I got a note from my friend Donna today. We met when I rented her Paris apartment two years ago and I knew immediately she was a kindred spirit. We’ve kept in touch, a note here, an email there. We’ve talked on the phone, and I visited her last time I was in Washington, DC. Whenever I hear from her, I think about my time in Paris.
What an incredible experience Paris was for me–a dream come true. I’d wanted to go to Paris since I was about ten years old and found a little packet of old photos of the City of Lights in an antiques store in Michigan. We were on vacation and my grandfather had given each of us kids five dollars to spend. Wandering through the shops in Whitehall, I came across the souvenir photos–eight in all, taken in the early nineteen hundreds. I was immediately mesmerized. Although it took every dime of my five dollars, I bought the packet and spent the rest of the camping trip gazing at the photos. That summer I vowed I’d go to Paris one day.
It only took me another forty-five years to get there, but the trip finally happened. Son and DIL and I took off on a Sunday evening in early June, flying to Paris overnight and landing at Charles DeGaulle around 9 am, Paris time. From the moment we hit the Champs-Élysées, I knew I was home. My friend’s apartment was in the Fifteenth Arrondissment–a tidy neighborhood around the Place du Commerce, about a mile from the Eiffel Tower. The apartment was small, but perfect for our home base for a week. It was a cozy retreat each night after a day of sightseeing.
We learned the Metro pretty quickly and that became our mode of transportation–we bought 1-week passes that allowed us unlimited train rides all over the city. There were too many sights to list everything here, from Notre Dame to the Louvre, from Pont Neuf to Pere Lachaise Cemetary, from the Musee D’Orsay to the Eiffel Tower. We had to pick and choose what to see because we only had a week. We took a bicycle trip to the palace at Versaille, saw an opera at Luxembourg Gardens, and the floor show at Moulin Rouge. I loved every moment, but the most precious time was spent in our own little neighborhood.
One morning, I sat by myself in the sidewalk cafe on the corner near Place du Commerce, sipping orange juice and Pellegrino, and a cafe au lait, nibbling a fresh croissant and writing endlessly in my journal. The narrow street in front of me was already bustling, shops opening, people laughing and talking as they walked to work or school. Old ladies were just leaving matin services at the church on the square, the priest stood at the top of the steps, his bald head gleaming in the sun. Fresh fruit filled the bins in the Masison Gasselin–the market across the street from the cafe and the scent of fresh strawberries filled the air.
The atmosphere was busy, but not at all rushed–none of the urgency that seems to pervade work days in the U.S. Men and women in business attire lingered over cafe au lait in the brasserie, chatting and smoking one more cigarette. A couple of au pairs pushed strollers past brightly colored doorways, talking so fast I couldn’t even begin to follow their conversation. The cacophony of languages around me was surreal–French mostly, but also German, Italian, English, and even Arabic and Farsi.
It was the Paris I’d dreamed of seeing, the Paris I’d always wanted to be part of, and there I was, right in the midst of it. I wrote in my journal about the wonder of being there, I am actually sitting in a little cafe on a tiny street in Paris. C’est impossible, mais c’est vrai! (It’s impossible, but it’s true!) I look at my photos often, reread my journal from that time and every time, I’m overwhelmed at the opportunity I had to be a part of Paris life–not just a tourist, but to live as a Parisianne, if only for a short time. Il était incroyable et merveilleux!