By the time you read this, I will be in a seat with little legroom, hurtling across the ocean toward the City of Light. The first time I saw Paris, we slept on the floor, carried backpacks and didn’t spend enough money to be shocked by prices – bottled water, bread and cheese, a slice of apple tart. The second time we slept in a hotel, brought a toddler, and were shocked by the price of everything. This time I anticipate just being plain shocked – at hotel prices, apple tarts, having a preteen instead of a toddler – everything.
Still, we keep going back for more, even with mixed feelings about Parisians. They run from “Thank you for letting us co-exist with you for this brief time, and for being the keeper of life’s delicious mysteries,” to “Screw you. I am putting ketchup on this burger right now.”
Love them or hate them, they have everything I want – except deep dish pizza.
Back in 2000, we visited for a second time when Josie was almost-four. I recall that trip as the last gasp for our umbrella stroller, which we dumped before the flight home. Every day we’d walk for miles, and when Josie wouldn’t walk, we’d pop her in the stroller. She was (and is) a great traveler, cheerfully running through metro stations and security gates and sculpture gardens, but she was small, and Paris was huge.
After one crabby afternoon she collapsed in the stroller and we pushed her, snoozing, into a little restaurant near the Eiffel Tower. The Champ de Mars neighborhood is unspeakably charming in a way that makes it seem bitterly unfair to live anywhere else, and as the stars came out I peeked into tiny lit apartments above cheese shops, and briefly planned to abandon my family for whomever lived upstairs. Instead I pushed my sleeping toddler into a nearby bistro, Chez L’Ami Jean, and hoped for the best.
Inside there were little wooden tables, a row of banquettes, chalked specials and Basque pelote bric-a-brac on the walls. A middle-aged woman in an apron ran out from the kitchen, looked at my sleeping kid, and I thought, this is it. We are about to be booted to Le McDonald’s. But she swooped down at the stroller, quietly kissing each sleeping cheek, cooing over eyelashes and retying her gym shoes. Oh, thank you, thank you for the international language of sympathy.
She pushed Josie’s stroller right up to the table and insisted we not wake her up. Things were going swimmingly while she slept, but as we drank our red wine her eyes began to flutter, and I felt like a seismologist – it could be a tremor, or it could be a disaster. Should I order her something? The maman appeared again with a plate, and at the moment Josie’s brown eyes snapped open, she put it down in front of her.
Without asking, they had made her a fluffy yellow omelette with gruyere cheese and a little green salad with bacon. The woman set cold orange juice and a soft brioche in front of my child, and waited. Josie stared soundlessly at the food, reached her round toddler hand out, and began eating like she’d never eaten before. The woman beamed, and we all breathed. Later there were sweets; a tender profiterole, a little chocolate for her pockets – and as we left, she buckled Josie into her stroller, zipped her red jacket and smooched her face.
How often are we the recipients of unabashed acts of intuition and kindness? Even now when I turn a yellow omelette I think of the Parisians. They are not all that way, but they have what everyone wants and they know what everyone wants in a richly supernatural way. When they don’t want to share, you’ll know it, but when they do – well, I am headed back to Paris. With any luck, I will be tired, and my feet will hurt, and someone will bring me eggs and cheese and red wine without asking. And also that the exchange rate will improve, and chocolate and croissants will suddenly have no carbs.