The Random South African in Paris

We stood on a bridge overlooking the Seine. He handed me the book he’d been reading — the one he’d been planning on leaving on a café table for someone to stumble upon. We’d stumbled upon each other instead. I insisted he write something in it. He was hesitant, unsure, but sighed and smirked and did as I asked. When he handed it back he said, “Don’t read it now. I didn’t know what to say.” I smiled and nodded; I wouldn’t have known what to say either.

We accompanied each other onto the metro, but we knew we’d be getting off at different stops — and we knew we’d never see each other again. We tried to say meaningful goodbyes on the train, but neither of us knew how. We hugged and looked at each other a beat, and then he turned, stepped through the doors into the station, and was gone.

After he disappeared into the crowd, I pulled the book out of my purse and thought about the nearly six hours we’d spent together that day. Then I thought about that moment when he’d given the book to me. The sun had just gone fully down and the lights of the city shimmered off the river. We could sense our adventure coming to an end and we were relishing the last few minutes of it; we stood side by side looking at the city facing us and then turned towards each other. It was a ridiculously movie-esque moment.

I smiled and opened the book cover.

Hope you like.
With big hugs from the random South African in Paris. 
Mitch

And that’s when I learned his name.

Some Background

My parents had been anxious about me traveling abroad by myself even though I was 30 and not actually by myself. I was going for a training with 50 other educators from around the U.S. While I didn’t know any of them, I certainly wasn’t alone. But I guess that’s just the way it goes with parents.

Or perhaps they were anxious because I’m, well, me. I tend to be a little… what’s the word? Absent-minded? Carelessfree? Once I left my debit card — and only source of funds — on the counter at a bar in Vegas; I once had to track down my phone when I left it in a taxi in San Francisco; then there was the time I thought I’d booked a bus ticket but upon arrival to the station learned I’d actually booked a train ticket. Details.

I’m a bit directionally challenged, too. I grew up in a town with one stoplight and somehow managed to get lost on my way to the post office one day. Fun fact: the post office was 0.7 miles from my house.

More than they worry about any of that, though, I think it makes them anxious that I choose to trust when others are skeptical. Like the time in college I hopped in a car with two strangers — men in their forties — and hitched a three-hour ride with them to the thruway rest stop that sits in my hometown. Or the time I loaned my hotel key card out to complete strangers in Times Square so they could get some McDonald’s (The key card was like a VIP pass that allowed you in and out of the roped off area we’d been standing in for the New Year’s celebration).

It’s not naiveté. My family thinks it is. But it’s not that I don’t recognize the potential danger in these situations. I just believe you can get a sense of people, and you can still be cautious, but you can choose to trust in the Good. I don’t know, maybe that is naïve. But I’d rather live in a world of inherent good and possibility than one of fear, distrust, and potential danger.

But yes. My parents had been anxious about me traveling abroad “alone.” Obviously they needn’t have been because I found a buddy to escort me around the city.

How We Met

Of all the days that I have lived, this one is up there in my favorites. But not for the reasons you probably think. It wasn’t that I was swept off my feet by this mysterious man; we didn’t kiss or even hold hands. And I’m certainly not pining away after the man whose full name I never got. I recognized that he was a fairly handsome person (the accent certainly helped), but our time together was not about that.

It was just a day, an adventure, a moment in time — and it was perfect. And it was romantic, but not in a falling-in-love kind of way; it was romantic in the same way everything is rose-colored in books and movies. We were in Paris, after all, and we had found in each other a companion whose sense of adventure matched our own. We had found in one another someone else who wanted to look around at the world and see possibility.

I had split from the group the instant our morning training session was over (probably the moment my parents had been worried about). It was my last day in Paris and I intended to make the most of it. I wandered a bit and visited a little store I’d heard about called Shakespeare & Company, delighting in the fact that there was a line waiting to enter a bookshop.

Photo Credit: Me.

