50 Stories, Week 3: Strangers of Sacre Coeur

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I’d dreamt of visiting Paris for as long as I could remember. My grandparents were Canadian and while their French was nothing like the language I would come to know and love, I was smitten with even the idea of it. Growing up, I watched An American in Paris, Funny Face and Casablanca with my father and promptly became a francophile. I took French language courses in high school and college, studied the apparent ease of a French woman’s style, and enjoyed as many buttery flaky baked goods as I could get my hands on. 

After I finally had a job that paid a decent salary, I decided to get myself to France. The timing seemed ideal – I’d recently been through a break-up, and having a three-year-old son reminded me daily that my life was whipping by. I needed to take care of myself, I needed inspiration and adoration – even if it came from strangers in a different country.

So, on my 32nd birthday, I flew from San Francisco to Paris. By the time I checked into my chambre d’hote in Montmartre and not yet having a chance to register that I’d arrived, my jetlagged induced haze turned quickly to sleep. When I awoke, it was already dusk, the last pale pink light starting to descend on the horizon. I stood on my balcony and felt the cool air, soothing my dehydrated skin. I quickly washed my face and put on fresh clothes, determined to catch the last rays of sun from the view at Sacre Coeur. 

I began my ascent up the steps toward the basilica. I didn’t want to wimp out and take the funiculaire, at least not the first time. I felt determined that if I reached the top without stopping, I would somehow be rewarded with a more spectacular view than those around me, stopping between each step to catch their breath. Rookies.

 Even though I was getting closer, Sacre Coeur seemed like it was fading upward, and I couldn’t move fast enough to reach it. Until finally, after a turn of stairs, I found myself on the platform at the base of the church, protected by a hip-height stone ledge, and catching my breath at the view. The pinks and oranges on the horizon were like a delineation between heaven and earth, the subdued lights from buildings mirroring the flickering stars of the early night sky. 

Paris was luminous, just for me.

I didn’t go inside the basilica. I stood on that platform, taking in every person, the way they dressed, their accents and languages, their voices and laughter. Everything seemed possible and plausible. It was the perfect state of mind. 

And then my eye caught a handsome young man, half sitting on the ledge, occasionally scribbling into a notebook. He was around my age, with dark, thick, wavy hair, dark eyes, and a short but scruffy beard. He was wearing a motorcycle jacket and his helmet rested on the ledge behind him. It could have been the breathtaking quality of the light or the crisp early spring air, but whatever it was, I felt fearless. So I walked right up to him.

“Avez-vous un autre caske?,” I asked, nonchalantly.

“Pardon?” He looked up from his notebook, and smiled.

“Avez-vous un autre caske? Shit, am I saying that right?”

“Oui, yes, you are saying it right.” Oh thank god he speaks English. “But I’m confused as to why you’re asking me if I have another helmet.” Oh he speaks English and he’s got a sexy French accent.

“Well, I was actually wondering if you’d take me for a ride. Show me the sights.” I couldn’t believe I’d said that out loud. Apparently, I had left my discretion at the hotel, along with my jetlag. He smiled again. His dark eyes and long lashes were all for me.

“You don’t look like a tourist. Actually, I thought you fit right in here.” Yes. Yes, I do. 

“You could not have given me a nicer compliment.” I nervously pushed my hands deep into my coat pockets, both acknowledging the cool air and trying to keep an air of coyness about me. 

And then he DID give me a nicer compliment.

“Yes, and your French is perfect.” 

Was I about to have a Parisian affair to remember? Would he sweep me off my feet? Would we have a storybook romance? 

“What are you writing?” I asked.

“What, this? Well, it’s a musical.”

Ahhhh. He’s gay. Of course he’s gay, how many handsome, well dressed, lovely men did I know who liked musicals AND wanted to flirt with me? Zero. Though he did also have a starving-artist look about him, so I held out hope. 

“Oh. A musical. How nice.” I began to feel deflated around the same time the sun finally dipped below the horizon.

“Do I detect a note of sarcasm? It’s hard to tell with my limited English.” He smiled. Now who was being coy?

“OK, we both know you speak and understand English perfectly well. Sorry, it wasn’t sarcasm, maybe disappointment, that’s all. Anyhow, what’s the musical about?”

“Disappointment? You had expectations already? My god, we just met! Pfff, American women!”

“What is that supposed to mean, American women?! How many American women approach you and ask, in French no less, if you have another helmet so that you can take her for a ride on your motorcycle? Hmmm?!”

This time he let out a laugh and motioned for me to sit down. His teeth were funny and crooked but something I thought I might come to love. The beauty of that moment was that I was looking at this man, being free in Paris, asking for what I wanted, and receiving it. Like magic.

“The musical is unfinished and I can’t talk about it until it is, but suffice to say it’s about the love of one woman and conflict between brothers and…”

“Sounds like True West. Oh, sorry. That’s a play by…”

“Sam Shepard, yes, I know. I’m writing a musical, it’s a pretty good guess that I’d know a bit about plays, yes?” Again, that smile.

“Yes. Of course.” 

I looked away for a moment, reminding myself that I was actually in Paris. Finally, I’d made it to this place of love and passion and romance and history. The place I’d dreamed of visiting since I was a little girl. I took a slow breath and knew then that I would be hooked forever. 

“What’s your name?,” I asked.

“Guillaume. Et toi?”

“Christine. Je m’appelle Christine.”

Guillaume and I chatted for another few minutes until I could feel the jetlag setting in. He offered to take me for a ride the following evening but the whole thing suddenly felt too good to be true, so I thanked him for the conversation and went back to the hotel.

The following morning, there was an envelope under my door. Inside was a handwritten note (that I still have) from Guillaume.

If you still want to make a stroll in moto, it will be with pleasure. You can find me at the place we met yesterday evening. I’m certainly already there. If I do not see you this evening, I shall return tomorrow morning around noon. – Guillaume.

Oh Guillaume.

We met that evening and he did indeed give me a tour of Paris by motorcycle. He even showed me the secret vineyards near Montmartre. The following night we went to see a bizarre avant-garde play, the plot of which I can’t recall, only that I left feeling slightly morose and inspired at the same time. And the night after that we saw what I remember to be an incredible performance of Romeo et Juliette at the Opera house. It wasn’t a ballet per se, it was a completely new adaptation, very modern. We had drinks after at a small bar inside the Trocadero, where I felt like I was living inside my daydreams.

And then of course, it was over. We said our goodbyes. I think we both knew deep down that our time together was romantic but not intimate. Guillaume was in the middle of something with someone, and I was, too. He ended up marrying a beautiful woman a few years ago and has a little girl now, according to Facebook. Coincidentally, one of our conversations that first night was around advertising and marketing – an industry that we both found ourselves having careers in years later. 

It is strange to think of the people who come in and out of our lives – all of the what-ifs, and the might-have-beens. I saw Guillaume again briefly a year later when I returned to Paris with my son and now-ex in tow. For some reason, the language barrier was more difficult the second time around. Maybe it was because we hadn’t been practicing. Or maybe it was because the first time we met had an air of possibility, as opposed to the second time when I brought my real life along with me. 

Regardless, I’m forever grateful to Guillaume for helping me to see Paris for all that it is, and reminding me how powerful it can be to take a chance on a stranger. I only hope I can give that gift to someone in my lifetime.