So Much Can Happen, In Paris, In A Day…
Paris on a Summer Saturday, 1989.
Stepping from the darkness of the Metro station into the bright sunshine outside, Julie blinked a couple of times at the man in front of her. She lifted her hand to shade her eyes. Yes, he did seem to be real even if he looked as though he’d stepped from a movie set in 1981. What on earth is he wearing? She looked nervously at her friend, but he was already walking away. It seemed they’d decided to follow this man who had accosted them as soon as they left the Metro. Lying in wait for unsuspecting tourists. Well, thought Julie, he’s met his match here; I am the most suspecting tourist in the city. Suspicious, she corrected her inner voice, the word is suspicious. She rolled her eyes at herself and followed the guy. Her friend didn’t seem concerned and it wasn’t like they had much choice, lost as they were.
The man was friendly, really friendly, she had to give him that. They had broken the unwritten law of backpacking; standing, obviously lost, in front of the Metro. He’d been sitting on a stool at what looked like the back entry to a café across the street and seemed to be very keen to offer his help. Decidedly predatory behaviour, Julie thought immediately, keeping a bit of distance between them. The fact that his jacket was modelled on Michael Jackson’s Thriller costume only added to his air of danger. Or ridiculousness. She had never seen anyone wearing a jacket like it.
They walked past the back entry of the café he had come from and glancing along a laneway, Julie could see a busy square, the morning market in full swing, but their self-appointed guide took them along a narrow side street, leaving the busy market behind. Julie hoped the quiet lane would bring them back around to a street with more people. Or witnesses, she joked quietly, nudging her friend who had dropped back a little. He had been walking beside the man in the red jacket but had obviously decided against it.
This man, the one she called her friend, wasn’t really a friend. He was, at best, a traveling companion. They’d met on the train, both holding a copy of the green brochure from a youth hostel in Paris. ‘Yout Hostel’ the bold white font read. Julie’s cousin had recommended it after a stay the previous summer. Julie was unnerved by the word ‘yout’, but her cousin had said it was excellent regardless of the poor spelling. Julie was a stickler for spelling.
Relieved to finally be in Paris after the three weeks she’d spent on the road, Julie was looking forward to finding the hostel. She desperately wanted a hot shower and a good sleep before heading to her home-bound train early the next morning. She would board the ferry and not look back. What was supposed to be a relaxing break before starting her new job had turned into an exhausting ordeal. She had visited Paris a few times and had seen all there was to see, so she would spend her last day of vacation relaxing and reading.
Following the man in the red jacket, she found it hard to enjoy the impromptu tour through what looked like very pretty streets. For starters, her French wasn’t just rusty, it was a car-wreck on cinderblocks. She had studied Chinese and Spanish at school and was forcing her mind back to primary school French lessons with Madame Hook. Madame Hook was a very pretty young woman from Marseille who had married an Englishman. Most of the boys in the class were deeply in love with her and the rest of the class found it hard to concentrate on the lessons because Madame Hook’s husband was a Captain in the Royal Navy. That was too much information for her class. Nobody learnt much French that term but by the following term he had made Commodore.
The day was heating up as they walked, even in the shady laneways. Julie felt a trickle of sweat run down her back and into her jeans. The guy in the red jacket continued just a few steps ahead, talking and walking. She smiled at him and nodded. Not for the first time, she wondered what the big deal was about traveling. They say the best thing about traveling solo is meeting new people. In Julie’s opinion, it was also the worst thing. Here she was, following a stranger along a deserted street. She pictured her mother’s disapproving face. Mother had warned her about strange men and here she was with two of the strangest. She looked at her current travel companion. He was a man of few words, but she felt safer to have a tall, muscly guy with her, even if he didn’t laugh at her jokes. She even managed to overlook that he hadn’t even introduced himself.
Julie focused on the man in the red jacket again. He gestured, smiling, animatedly. He pointed at a blue plaque on the wall of a building. He was obviously describing their surroundings. She held tight to her backpack out of habit but was surprised to find herself relaxing a little during the walk. He turned and smiled at her. It was a nice smile, so she smiled back. She was actually enjoying herself, a novel experience for her, although her travel-buddy still seemed unsure, constantly looking from the tattered map back toward the crowded square.
He stopped midway along the quiet laneway. There was a flight of stone stairs. He began to talk, pointing along the street and up the stairs. Julie nodded enthusiastically. She had no idea why she was pretending she could understand him. He could have been reciting poetry – or the phone directory – for all she knew. Her travel-buddy was still engrossed in his map. He kept turning it around and scratching his head, so he did not have an air of someone who knew where they were going.
The man in the red jacket kept talking. It was getting warm. He must have been boiling in that jacket, but he looked cool as a cucumber. To his credit, he didn’t seem worried that they couldn’t understand him, although when his hand reached for hers, she smiled and gave a little shake of the head.
She was sure it was just a cultural thing and not a come on, and he hadn’t looked at all disappointed when she’d refused to take his hand. She’d experienced her share of extended hands throughout Europe, her acquaintances on the road breezily dismissing the gesture as cultural. They were so well-travelled, blasé and mature, she thought, hoping that she would be that way by the end of her trip. She didn’t even like holding her boyfriend’s hand, she had said, to laughter. The real joke was that she didn’t have a boyfriend.
Perhaps he was offering to take her heavy backpack, she thought. Either way, hand or pack, she wasn’t giving him an inch. Her travel buddy had given up on the map and now kept his eyes on his feet. Their guide turned and bounded up the stairs, so Julie and her friend followed. Perhaps he was offering to help her up the steep stairs, she thought. They reached the top of the stairs and kept walking. She could hear the noise of the market again, getting closer. It was a beautiful day. The sunlight filtered through the leaves on the tree in the middle of the square. Julie was relieved that they had left the rain behind in Amsterdam.
“La!” the man said, pointing at the sign across a tree-lined street. ‘Yout Hostel’ the sign read. No ‘h’, just like the brochure.
From where they stood, she could just make out the market square along another narrow street. He pointed at the brochure and smiled, talking the whole time.
Her now apparently ex-travel buddy simply made his way across the street without a thank you or goodbye. Julie reached for the 10f note in her pocket and offered it to her impromptu guide, who had turned out to be quite the gentleman. He looked a little amused and started again to speak in rapid-fire French.
“Je ne comprends pas.”
Julie remembered enough French to tell someone she couldn’t understand them. And she could order a coke. She called it survival French.
“Oh,” he said, “you are Anglaise?”
He was smiling. He had brilliant white teeth and black hair that curled at the back. He was actually very nice looking now that her panic and adrenalin had abated.
“Anglaise. English, Oui.”
“Why did you not tell me? I have just told you everything about these streets. In French!” He laughed, bending over, slapping his knee. It seemed such an old-man gesture.
She felt her face burning.
“I am called Eric,” he said, and this time she shook the hand that was offered.
“Hi, Eric. I am called…” she began, “er…I’m Julie.” She was blushing the colour of his jacket.
“So, there is your Yout Hostel. I am not sure what happened to the ‘h’.”
He said ‘h’ in the French way, of course; ‘hash’ It made Julie smile. He smiled again and Julie felt her knees go weak in a couple of places. It was a new and unsettling feeling, but not unpleasant.
“If you like, get settled and if you want to have some lunch, come back and see me at my café, mmm?”
“Oh…” she said, looking back the way they had come.
“You just need to cross the big square, where the market is, and you will find the Metro. And me! I brought you the long way because the market is crazy and the streets are so beautiful,” he said, looking towards the square.
“Um, okay, it’s your café?”
“It’s my mother’s café and my cousin, Charlie, has the bar opposite. You can’t see it from here, but it’s past the market.”
He pointed down the street to where she could see the market vendors packing away their wares.
“Okay, Julie, I need to get back to the café, my mother will need help now that the market is closing. That is our very busy time. You will come, around two?”
Eric was backing away from her towards the square, rather than the way they had come through the quiet back streets.
“Yes, okay! Why not?” Julie gave him an awkward, two-thumbs-up gesture that she instantly regretted, keeping the smile on her face even though she was dying inside.
Oh, Julie, why are you so weird?
His jacket is weird. He might like weird girls her inner voice said. For the first time it sounded quite supportive; it usually mocked her relentlessly and sounded exactly like her sister.
Eric laughed and punched the air, looking happier than anyone she had ever seen before.
Yes, definitely weird.
Making her way across the small square, her face still burning with a mixture of embarrassment and something that may or may not have been joy, she gratefully put her backpack down and waited at the small reception desk for someone to help her.