After perusing the shelves and enjoying the store’s charms, I made my way to the metro intending to head to the Champs-Élysées. I thought I’d walk down the famous street and take in the sights (because you can’t not walk down it when you first visit Paris), but that’s as far as my plan went. My group already hit some of the other major hot spots like the Louvre and the Notre Dame, and I’d done the Eiffel Tower the night before. So I figured from there I’d just see where the day would take me.

I was on the metro, feeling quite proud of myself for figuring out which train to get on, when it happened. I had taken a seat when one opened up by the door. These seats near the door flipped up to make room for more people to crowd inside. I was feeling pretty damn cool, sitting there confidently like I belonged.

Then we began approaching another stop, and I leaned forward off the seat to look around the people and see which station we were at. Making note of where we were, I sat back. Down. I went down. Because the damn seat had flipped up. Yup. Right on my ass in front of a train full of people. Getting up quickly, I burst into laughter because, well, what else can you do? Then I said, in English and to no one in particular, “Nothing to see here, folks. That didn’t just happen.” I waved away the scene with my hand and shook my head at myself.

Stoicism. Nobody else even cracked a smile. Some looked rather haughtily at me, others looked away in embarrassment for me. It occurred to me that some of the people around me might not speak English, and therefore might not have understood what I had said as I got up, but I think most were just being very French about the situation. I sat back down, put my head in my hand and continued to chuckle quietly to myself. When I looked up, someone across the aisle was still staring at me, but he had a mischievous grin on his face.

He lifted up the phone in his hands and pointed the camera towards me. “Could you do that again, please?” he deadpanned.

Un Jour Impromptu

Though we hadn’t exchanged any other words, we laughed in earnest on opposite sides of the aisle about the whole thing. As the train slowed, so did our laughter. Still smiling, I stood and exited onto the platform, unaware that he had followed me off the train until I was standing in front of a map on the wall and felt someone’s presence by my side.

“I’ve just got to say,” he began. “The way you got up laughing like that — like you do that kind-of thing all the time… Your reaction and their lack of reaction — it was priceless.” I could only smile and shrug because he was right; I am a klutz and I do manage to make a fool of myself a lot. “Where are you headed?” he asked.

“The Champs-Élysées.” My answer was imprecise. I didn’t want to give out too many details.

“I’m actually headed that direction myself, but I was going to check out Montmartre first. Have you been?” My American accent and his clearly not-French accent made it obvious we were tourists.

“No, but some of the other people I’m here with talked about going.” I casually slid in a reference to the others so he would know I was not completely alone. I was on guard. I had to be. I’m a woman.

“It’s the highest point in Paris. You can look out over the whole city and a really old church sits up there.” I gave a half-nod. It did sound like a cool spot to check out. “It’s kind-of on the way to the Champs-Élysées. Would you… would you like to go with me?”

A little weary, I considered his invitation. It was a famous place, this hill and this church, so it was sure to be full of people, right? I wouldn’t be heading anywhere alone with this guy. Plus, we had shared a laugh.

I studied his face a moment. “Sure.”

“Yeah?” He smiled. I nodded again, this time with conviction.

Photo Credit: Me.

Montmartre could also be called the Place of a Thousand Stairs. Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration. But it is known as the highest point in the city, and it does take some climbing to get up there. After making our way up the steady slope of the streets below the church’s perch, we stood before the Rue Foyatier — a street of 222 steps leading up to the base of the Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur. We tilted our heads back to find the top of this next leg of our journey.

“Well,” he said matter-of-factly, “Shall we run it, then?”

“Absolutely,” I responded.

And we took off up the steps.

We were both winded by the time we got to the top. But we caught our breath as we took in the view. The city was a distant bustle of modern meeting old, and I loved it. We explored the inside of the basilica, which was austere and slightly creepy in the way most churches are but also airy and beautifully ornate. Behind the pews was a model of the church encased in glass that couldn’t decide which era it wanted to represent. It showed a smart car parked out front but also old cars from what I would guess to be the 50s. The randomness of this model seemed attuned to our appreciation of the randomness of life.

