Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Strangers on a Paris Night

Paris, with its tree-lined boulevards and over-sized monuments.
2017 photo by Gregory E. Larson

Strangers on a Paris Night
travel memoir
Gregory E. Larson


We all meet strangers. They are everywhere. Most of the time we don’t know their history, their past, or their psyche. We don’t know who they are or where they are going. When we do meet and learn about them, we find that our first impressions can be wrong. I’ve always said the truth is stranger than fiction, and on this encounter in Paris, I still believe it.

           Ah, Paris! Big. Bold. Beautiful. It was good to be there again. The grand, tree-lined Boulevards, the wide sidewalks, the oversized buildings and monuments — they all embraced me. And it was springtime, with sun, rain, crowds and traffic.
          There’s a quieter side of Paris that I like, too. It’s where the less notable places exist, off the main thoroughfares, down narrow streets and tucked around corners – boutique hotels and shops, little restaurants and neighborhood parks.
          On my way to dinner one evening, I rode the subway to The Bastille, one of the larger monuments and traffic roundabouts in Paris. Before going to the restaurant, Gaspard de la Nuit (Treasures of the Night), I walked to Place des Vosges, one of the first neighborhood parks built in Paris. It is so hidden among the buildings that you have to purposely go there to find it.
          Near sundown, the park was full of people. It was all a park should be — a place to enjoy the day. Parents with strollers, elderly on benches, children bouncing soccer balls, lovers and friends picnicking on blankets – it all pulled me in, and I sat there for a few minutes, soaking up the dwindling sunlight and the jovial atmosphere.
Place des Vosges - one of the first parks in Paris
photo by Gregory E. Larson
           It was time for dinner, so I left the park and walked the two blocks, down the narrow Rue des Tournelles, and stepped into the restaurant.
          “Bonsoir, Monsieur!”
          “Bonsoir, Madame!”
          After we exchanged greetings, the smiling woman offered me two options for sitting by myself. I noticed a man sitting alone in the corner of the restaurant, and I chose the table next to his. A small leather cap adorned the top of his head of dark curly hair. The thirtyish-year-old also had a neatly-trimmed black beard. I pictured a Parisian who rode a motorcycle through the busy streets.
          He was reading a technical paper while eating his dinner, so I gave him some space and purposely didn’t bother him. I counted twenty-four seats in the small restaurant, and eventually all of them were filled. I made my dinner selection and was pleased with the starter course of salmon salad, and the main course of roast duck with sauce.
Gaspard de la Nuit on the Rue des Tournelles
Google street view
          The man in the corner folded his papers and took a sip of wine.
          That’s when I introduced myself. Assuming he was French I said, “Bonsoir! Je suis Americain (Good evening. I am American). Est-ce que vous Parisien (Are you from Paris?).
          “No, I live in Asia. I assume you speak English?”
          I detected some type of European accent in his voice, and I responded, “Yes. Isn’t this food great? I always say if you can taste three or four flavors in one bite, it’s a good place.”
          “I’ve been in Paris for a month and a half. The food is so good here, I keep coming back.”
          “Are you originally from France?”
          “No, I was born in Italy.”
          My curiosity was raised. “What took you to Asia?”
          “I was unhappy in Italy. I had a tough childhood and when I turned eighteen, I disowned my family and left the country. My family was immoral.”
          “What do you mean - immoral?”
          “They were immoral business people.”
          Immoral business people in Italy!?  I wouldn’t pry much further. I did wonder where in Italy. I assumed Sicily. I asked, “Where did your family come from?”
          “Northern Italy. My dad was from Milan and my Mom’s family was from Turin. I couldn’t take it any longer. I had to leave. The family believed that if you tried to be honest, you were stupid, and if you learned how to lie and cheat, you were smart. I saw corruption and immorality in the church, too. I had to leave. I went to Asia got interested in Buddhism, but I realized I needed a job to survive, so I began working on computers. That’s what I do now. Every so often I have to come back to see Europe.”
          I didn’t know how to respond, but I said, “You really had a tough decision to make at an early age. I can tell you didn’t make it lightly.”
          He shook his head. “I had to do it. I felt I had no choice.”
          I replied, “As I get older, I realize what an idyllic childhood I had. I am a baby boomer, and families around me were happy raising their kids in the U.S. The dads were glad they were still alive after serving in the war.”
