I went into Paris alone that night. The 4:08 train from Bourges dropped me off in the 13th arrondissement just past six o’clock in the evening. I wheeled my suitcase straight into the metro and headed for Parc Monceau, where I was supposed to catch up with an old friend.
It was only 6:30, too early for dinner in France but still a couple hours away from my planned meet-up. I walked up the street toward the row of glowing cafés ahead, then hesitated for a moment on the sidewalk, concerned as always about appearing as French as possible.
I glanced at my suitcase. It contained nothing in it but a handful of bikinis and shorts I had packed and never worn, and Christmas presents for my family: a cellophane bag of spices for hot mulled wine, a powder blue scarf on clearance from Galeries Lafayette, glass bottles of coconut and caramel-flavored Monin syrup.
I thought about my flight to California in less than fifteen hours, decided I wasn’t very French anyway, and slipped into a brasserie that had fake Christmas garland hanging over the door. There were only five or six patrons inside. The man behind the bar gestured for me to sit anywhere.
“Bonsoir. Ça vous dérangera pas?” I asked, pointing to my luggage.
“Non,” he said and shook his head. Not a bother at all.
He lay down a menu and cutlery on my table then headed back to the bar, where he sat on a stool, leaned his back against the wallpapered partition, and lit a cigarette.
Ten minutes later I ordered a ham and cheese omelet, fries and green salad on the side, and a verre de rosé. The server brought the glass of rosé, chilled and three-quarters full, less than thirty seconds later.
I peeled off my scarf and took a sip, closing my eyes to feel the alcohol warm my chest and send tingles through my legs. I reached into my purse, pulled out the book I had brought, and began to read with my left hand holding my wine and right hand gripping the story like it was a set of poker cards I wanted to conceal.
“You have stunning hands.”
I glanced up from page 36 and looked around for the French voice I had heard. The compliment came from a man in his seventies sitting at the table beside me. He was less than two feet away. How did I not notice him before?
He swallowed an oyster he had just doused in lemon then licked the salt from the shell. The light in the brasserie was amber and danced between the chandelier and the ceiling, creating a warm diffusion that, in my memory, fades most details of the man save for two: he had a low, playful voice and brown eyes that sparked and sparkled beneath the magnified lenses of his glasses. His sincerity was disarming.
“Merci beaucoup,” I said.
“Are you a pianist?”
“Used to be.”
“Ah, you are not French?”
“No, I’m American, but I live in France.” I put my book face down on the table.
“Ah! Une belle Américaine, quel plaisir! What are you doing in France?”
“I teach English to young students.”
“What is it like?”
“C’est génial.” I almost left it at that but his gaze was patient, waiting. So I shifted my chair two inches to the right. “I love it. The kids greet me every day at school with bisoux, so many kisses that before the bell even rings to signal the start of class, my back is sore from bending down so much.”
He clapped his hands together once and leaned back in his chair, laughing. “Oh, I can imagine it all! C’est adorable.”
“It’s my favorite part of the day. It makes me feel so loved.”
He nodded and smiled. “Children are excellent for that. And what do you do with your time outside of school?”
“I walk around the town. I buy cheap French paperback romances and read them on park benches. But I spend a lot of time looking up words I don’t know in the dictionary.” He laughed.
“C’est cliché, I know!” I said. “The American girl trying to read French romance novels with only occasional success.”
He smiled. “I think it’s a lovely cliché. What else do you like to do?”
“On the weekends, I visit the markets in the morning and buy the stuff I don’t usually eat at home. Figs, endives, radishes, olives. And chèvre! That’s my favorite cheese.”
“Oh! Me too,” he said and put both his hands on his chest.
I shared more stories at his request: stories of strolling through quiet, cobblestoned streets in the brisk morning hours before catching the bus and of train rides and road trips down France’s west coast; stories of walking home from bars in the rain with friends, giddy from all the free champagne and French conversation practice.
“It sounds like a wonderful experience. I’m sure you are learning so much about yourself!”
I smiled. “I hope so.”
“C’est sûr, I know it.” He laughed and lifted his red wine to my rosé. “Santé, ma nouvelle amie!” We clinked our glasses.
With each phrase I uttered, he grew more familiar to me. He was an active listener, engaged in my words and inserting his own bursts of excitement. He seemed to hold the hazy garlic-scented air between us as he asked questions, and he laughed with his head tilted back, daring our fellow diners to have more fun.
I told him about Paris, how I used to study at the Sorbonne, how the pace of life in central France is much slower than in the capital. “Oui, oui, of course,” he said and nodded.
“Where are you from?”
“Algeria, but I’ve lived in Paris most of my life now.” So that’s why you’re so friendly, I thought.
“Do you ever miss it?”
He gestured around the café and laughed. “What’s to miss? This is Paris, ma chérie!”
He leaned forward on the table then and furrowed his brow. I noticed for the first time how deep and plentiful his wrinkles were.
“But I know that Paris can be cruel and difficult to its outsiders. If you ever need anything at all, you tell me and I’ll help you.”
I thanked him.
“Non, I mean it.” He took a pen from his coat pocket and scribbled his name, phone number and email on a napkin then placed it in my hand.
“DIB,” read the napkin in capital letters. “Thank you so much, Dib. I will remember that. I promise.”
We went on talking about education and travel and Paris.
Sometime around 9:30 I looked at my watch and realized I was late to meet my friend. Dib reached out to take my hands and I let him. He cradled my fingers in his palms and said, “Before you go, I want you to know…” I waited as he gathered his breath. “You are young and life is full of surprises,” he said. “If you don’t like where you’re going or what you’re doing, change your direction.”
I walked out the door into the bustling night, wondering why I hadn’t asked him more questions about his life. Our exchange didn’t seem fair; I took and he gave. The only thing I knew about him—besides his nationality—was that, somehow, he gave me the exact advice I hadn’t even known I needed to hear.
I tucked the napkin in my coat pocket and walked down rue Levis, repeating his words in my head like a precious secret.
Paige Smith is a freelance writer and editor from Southern California who specializes in travel, lifestyle and wellness topics. When she's not writing stories and articles, she's planning her next trip. See more of her here.