We wandered back outside and took some time to appreciate the view once more before making our way into the neighborhood. I realized I was hungry. I don’t remember who suggested lunch, but we stopped in a wonderful little creperie and finally got to talking.

“You’re from South Africa? Your accent sounded almost British to me.”

“I get that a lot. I only just moved back to Johannesburg; I’ve been in England the last 10 years.”

We talked about where I was from; he asked what brought me to town, and I explained about the educator training. When I asked the same of him, he responded, “Dance?” It came out like a question.

“You’re here to dance?”

“Yeah, but not professionally,” he said this slowly, waiting for my reaction.

“Obviously this needs further explanation,” I looked at him bemused.

“There was a girl I used to know in college who loved to dance and, well, honestly I was trying to shag her. So I took lessons with her, and then she took me to this tango marathon…” It appears tango marathons are a thing. All over the place, too. Who knew? They start in the evening and go all night long. “I don’t go with her anymore, obviously, but I have a friend who lives in Paris, so I used that as an excuse to come to this one.”

“So you literally came here by yourself for a tango marathon.”

“Yeah,” smiling sheepishly, his eyes went downcast. “It’s fun, but it’s definitely awkward. It’s a bit like a prom for adults, actually. You’re all standing around the dance floor and you want to ask someone to dance but you’re scared.  Because, you see, if they’re a bad dancer they’ll make you look bad and no one else will want to dance with you.”

I lamented the fact that I knew nothing about tango dancing because I really wanted to sneak away from the group that night and witness this marathon. But we both knew that wasn’t in the cards.

I was fascinated by him. Turns out he had taught physics in England, but was returning to Johannesburg to take a job with a computer software company and be closer to his mom. It seemed he was somehow equally fascinated by me. He had lots of questions about the recent presidential election (Keep in mind this was Thanksgiving weekend, 2016), and when he asked them it was my turn to be sheepish. I felt the need to apologize for the outcome on behalf of all Americans.

Almost two hours later, our bellies full of crépes, we walked our way around the rest of the Montmartre neighborhood.

Truthfully, most of the rest of the day was just a long promenade against different backdrops. We talked as we made our way to the Arc de Triomphe. We talked as we looked up into the intricately carved stone and then let silence do the talking for us as we pondered the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath us. We attempted to continue talking as we walked down through the Christmas Markets, but that proved impossible. The Christmas Markets sound a LOT more romantic than they were. They were too crowded for either of our tastes; mostly we just weaved in and out of people, hurriedly trying to find a calm place to talk and take in the sights. But we did stop for some mauled wine. And we chatted some more as we sipped our hot tonics.

Sitting at the end of the wide, tourist-filled street, is yet another perfectly Parisian tourist attraction — a Ferris wheel on which you can take in a romantic aerial view of not just the famous street, but the Louvre on the other side and the Eiffel Tower beyond the Seine. As we came upon it, we both knew it was the logical next step.

The sky was pinking as the sun set in its enchanting way over the city. We eagerly clamored into one of the Ferris wheel pods and gloried in the sights that met us.

Photo Credit: Me.

Au Revoir

But when the ride was over, there was no option but to look at the time and realize we had none left. I had to get back to my group — we were meeting up at a wine cellar for a last late-night dinner together — and he had to get ready for his tango marathon. We walked a bit more, prolonging our descent to the metro as much as possible. With the sky fully darkening, we stepped onto the bridge over the river and the conversation suddenly ceased. It was the first real awkward moment of the day. I suddenly became acutely aware that I was standing in the dark on a fairly vacant bridge with a tall man whose name I did not know.

I wish the world were different. I wish it were possible to enjoy these moments without that doubt creeping in — that drop of poison. At least it is possible to make the choice to move beyond that suspicion. For if I had not let my guard down that day, as my parents had advised against, I would not have spent such a lovely day with a lovely man who did, in fact, turn out to be a serial killer… No, I’m totally kidding. Although I suppose that’s possible. But in all seriousness,  my only regret is that we were so busy enjoying each other’s company and the company of the city itself, that we never took a picture together. He lives for me now only in my memory and in the words he left me in the book: