It's almost 10 at night, and there is plenty of light left in the sky. The lights have come up around the neighborhood, and the cafes sound busy down below on Rue de Seine. An accordion has just begun to play, a meandering sound that stirs poignant memories of romance. Plates and silverware clatter and clink; crowded cafes are burbling with human voices in many conversations, an incessant flow of human sound. It has been this way for centuries. It is Paris.
A man shouts to someone, and I hear the buzz of a coasting bicycle. I cannot see the source of all these sounds, but I can see the dormers of the rooftop across from my window, an easy stone's throw away. I like my plain room four stories up from the lobby in this little hotel.
I leave the hotel at nine in the morning the next day, wearing summer clothes and less fashionable but more reasonable walking shoes than yesterday, bandaids peeking out on my heels and arches. A cool breeze freshens the air. I turn right and walk past the fish shop, a chocolate shop and then the cafe. I am at the corner of Boulevard St. Germaine, named after a neighborhood church built probably 800 years ago. St. Germain is home base for a jazz festival going on these two weeks. Kyle Eastwood, son of Carmel's native boy Clint, played here last weekend. Home follows you everywhere you go.
I cross the wide boulevard with a covey of other walkers. No one says hello to anyone else as they walk. Even walking in the middle of rush hour, there is no noise but that of traffic. A lot of people walk. You hear a quick "pardon" if they bump you or need to hustle aside for some reason, so you learn to do the same. I hear "jour" or "soir" when I enter places which is the equivalent to "evening" or "day" in the States, just like we do, shortening the more formal "bonjour" or "bon soir." When you buy something, the usual last phrase you hear is "bonne journee," all part of the "politesse" or polite way of conducting oneself. This civility is a pleasant touch that I try not to compare to Americans in general. Many Americans are polite and courteous of course. Overall, the French win. By a mile.
The walk to the Retreat apartment building is about 20 minutes from my hotel, and it takes me slightly uphill to the Luxembourg Gardens after I've gone past the big Odeon theater. I watch the scurrying people and take note of traffic. Women walk rapidly, on errands or to work, and some strolling tourists and young people in small groups move past me, slim and well dressed. I feel well assimilated today, able to blend into the crowd. I have to watch my step as I swivel my head back and forth looking around as I go so I won't accidentally whack my shins on bike stands or step off curbs with a lurch.
At the Retreat, we do a few exercises to sharpen our writing skills, pretend we are our characters. It's actually challenging, and we sigh deeply, each one in turn, as we take our lumps from our instructor. She's trying to free our minds up in order to look at the story and characters differently, with fresh eyes. She is patient. I am not achieving greatness yet and feel relieved when it's time to break for lunch.
We go as a group to a Greek restaurant nearby. Our waiter is handsome and valiantly attempts to understand our corrupted French. I order Moussaka and it arrives, fragrant and hot. My friends order a sample plate, which is delightful. We talk about living in France compared to the States. A couple of my companions are ex-pats who are content living in the South of France. We compare notes. It turns out that they occasionally see young men with "jail break" style pants, which means the silly fashion of wearing the pants halfway off the rear end that is so laughable. I wonder if young men realize that every single older person who sees them thinks, "You look so incredibly idiotic wearing your pants that way."
I shop with Julia, a new friend, on the way home from the Retreat, along Rue St. Michel with throngs of students and then stroll through Luxembourg Gardens. We part ways on the other side of the gardens. It is a fine afternoon and the streets are full of people out on foot. The city feels safe no matter where I go. I don't mind being by myself. As a matter of fact, it has its advantages since I can window shop to my heart's content and wander any path I like.
It's evening again before I know it and I get a bit lost, which is both exciting and frustrating. In this part of the arrondissement, the streets are not laid out in a grid. They curve and narrow down to a lane with narrow sidewalks, but they're calm and quiet. I sense the echoes of time passing with the merest wink and shrug, unhurried and lovely.
Causes Christine Bottaro Supports
The Nature Conservancy, California State Parks, The United Way