally). So I told her I was going to lay down for a while, then go out and find a store that sells small appliances. She seemed delighted by this and told me to drop my bags off in my room – and provided I still had the energy - she would take me to the discount store nearby where I could get my hairdryer without paying an arm and a leg.
So off we went, like two girlfriends spending a day shopping....I got my hairdryer, dropped it back off to my hotel, and by then, my new "friend" Christine had already decided (well, something tells me she might have decided this from the moment she first saw me) to forget about whatever it was she had on order to do that day, and stick around with me IF I didn't mind the company. We were getting along great and I still wanted my coffee and people-watching fix at the Café de Flore, so I told her my plan and invited her to join me. She was delighted. Next thing you know, we're sitting around outside, sipping our coffees and making all kinds of anthropoligical studies of French people, Parisiens in general, Americans, and the list goes on. We covered a lot of ground during the time we had a few coffees there. She was really funny and an engaging companion, no doubt about it.
When we were finished with our coffees, I was prepared to say "adieu" and move along my way (I still wanted to see that Picasso house and even though it was starting to rain, the thought of going back to my tiny hotel room wasn't very appealing - and I still had the day ahead of me.) I thanked Christine for her time and her company (what else do you do in such situations?) and I sensed she was reluctant to say goodbye, but such encounters are really no more than interludes - not necessarily anything bigger than that and no reason to pretend otherwise. We said our goodbyes. As I walked along the street leading to the Picasso museum (back on the other bank), I took my time browsing in some of the art shops along the way until eventually I reached the house. I started walking around and had gone downstairs to the lower floor to look at some things when I suddenly heard "Michele! Michele!" (my name echoed through the hallway)...I was shocked - because I recognized the voice (Christine!!). Was my imagination playing tricks on me from being jet-lagged or did I actually hear my own name being called out a moment ago?? If Christine and I had already said our goodbyes over an hour ago, how/what in the world was she doing stalking me at this museum now?! I didn't really know what to think.
I turned toward the voice which was coming from upstairs and met Christine half way down the stairway. Would you believe she had an UMBRELLA with her? She had come to give me an umbrella - afraid that I'd be walking back (and it was a fairly long walk) to my hotel in the rain!
I was even more shocked and feeling beholden...I couldn't believe she had performed this lovely act of kindness for a stranger....so, we proceeded to walk around the museum together, arm in arm, and she had the most amazing, funny (and very sharp) critiques about Picasso (not surprising) and we evaluated and compared notes on his works and also gossiped about his love life. By the end of that afternoon, I was sorry to have to get on a plane the next morning and leave. If there had been a way, I would have changed my flight for the following day – but I couldn't do that.
We finally did say goodbye (for real), after strolling through the museum and talking some more....and again, I couldn't shake off this weird feeling - like I'd met up with an old friend or someone I'd known previously but hadn't seen in years; I felt sad to have just met her and then to leave her, just like that. We exchanged addresses and promised to write.
And write we did, for about a year. Nothing too frequent (she wasn't on email and who likes to write long-hand these days?) but enough to stay in touch, and always letters of substance. As someone my senior, she had lots of advice (sometimes requested, mostly offered) and things to say about Life in general. Eventually we fell out of touch...
And then, 9/11 happened.
The Christmas immediately after 9/11, I sent Christine a card. I wondered how she felt about that event, and whether anyone she knew had been hurt or killed (you know that old theory about six degrees of separation). A month or so went by and then I finally got a letter from her. She had actually been in NYC when 9/11 occurred. As an even great matter of coincidence, she’d been visiting friends just a few blocks down in the Tribeca area. It was the first time she'd been back to the City in about ten years. She was as devastated as anyone.
We fell out of contact again after that, but I still have her address and sometimes find myself thinking about sending her a letter. I wonder what she’s doing…if she’s well, what she’s up to…if she remembers me like I remember her.
Until the next time I return to Paris, this is how I'll always remember my last visit - as a unique, intense, unusual, and very personal encounter with a lovely if not somewhat mysterious Parisien woman named Christine.
J'adore Paris com ça!
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