This is Paris
I remember the plane ride and seven hours of trying to sleep and not sleeping, reading a travel guide
labeled Paris, marking pages, noting highlights, museums, shops, places to eat, famous sites I had heard of all my life, names such as the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the Bastille, the Eiffel Tower. Sitting in my narrow blue seat, I planned itineraries and made notes in my Little Prince journal. I jotted down locations and hours of operation, fees and obscure places of interest, seasonal specialties and student rates. I pored over metro maps and city maps and train schedules, looking up every so often to see the video screen on the back of the headrest in front of me, the one that monitored our height, speed, and distance from the Charles de Gaulle airport.
When we finally flew into French air, I was waiting in line to use the restroom at the back of the plane, staring out a tiny window at the clouds that wavered between me and the place that had come to be a fairyland of glamorous-sounding names and high expectations. A white-haired man stepped out of the restroom and smiled at me. He asked if I had ever been to Paris before. When I said no, he told me I was in for a treat. He said he had been thirty-one times and was going back for more.
What is there to do after thirty-one times? What is there to do after you've seen all the sites and shopped all the stores, visited the museums and crossed the forty-two bridges? What is there to do after thirty-one times? I didn't ask him, but I wondered.
I wondered, too, what he remembered, which monuments and museums had captivated him the most. I wanted to ask, but he was moving slowly back toward his seat, and he was seventy years old, and he looked tired. I thought I knew what I would remember, which cathedrals and sculptures I would want to go back to. I had my vision of the city, dominated by the iron pinnacle of the Eiffel Tower, the Gothic gargoyles of Notre Dame. To me, then, this was Paris.
I remember the electric chill of my first June morning in Paris as I walked along the river, past vendors and painters and busy quais, past the reflection of time past and passing time on gray-blue water and white boats carrying tourists with sweaters and flashing cameras. I walked often, everywhere, eschewing the metro and the trains and taxicabs. On my many walks near my quaint six-story hotel, I watched the skateboarders in the courtyard off rue Saint Honoré, in the dusk and in the morning when the light was dim and comforting, and I marveled at how it stayed light outside until eleven o'clock at night when the sun set in a cantaloupe haze over the wrinkled Seine. I relished summer nights that felt like autumn, staying out late and shivering on the cold stone benches near the glass pyramid at the Louvre, eating coconut ice cream and mango sorbet while watching the handsome waiters at the Café Marly and the gendarmes on roller blades.
Always, I returned to my little hotel room on the sixth floor, to the windows without screens and the birds that flew by but never in, to the sounds of laughter and lovers and the lyricism of French words wafting up from the medieval street below. I flirted with the handsome front desk clerk who, even when speaking English, spoke with a French mouth and looked on me with French eyes as blue as the Mediterranean of his coastal upbringing. In the morning after dreams, I awakened in the sunlight to my American travel companion's chorus of, “C'est la vie en Paris! Wake up, wake up!”
Mornings, I ate buttery croissants that flaked on my fingers and smelled black coffee that the French call café, a coffee so strong that they have another kind on every menu for their American tourists, café americain. On the roof of the seven-story Galeries Lafayette, the restaurant La Terrasse served Italian foods like insalata di pasta while sunlight glinted on my gold hair and silver bracelet and on the green metal tables. I ate with my sunglasses on and watched birds soar off the wings of carved angels and off the green roof of the Opera Garnier across the way. Everywhere were blue street signs, and in the movie theater were blue velvet seats. Pink letters spelled Monoprix on department store marquees. In one shop window, I discovered a flowered pink skirt that I purchased with blue paper francs imprinted with the likeness of Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Blue eyes and black hair, his mouth charmingly upturned, my Frenchman called the skirt la jupe and asked me to model for him. Like a ballerina, I spun in the hotel lobby.
Sometimes, my travel companion and I walked the shortcut along the almost forgotten cobblestone
street from the hotel to avenue de l'Opera, and one time we took the long, winding route to Monmartre,
once the neighborhood of famous artists, passing through the red-light district of Pigalle and in the shadow
of the Moulin Rouge. On the sidewalk in the June sun, nuns in black walked with their arms linked, speaking
in hushed French as they passed sex-shop signs while Sacré Coeur loomed dazzling white on the hills of
Monmartre. A man on the church's many steps claimed to love America and asked, Please, could
we spare him some money? He was very poor, and he loved America and knew all the state capitals -- Portland,
Ohio and Columbus, Oregon. We were from Maine, we said, and he said, No, you must be
mistaken, Maine is in Canada.
When I was with my Frenchman, he took no note of these people, of the withered old woman who dressed like a witch with a black hat and broom and paced in front of his bank, of the men who sold red roses wrapped in tissue paper on the Champs Elysées. I noticed everything, from the apartment window-boxes and intricate metalwork balconies to a sculpture of Rodin's The Kiss sitting unassumingly in the middle of the Tuileries Gardens, near the Orangerie Museum, closed for renovations. I tasted the smooth vanilla custard and sugary caramel glaze of crème brûlée and marveled at how we could buy packages of it already prepared in plastic cups as if it were Jell-O pudding.
I wondered, too, at the restaurant bathrooms with bar soap on metal rods jutting out from the wall, at the handsome, dark-haired waiter at one café who couldn't speak English and said only, “Thank you,” and “Yes, madame,” and “Very good,” with a sexy, crooked grin and eyes that did not understand. With soupe a l'oignon, called onion soup and not French onion soup, I ate thick, heart-shaped bread and took it as a sign, prompting me back to the hotel where I talked with my Frenchman. I walked the streets of Paris in the near-dark and felt safe, as if I were a part of it, as if I could don sunglasses in the rain and walk with a black umbrella and take up smoking cigarettes, and no one would tell the difference.
Always, I felt intoxicated by the scent of Fahrenheit cologne, strong and spicy,
by appraising looks from dark-haired Frenchmen, by the romantic allure that hung in the city
like a vapor and the sensation for the first time in my life that I was beautiful. I became breathlessly
aware of lovers pressed in an embrace against an outer wall of the Louvre and of eyebrow-raises
from handsome, gray-templed men who looked as though they would have me for a mistress. I watched the
American girls from St. Louis who flirted with my Frenchman and to whom he said, “Maria speaks French --
not you.” I smiled at the concierge at the expensive hotel on the corner who always tipped his hat to me and said, “Bon soir,” and at the teenage boy who sold me a fruit tart and brushed my hand with his fingers, gazing at me in the heart-quickening way French boys learn like language.
One night, my Frenchman and I met friends at a hamburger restaurant, where I drank cheap cappuccino while an Algerian tried to impress me by telling me English words he knew in a barely intelligible accent. “Snooker,” he insisted, was not a mispronunciation of “sneaker,” but a word for billiards or pool. Disbelieving, I later looked it up in a fading dictionary at an English used bookstore and discovered he knew my language better than I did. One of my Frenchman's friends from Egypt asked where I was from, and when I said north of Boston, he said, “England?” “No,” my Frenchman cut in, laughing, “America. Boston--you know, tea party.” We stayed at the restaurant until one in the morning, when the Algerian told a dirty joke about a camel that I couldn't understand and that my Frenchman refused to explain. During the quiet ride home on an almost deserted metro car, I looked out the window and watched my reflection pass over Paris.
On a summer afternoon of alternating rain and sunlight, I dressed in a chic denim skirt and a voile shirt I'd bought at a boutique on a back street. My travel companion and I walked from the hotel across the river to the massive base of the Eiffel Tower, finding along the way a fruiterie where we bought strawberries and miniature bananas. We picnicked on the fruit and some crackers on the grass in the Champ de Mars, watching people walk by with dogs, ice cream, strollers, cell phones, newspapers. We bought tiramisu-flavored ice cream and licked drips from our cones. On the walk back along rue St. Dominique, we snapped photos of Telepizza mopeds lined up along the sidewalk outside the pizza shop, ready to deliver on the streets of Paris.
Toward the end of my stay, the hotel breakfast lady with the black braids started smiling at my Frenchman and me while she set tables with baskets of croissants and pain chocolat, chocolate-filled bread. Once, as I sat eating apricot yogurt for breakfast, a Californian who was staying at the hotel spoke to me in a monologue about Normandy, his mother, and his computer company, all the while disparaging Frenchmen for being too flirtatious. I was saved when my Frenchman came over and, putting his arm around me, said to the Californian, “Did you know Maria is going to come live with me, and I'm going to give her massages?” As she cleared empty plates and baskets, the corners of the breakfast lady's mouth flickered upward.
A storm chased me the day before I left Paris as I crossed the Seine on my way back to the hotel. I remember the sound of thunder advancing from the other side of the river, the line in the sky between the white haze of wispy clouds ahead and the grumbling black of the storm behind, the fear of the darting sparks of yellow up above. I ran to the hotel doors and huddled beneath the blue awning, watching as the rain thickened into a torrent that drowned the narrow street while little French boys and girls stomped in puddles. Patrons of an outdoor café rushed out of the rain while waiters tried to retrieve watery dishes of crème caramel. A yellow cat sat in a window and watched with vigilant eyes that winked at me as if to say, This is what you came here for.
Standing there, damp, shivering, I heard the hotel door open behind me. My Frenchman walked out
and stood with me, gazing at the rain. After a moment, he took me around the waist, and we danced in the
puddles while women in sunglasses walked by under black umbrellas and tourists with guidebooks and big
shopping bags dodged us. As the rain continued to streak down and the sun began to leak through thinning
clouds, my Frenchman twirled me into the hotel, saying, "This is Paris."
©2007 by Maria O'Connell