The Heart of Paris
My friend Peggy and I had both been to Paris before, but always as chaperones for youth groups or part of adult groups, seeing all the usual tourist sites and hearing the same tour guide recitations. This would be the first time on our own -- without responsibilities and free to go anywhere and try anything.
On previous trips we had seen all the famous monuments and "tourist sights." The guidebooks claimed that locals were rude and indifferent to visitors but there had to be more to the people of Paris than that. This time we wanted to find the real Parisians.
We spent some time exploring small shops and lesser-known museums and churches. We walked along canals and down narrow lanes, seeing a different Paris, but still not making any real contact with the people of this magnificent city.
One evening, with the help of the night clerk at our quaint hotel, we found a tiny cafe known only to locals. Nestled inside a dark passage, its unlit sign read, "Chez Maurice." We peeked in the small window on the door to see a small room with half a dozen tables, each with enough chairs for eight patrons. We opened the heavy door and went inside.
We were greeted by a burly proprietor, whose smile faded when he discovered we were foreigners with a limited command of the French language. He turned his back and retreated to the kitchen, muttering under his breath and slowly shaking his head from side to side. Not a good start.
A moment passed and a young woman led us to our seats at the other end of a table already occupied by an elderly couple. She gave us two menus.
For a few minutes we struggled to recall a few French words, but discovered that the descriptions of each dish were too much for us.
Our table mates noticed our dilemma. The old man leaned over and began explaining each dish, one at a time. Since he spoke very little English, his translations took the form of elaborate gestures and animal sounds. A fish entree was depicted as a fish swimming upstream, jumping and splashing in the water. For the beef dish, he pretended that his hands were horns on the side of his head, accompanied by a 'mooing' sound.
When the young waitress returned, we placed our order and our new 'friends' gave her explicit instructions on how to prepare the food and what side dishes we should have. Despite our limited ability to speak the other's language, we continued our lively conversation throughout the meal. We discovered that they were in their seventies and had been sweethearts for about ten years. She lived nearby in Paris, while he lived in the country. They met here once a week to share a pleasant dinner. Frankly, I have no idea how we understood each other, but we talked about the beauty of Paris, our lives and families, and of course, our other travels.
Near the end of the evening, a flower vendor made her way through the cafe. We watched as the old gentleman purchased a bouquet. Artfully, he plucked two flowers from the bunch, presented the bouquet to his lady, and gave her a kiss. Then, bowing smartly in our direction, he held out a rose, one for each of us.
We had found our Paris.