There is a wonderful café in Bastille, an area in Paris’ 11th arrondisement — a neighborhood near the city’s center.
The summer I spent in Paris, I would go there during the day — to write, to finish readings for class, or to watch the people who sat at tables next to mine or passed by me on the street. I would order a few espresso shots (in Europe, they are as delicious as they are potent) and scribble until my hands hurt — imagining short stories with the people who came and went as characters.
Everyone around me always seemed so lively, so interesting. I have never been a capable artist — besides drawing a listless stick figure here and there — but I wanted to capture them in writing at least. The tall, lithe waitress with auburn hair that was so shiny it sparkled as she brought out baskets of bread and collected dirty dishes under the sun. The elderly man who walked by the café every afternoon around two with his dog — a scruffy, white ball of fur that barked endlessly. The loud teenagers who came tumbling and giggling out of the convenience store next door with tall cans of Amsterdams — deadly, Canadian beer that seemed to be everywhere in the city.
Paris was magical to me — a small, tightly compressed city that was as full of whimsy and romance as it was history and culture. I had loved it — or, rather, my perception of it — since I was a little girl growing up in New Orleans, where French influence is ubiquitous and inescapable. I went because films like Breathless and the ever-beloved Amélie made it seem like a place anyone could go to be someone. Generations of artists, writers, lovers, and students had flocked there for inspiration, adventure, or just to feel alive. Like them, I wanted to find myself in the most cliché of ways possible.
Final exams loomed towards the end of the summer, and one afternoon, I headed to the café so I could begin studying. Soon after I found a spot outside, an older woman sat at the table across from mine, dropping her bag on the ground with a loud thwack that made me look up momentarily from my reading, startled.
I had seen her several times over the course of the last two weeks. We had never said anything to one another, but I knew she was American from the heavily accented French she used to speak with the waiters. She smiled at me. I nodded politely, a little embarrassed for gawking, and looked back down at my book.
A few minutes later, she asked me what I was reading.
“Oh.” I closed the book and looked at its title, as if I needed a reminder — even though I had spent the last few days analyzing it until I felt like my brains were going to start dripping out of my ears. “It’s called ‘On ne badine pas avec l’amour.’ Uh, ‘You Don’t Mess With Love.’ It’s a play. This guy Alfred de Musset wrote it.”
Alfred de Musset, according to my theater professor, was one of the brilliant and tragically underrated French playwrights of the last two centuries. The play revolved around three characters — a man who strings along a woman because he is in love with another woman who will not have him. I didn’t think that de Musset articulated the human condition, as my professor claimed, so much as he did the unfortunate dating style of most men under the age of 25. Mostly, I just spent class hoping that she wouldn’t call on me on to help act out scenes in front of the other students.
The older woman’s eyes widened.
“I read that when I was in school!” she said, raising her voice over the din of everyone else around us. “I loved it! Do you go to school here?”
I explained that, no, I was only on an exchange program for the summer and that I would be leaving the next Sunday.
“So…are you here on business or…?” I added, feeling as though she expected me to ask about her life as well.
“I was here for a conference, but I stayed for an extra few days,” she said and added shyly, “This is the first time I’ve been to Paris. It’s amazing. I’m from South Carolina — Charleston, originally.”
She was Southern personality personified — friendly but just a little bit too ready to talk effusively about her life.
“Yeah, yeah it’s pretty amazing.”
“What do you study in school?”
“Oh, I’m an Economics major…but I also study French. It’s kind of just a side thing.”
“I studied French during college as well!” She clapped her hands in enthusiasm, inching her chair closer to mine. “That’s actually when I read ‘On ne badine pas avec l’amour.’ I never got the chance to study here during college, but I wish I had!”
“Oh, wow. I mean, you’re here now.” I struggled to make my tone seem less flat, less obliging. I needed to finish reading because I had to meet a friend in under an hour, but I would have felt rude cutting the conversation short. She was alone; the waiter had not yet come with her order; and I had already started to entertain her.
“Yes, after an entire lifetime!” She laughed. “But, I love it so much here. I could move here, you know?”
“Why don’t you?” As soon as those words came out of my mouth, I regretted them. Venturing too far into personal territory was dangerous — it could invite an overly specific explanation from her that I didn’t want to hear, not when I had work to do.
She shook her head and stretched her lips, thin and wide in a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. At that moment, it struck me that we hadn’t introduced ourselves to one another. I wondered if it was too late to ask her what her name was. I wondered if I cared enough to ask.
“I have a life back home — a husband and kids. Everything and everyone I know is back in Charleston. I can’t just up and move here. You know what I mean?”
There was an awkward pause, during which we stared at one another — unsure how to move this conversation forward. Or unwilling, on my part.
Finally, she cleared her throat and pointed at my book. “There’s this great line in that…’La vie est un sommeil. L’amour en est le rêve.’ Life is sleep. Love is the dream.”
“That’s gorgeous,” I murmured, making a mental note to look for the part she’d referenced. The trick to writing an A+ literature essay was sounding as pretentious as possible. A few gut-wrenching quotes and I could churn out my final essay in an instant — which left more time to explore. Priorities.
“I know that de Musset means romantic love.
“It is a play about romance.”
“But I take that line to also mean love of places, love of things — all of these things you love that make your life more wonderful. And I love Paris. Being here, visiting all of the places I’d studied in classes or books, and doing all of the things I’ve always wanted to do…well, it’s as much of a dream as anything else.”
“You sound as though you don’t want to leave.” Neither did I.
“Oh, yes. I don’t know when I’ll have the time to come back here — you know, I did want to move here when I was younger.”
“I know you think it is, but it’s not too late.” I cringed, realizing that I sounded like an excerpt from a self-help book — targeted towards soccer moms and people who cried during Eat, Pray, Love…they were not mutually exclusive crowds.
“Dreams don’t last. And you almost always forget them when you wake up.”
“I don’t know. Sometimes, I remember them — if they’re particularly vivid. I write them down from time to time.”
I checked my watch. Half past five. I’d promised that I would meet my friend, who was not familiar with the Bastille neighborhood, at the metro stop a few blocks away. We planned to go to dinner before checking out some bars, later in the night. This meant finding a boulangerie and stocking up on pastries because there is no better place in the world than Paris to do that. I was going to go home with a drastically wider waistline, but it was worth it if it meant that I could eat five pains aux chocolates a day.
“You never get them quite right, even if you do remember them. It’s never the same.”
I stood up and began collecting my papers and books, stuffing them into my bag. “I’m sorry. I have to go. It was great talking to you, uh…?”
“Meredith.” She smiled again. This time, the corners of her eyes crinkled. “And you?”
I stacked my dirty dishes and slung my bag over my shoulder. I wondered if I could drag my friend out to a nightclub tonight as well. Perhaps with the right amount of nagging.
As I stepped out from under the veranda, Meredith called after me, “Well, Stephanie, it was nice meeting you…and I hope that you remember your dreams for as long you can.”