24 July, 1994
Who knew it could be this hot in Paris? At least the boring tree-lined street provided some shade as I unfolded my map again and turned it this way and that. I folded it again and shoved it in my shoulder bag. I had no intention of being that tourist; the one who walks around, map flapping like a flag that says, ‘I don’t belong here’ and ‘please mug me.’ Making a decision based on very flimsy intel, I turned on my kitten heel and walked towards the Place d’étoile and the Arc de Triomphe. Or so I thought.
I wasn’t sure who I thought might be watching me, but I sauntered down that street. I wanted to show everyone (where were they?) that I was practically Parisienne. I belonged there, but obviously I didn’t because if I did, I clearly wouldn’t be out in the street, sauntering, as it turned out, away from Paris. A couple of cars slowed to navigate a roundabout. They seemed to be traveling together. One of the passengers called out to me in French. The others laughed and they continued on their slow drive. I felt exposed and vulnerable, but it was a little thrilling to be cat-called in French.
There was a rumble of thunder and a couple of fat raindrops hit the pavement in front of me. I looked around for some potential shelter. Perhaps a cute little bistro? A cafe with a view of The Eiffel Tower? I turned around and looked back the way I had come. Clouds were building in what I now know was the east, over the city although I couldn’t see it from the quiet, empty street.
If this was Paris, then I was underwhelmed. More thunder. I decided to keep walking and if all else failed I would get a taxi. As I clicked along the hot pavement, the fact that I had only seen two cars and neither of them were taxis was playing on my mind. Mum had begged me to stay safe, to not go off on my own and here I was off on my own and not another human in sight. A few hundred feet ahead I could see a bridge. It had green painted railings and a sweet little statue on the approach. Finally, a little bit of Paris I could get excited about. My pace quickened and I as I got closer, I thought I could hear rushing water. I imagined a rushing river, maybe this was my first sighting of the Seine. The little statue was a war memorial, a fresh-looking if slightly wilted wreath at its base commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Normandy landings a few days before.
Suddenly I could see the source of the humming sound was a mostly deserted six lane freeway disappearing into a tunnel. How disappointing and thoroughly un-French! Things were getting grim. A crack of lightning split the sky and a rumble of thunder accompanied it. Large splats of rain hit the pavement and I turned to look for shelter, this time in earnest. I spotted another pedestrian on the other side of the road. He was headed for a bus shelter. Instinctively, I looked both ways along the empty street, but it would have done me no good. I looked left and right, when I should have looked right and left, and ran across the street.
I made the shelter as the rain came down in sheets. In my usual Australian-extrovert way I launched into conversation with the guy who appeared to have a small backpack strapped to his chest. Wiping his face with a surprisingly elegant looking handkerchief, navy with white spots, he turned to smile at me, and I saw that it wasn’t a backpack at all, but a tiny baby strapped to his body. I had never, ever seen a man carrying a baby in a sling this way. In fact, I doubt then I had ever seen a woman ‘wearing’ one in my small, conservative town. These days they are fairly commonplace especially in upmarket areas. (Interesting, isn’t it, that the wealthier someone is, the more likely they are to embrace the more traditional methods of child-rearing; co-sleeping, home-made baby food, home birth even.)
I apologised for blathering on in English and greeted him in French. He greeted me in English, and we had a brief conversation, raising our voices to be heard over the drumming rain on the tin roof. He seemed very kind and open and his English was excellent. He promised to show me the way to the Arc de Triomphe once the rain stopped. It would exhaust itself quickly, he said, it’s a summer storm. I told him I knew all about summer storms, we had them in Australia, too. He did the usual thing, asking about Kangaroos and the Outback. He knew of a restaurant, right there in Paris that sold exotic meats like Kangaroo and Emu. I gushed about how I wanted to experience everything Paris had to offer, not sample food from home that I wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole anyway if I was at home.
I took out the map and he pulled a pen from inside his shirt. The baby hadn’t stirred the whole time but as he circled a few places and explained what they were, the little white-blond head started to move. He patted the baby’s back and made soothing sounds and the little head lolled to one side again. I asked how old the baby was. He told me the baby was two months, that his wife had had problems, and she was in the hospital. I told him I was sad for him. He said, ‘she might die.’ He said was very sad and did not want to live. I felt awful and not a little awkward. What do you say to someone you don’t know who tells you their wife might die, all while they have a tiny baby on their chest? I had no precedence for this. But then I was getting used to doing things for which I had no prior experience.
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.
‘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. 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.’ I smiled 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 thanked him and wished his wife all the best. It was all very strange and 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 strange sometimes, and cruel. Life can 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 rather large monument making a rather dramatic ‘You Are Here’ 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 cobblestone 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.