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.

Jaipur: Are the kids alright?

Much has happened since I arrived in Jaipur, so lemme dig in…

I have been volunteering with an organization that runs a school for street kids in a neighborhood outside of Jaipur. They own the school and a homestay, which are about 7km apart. If you’ve never stayed in a dormitory situation in a developing country, its kind of like camping indoors. I share a basic room and bathroom with two women (from Italy and Sweden.) When I say basic, imagine a linoleum floor, four walls, metal bunk beds, a dense pillow, bottom sheet, and a heavy, dusty blanket. Because its winter here, people! In the common area, there are plastic cushions on the floor to sit for dinner with individual tiny tables about six inches off the floor. Too short to stick my legs under, sadly. A tasty vegetarian lunch and dinner are prepared for us daily and we are responsible for cleaning up after ourselves. This includes a regular wash with soapy water and then heating the kettle to pour boiling water over our dishes. You know, to be safe. No trash bags are provided so we improvise – empty cereal boxes work well. Every morning, we remind the ‘house mom’ to turn on the water so we can do things like flush the toilet (but not with toilet paper, this is thrown in a bag (or cereal box!) This is common in many developing countries without proper sanitation, so I’m used to it. Much like the electricity going out at least once a day.) We wash our clothes in a bucket – after only a day in the dust, the water turns a murky brown – and hang them to dry up on the roof. Where they get nice and dusty again. Circle of life!

When we arrive at the school in the morning, after an auto-rickshaw drive that has become second nature but objectively, is still slightly sketchy and loud, the kids are doing their physical exercises. Then classes separate and my 4-5 kids sit and wait patiently to be taught English.

I lie. There is nothing patient about the 9-11 year olds in my group. They are rowdy. They are also smart enough to regurgitate what they’ve been taught without truly understanding context or meaning. Maybe that is how learning starts, non? We’ve been working on emotions, body parts, and what they want to be when they grow up. This is a little heartbreaking as one of them wants to be a cricket player and he doesn’t seem to be so naturally inclined. But hey, dreams are dreams, right? We practice reading and writing, and then about 5 minutes before the break they start asking “Didi, didi, time? Time!” Didi is like ‘older sister’ but also teacher in this case. They want to know how long before they can go play cricket or badminton, and they never want to come back because math follows break and if you think learning math on its own can be tough, try learning it from a native English speaker when you barely understand English.

What I have found most challenging here is the lack of curriculum. Because this is not a government run or private licensed school, there is no required curriculum or teaching agenda. How can you give a test on Friday when you’re not building off on previous information? Its not connected, its isolated. There is just one full-time teacher, who hopes to take his test soon to become a public school teacher. Some days 10 kids show up, some kids 30. It depends on what is going on in their family’s lives. The resources are limited, all coming in forms of donations. They do not accept financial donations or do any fundraising, because of the complicated status of an NGO working under a for-profit company. Their hands are tied. And while they have the best of intentions, it is difficult to see the potential because real change can only happen in small, incremental steps. Digital learning might go a long way to bridge the gap.

Another challenge is that the kids are often hitting each other. It starts out with nasty, cutting words first. I can’t understand Hindi, but I know what it looks like when someone is talking shit. Then one of them reacts, and the next thing you know, they are yelling and smacking the shit out of each other. No tears, just a lot of anger. When I had my orientation, I was told not to smile at them (and not to smile at any men, but I’d already received that memo.) I’m generally a happy, nice person so it was difficult to pull this off but I get it – we don’t want them to think I’m weak because they won’t listen. The thing is, culturally it seems the teachers here are strict. Forceful even, to the point where they threaten to hit the kids in order to get them to do as asked. So, of course, that is how they react with each other. And I would imagine the scenario could be similar at home. Truly, though, they just want to be held, hugged, and played with like most children.

In other news, I made a friend when I arrived in Jaipur who looks uncannily like my older sister Kathy. We did some traveling together this past weekend, photos of our adventures and the children from school below.

Other observations and things I forgot to previously mention:

  1. I have faced two major fears (among others) so far: When I left Haridwar, it was 5am and no rickshaws were available to take me to the train station. The bell boy offered to drive me so I said yes. And then I saw my ride. A motorcycle! Me, my 40 lb suitcase, backpack, and the driver. And no helmets. But when in India, you gotta do what you gotta do. And I survived! So, I thought, ok, now I can take an inter-India flight. And I survived that, too!
  2. One of the first temple visits in Jaipur, we had a guide who told us that since we arrived just in time to witness the morning arti (blessing,) it was because the gods had brought us here. That there are no accidents, we are together in the moment for the sole reason that the gods divined it. It was karma. I can get behind that.
  3. Something that has been crazy frustrating to me and every other foreign woman I’ve met is dealing with groups of men on the street. Often, they say hello hello and stare but to engage in any way will give them the wrong idea, so we don’t and then they laugh at us. I have heard that in Northern India, particularly, the women are treated more unequally. The south seems to be more progressive, whatever that means. I’m checking out Mumbai this week, so will report back.
  4. One night trying to get back to the homestay, we had to haggle with the rickshaw driver but he wouldn’t give us an actual price. Instead, lots of head wobbles and then conferring in Hindi with the guy at the hotel and another rickshaw driver instead of talking to us ladies. Took five minutes for him to say 300 Rupees.
  5. Walking out of a store a few days ago, a bird shit on my head. Apparently, its good luck! Very auspicious.
  6. Oh and my rash is back, all over my neck and now my face. We think its either a delayed Malarone reaction or I’m just allergic to India. Either one is feasible at this point.

Photos!

These are my students – Komal, Sahil, Raghu, and Rohit.

And these are some other cute nuggets we play with during the breaks.

This is me and Daniela at the Anohki Museum, which is dedicated to the art of hand block printing.

This is Amer Fort. So big. And you can make out the ‘little wall of China’ that surrounds the old city.

These are beautiful elephants that we did not ride. Fortunately, more and more travelers are getting hip to the mistreatment of animals for use by tourists.

Lots of crazy detailed design within the fort, as well as the City Palace, and Hawa Mahal.

Below is the walk toward the Govind Dev Ji temple. It is dedicated to Lord Krishna and devotees pray here seven (7!) times a day.

Funny story. We got in line to get tickets for the temple. The lines are separated by men and women. So, we are waiting patiently. I am admiring all of the bright colors on these women. I smell this awesome sweet buttery smell, and I’m hungry and damn doesn’t that smell good? As we get closer to the window, we find out the line isn’t for tickets, its for food. The temple isn’t open for another half hour and these people needed sustenance. Lesson learned.

I can’t properly describe this and the photo below is shit but hear me out. This place gets up to 5,000 devotees per day. Everyone calmly walks into the temple and sits on the ground. We got there at 12pm for 12:30pm start. There were some small groups of people singing songs and clapping but generally, the mood was very calm and quiet. At 12:28pm, curtains were drawn and exposed were two small puppet-like figurines – of Krishna and his most devoted follower.

AND THE CROWD GOES WILD.

Everyone is up on their feet, praying, singing, filming, moving quickly toward the centerpiece. We are moved along, like in a mosh pit. Daniela and I are pulled along by a woman who insists we get up to the very front to see for ourselves. It becomes slightly claustrophobic but somehow we are spit out of the chaos. We follow the followers, who walk in a circle around Krishna’s stage, where they touch the wall with both hands and rest their foreheads while saying prayers. They touch the locks and chains on the doors surrounding Krishna, and then they are on with the rest of their day.