          It was time for dessert, and I noticed that he was obviously interested in talking to me, because he had not ordered his dessert for quite some time. We both decided to get the chocolate crumble cake and some espresso.
          He paused and took another sip of wine. “What brings you to Paris?”
          “I ride bicycles. I went on a bike and barge trip in the Netherlands, and now I am visiting Paris before I return to the Kansas City area. My wife showed me how to travel in Europe, and on this trip I’m using everything she taught me. She passed away last July from cancer.”
          He looked at me and said, “I’m sorry to hear that. I’m sure it’s a big loss.”
          "I miss her and I’m sad, but I’m not angry. I’m really grateful for the fifteen years we had together. We went on several bike trips in Italy and France, and we had a tandem bike that we rode all over Kansas City. Life was good.”
          He pointed to my hand. “I notice you are still wearing a ring.”
          “Yeah, I just don’t feel like I want to take it off yet. I loved her that much. Things were so good when we were together.”
          We ate the crumble cake and savored the espresso while we continued to talk.
          He changed the subject, “Are you a member of the Catholic Church?”
          “No, I’ve attended many different protestant churches during my life and now I attend an Episcopal Church.”
          He said, “I’m an agnostic. I believe there’s something out there . . . some big plan, but that’s about it. I just got fed up with people in the church. What do you think about Christianity?”
          I sensed that he was still making important decisions in his life, and he wanted to hear different viewpoints. I thought of the advice that my dad gave me when I was a teenager. He told me to choose words carefully when talking about sex, politics, or religion. Otherwise, the thoughts might get misconstrued. I also thought of an Ingrid Bergman quote I read in her biography. She said, “It’s presumptuous to offer unsolicited advice, and I am no oracle of wisdom.”
          But it was obvious this man was searching out opinions.
          “Well,” I said, “My faith and the Word have been much more important to me than the denomination of the church I attend. My faith is what keeps me going each day. It helps me deal with both the good and the bad that I encounter, whether it is people or situations.”
          He asked another question. “What do you think about luck?
          “Fate . . . luck . . . whatever it is, it happens to all of us. I also believe in answered prayer, and I think there’s a type of luck that should be defined as knowing when to seize an opportunity.”
          He laughed and said, “I don’t think I’m smart enough to know the right opportunities to seize.”
          “Oh, I think you are smarter than you realize.”
          He turned and looked at me with a smile, then paid his bill to the woman.
          As he stood to leave, I reached out both hands and shook his hand warmly. Our eyes locked and I said, “Fate, good luck, answered prayer — I wish them all for you.”
          The patrons had become noisier from all the wine that had been consumed.
          He had to practically shout his response, “Thanks, and good luck to you, too.” He turned and walked to the front of the restaurant, then vanished in the night.
          I tried to process all the conversation I’d had with the young man, but I didn’t linger much longer, and paid the bill. As I walked to the door I said, “Au Revoir” to the woman serving all the restaurant guests.
          “Sir, did you know it’s raining?”
          “Thanks . . . no problem.”
          I pulled out the pocket umbrella, popped it open, and walked out the door. As I turned the corner to find the subway at the Bastille, the lights and street reflections lit up the night. The dampness had not diluted the party atmosphere under the awnings at the big cafés. The wine was flowing and the laughter was loud.
          I hurried down the steps and into the subway tunnel where a saxophonist fondled the keys and wailed a tune to all the strangers passing by. Boarding the subway, I wondered . . . where did all the people come from? Where were they going? Each of them has stories of their own.
          At the subway stop near my hotel, I stepped out of the car and onto the platform. In a screech, rumble, and blur of the lights, the train pulled away. A cold rush of air filled the vacuum and ruffled my collar. I turned and watched the last car disappear into the dark tunnel.
Paris Metro
youtube image
          A violinist’s tune echoed off the white tiles in the exit way. I dropped a coin in her violin case and kept walking. I thought about the man I’d met at Gaspard de la Nuit. We were total strangers, yet, in that tiny restaurant we had bared our souls to each other. Then, on our separate ways, we vanished like subway cars in the night.