I put out my hand and touched his arm but I didn’t know what to say.
‘Gilles…’ he said, putting out his hand for me to shake.
He pointed to the bridge I had been walking towards. ‘This is the edge of Paris, the ring road. There will be little there to interest a tourist.’
I was embarrassed and felt I was lucky to have found someone helpful before I ended up who knew where. There was no point being offended by the word tourist, but then they say getting lost is a good way to get to know a city.
‘The rain is stopping; would you like to walk with me? You know, if you are trying to find the monuments, you are going entirely in the wrong direction.’ He smiled but his eyes were still sad.
I blushed so hard my face felt hot. I nodded and followed him out of the bus shelter. I had crossed the street but I could tell we were heading back the way I had come. He stopped suddenly and pointed. I followed his finger as it pointed over the buildings and saw the top of the Eiffel Tower shrouded in bright clouds, a rainbow forming over it.
I smiled at him and thanked him profusely then prepared to continue walking on my own.
‘I can walk with you. If I go home too soon this little guy will wake up.’ He gently placed his palm on the sleeping baby’s head.
We fell into an easy conversation. I had heard that the French are reluctant to discuss their work but after he had asked me why I had come to Paris and I had waxed on about the art he said he worked in a museum and perhaps he could show me around. This was a dream conversation. If there had been a puppy on a lead and not a baby on his chest, I would have thought I had met the man of my dreams. He was a bit older than me, of course, and he looked tired, but he had a head of curly, brown hair and a mouthful of white teeth and he seemed kind.
As we walked I asked him about his work. He worked on restoration projects for the museum but he suddenly seemed cagey and didn’t appear to want to talk about it.
‘Hey you brought it up, mate,’ I thought.
The streets were still deserted but I could see a divided road ahead with the odd car travelling on it. He pointed at the road and said something in French.
I used my favourite French phrase, ‘je ne comprends pas,’ smiling apologetically.
He said it again slowly. ‘Avenue de la Grande Armée.’
The sun was out again. There was a bright blue sky above, not a cloud in sight. We walked under the trees towards the road and he pointed again. I moved around him and looked up the street.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The Arc de Triomphe capped the street that rose slowly away from me. He laughed at my excitement and pointed again, this time in the opposite direction. A giant white box rose in the distance, shiny in the afternoon sun.
“What on earth is that?”
He gently rocked the baby as he told me about La Defense. I didn’t want to seem like a country hick so I didn’t gush too much.
‘I live here.’ He pointed at a quiet street that sloped away from the little access road that ran parallel to the Avenue de la Grande Armée. He took out his wallet and handed me a smooth white card.
I stumbled out a ‘Merci’.
‘If you would like to visit the museum, just come to my office. I will take you.’
I gushed again, and thanked him profusely but he didn’t sound very enthusiastic about the offer. It was all very strange but it still felt like something out of a movie. The baby was awake now and making sweet little sounds. He turned the baby to show me his face. He was so sweet. I thought again how sad it was that his mother was too ill to enjoy him, to enjoy being his mother. Life can be funny sometimes, and cruel. Life could be very cruel.
I watched him walk away and turned back towards the Arc de Triomphe. My map made far more sense now that I had a large monument making a rather dramatic ‘You Are Here’ statement at the top of the wide avenue. A helicopter puttered above, and as I drew closer to the arch, I could hear the unmistakable sounds of a crowd. A cheer went up and the helicopter banked and whooshed away towards the Eiffel Tower, now standing tall over the buildings to my right.
At least I knew where all the people were now; a huge crowd lined the famous roundabout surrounding the Arc de Triomphe. I wandered along its outer edge, ensuring I was walking in the direction of the Eiffel Tower. I did not want to get lost again. I found a vantage point and looked up and down the cobblestoned road. My face must have been a picture of wonderment and confusion because a man started animatedly talking to me, in French of course.
‘si vous parlez lentement je peux comprendre…’ I said, hoping I would be able to understand him. I had been studying French on and off for a few years and really didn’t believe I would be able to understand him no matter how slowly he spoke.
‘Oh, you’re Australienne?” he said, a huge grin spreading across his face.
‘I love your country, although I have never been. I buy art, paintings from Alice Springs and sell to many people here in Europe. The art is much loved by Europeans, but I am told most Australians do not care for it.’
I had so many questions.
My first question; does everyone in Paris work in a museum, or with art, or have I just heard the most creative pick-up line known to man? My second question, and this one I asked him out loud, was what kind of art, what kind of paintings? I had other questions but they would have to wait.
He opened a satchel slung over his arm and pulled out a business card. I felt as though I had literally been handed two business cards in my entire life and both in the last half hour, and both by handsome, Frenchmen in the art business. What were the chances?
‘Oh, aboriginal art…’ I said.
He enthused some more, lapsing often into frantic French. I didn’t know a thing about Indigenous art. I am embarrassed to admit that I had more passion for European art than for the work done by our first people.
‘Drink?’ he said, pointing at the bistro a few hundred metres away, its red awning and banks of black and white chairs everything I was expecting from a bistro in Paris.
‘Okay, but only if you explain what the heck is going on here.’ I laughed and followed him to the café, him chattering and showing me the back of his card, the vibrant colours of the Australian desert printed on it.
That was when the helicopter made another run and the bikes flashed by, the riders in their bright livery looking like jockeys.
Apparently, I had stumbled across the final leg of the Tour de France.