The guy from the train was still waiting in the cool gloom of the small foyer but didn’t acknowledge Julie. She refused to think of him as a travel buddy or friend anymore. He sat on the floor, the contents of his pack spilling around him. Now that guy is weird, she thought, turning around to face the small reception desk. She could see the silhouette of a person through the lace curtain on the door behind the desk. She placed her brochure on the desk and practiced her speech. Bonjour, she v… what is that word, she thought. Un lit, that’s it, don’t pronounce the t, she reminded herself.
“Hello?” Julie called.
Her ex-travel buddy looked up at her and grimaced.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” He growled in deeply accented English.
Before Julie could ask why, the door opened and a short, balding man popped his head through the opening, a scowl on his face. He looked from Julie to the guy and back again, rolled his eyes and shut the door again.
“He told me he has no room. All the dorms are full. I am going to another hostel. I called my friend and now I am waiting.”
He pointed at the pay-phone box built into the corner of the lobby. It was accompanied by a table-football game, a cigarette machine and various smoke-stained easy chairs. Julie was unsure if he was asking her to accompany him.
“Right. Thanks,” she said.
She sat on one of the chairs in the lobby and began undoing the buckles of her pack. This is what she did when she felt awkward. She took the book from the top of the pack and started reading. She’d finished it before she reached Athens and really should have swapped it for another at one of the hostels, but she was afraid she’d be accused of stealing. She and her ex-friend sat in silence for what seemed like an eternity.
Julie checked her watch but didn’t see the time. She wasn’t sure what to do. She hadn’t encountered a full hostel before. A man’s voice echoed across the square outside and Julie found herself hoping it would be Eric. Her inner voice began to mock again. Annoyed at herself for being such a cliché, she turned to see a group of men walking towards the hostel. They were all tall, blonde and wearing various rock band t-shirts.
“Anders?” one of them called. He looked like Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves. Anders jumped up and grabbed his pack, bolting through the door as the group crowded around. There was a lot of handshaking and shouting. They were clearly overjoyed to see their friend. The group seemed to fill the tiny street as they took turns shaking hands with Anders. It was nice to finally put a name to a face.
Thanks, bye, Anders. Have a nice life.
Julie smiled at her own sarcasm. If she could have high-fived her inner-voice she would have. She turned in the faded, yellow seat and watched Anders and his friends walk back towards the stairs she had taken with Eric.
Not one person over the course of her three-week holiday, from London to Athens and back to Paris, had shown her the slightest interest. At times, it was almost as if she was invisible. Now, here was a man, with his own café, showing a lot of interest. A handsome man, her inner voice pointed out. She had no precedent for this. Nothing like this had ever happened to her before. There has to be something wrong with him, she decided. Definitely a serial killer. He was wearing a red leather jacket in the middle of summer after all.
Julie sat back into the chair and rested the book on her lap. Her sister, Jane, the real one, not the voice in her head, was always telling her that all foreign guys are perverts and there was only a small step down from pervert to serial killer. Julie furrowed her brow, trying to come up with another conclusion as to why Eric might have been so keen to see her again. She allowed herself a moment to consider that he might have actually found her attractive and waited for the mocking to start. Radio silence. What would Jane know anyway? She was twenty-five and thought a hen weekend in Blackpool the height of sophistication.
Two girls walked through the foyer and smiled at Julie on their way out the front door. She watched them go. An old couple walked hand in hand through the square, the husband pulling the shopping behind in a floral trolley. The market was finished; people were heading home for their afternoon nap. The city would be deserted for the next couple of hours, so she really had to get her accommodation sorted or she’d be sleeping on the platform at Gare du Nord, an idea that did not appeal one bit.
She stood and pushed her book back into her pack. Standing in an empty foyer wasn’t getting her anywhere. She was about to pick up her discarded brochure from the desk and go on her way when she noticed the man’s silhouette was once more approaching the lace-curtained window.
The door opened and the small man surveyed the foyer.
“Il a quitté?” he said softly.
“Er, je ne comprends pas. Je parle Anglais,” Julie stammered. She blushed and Madame Hook’s pretty but disapproving face came to mind.
“He has gone? The German?” The small man spat the words out.
“Oh yes, he left, he said you had no rooms?”
“No room for Germans, no, but you can’t print that in a brochure, can you?”
“Is it just you? You want a dorm bed? Only women in that part of the hostel, okay?”
“Yes!” Julie seemed to startle the elderly man with her enthusiasm. “This is turning out to be an excellent day! And to think I wasn’t even going to come to Paris. I’ve been here a few times and it’s not really my cup of tea.”
The man handed her the key but looked as though he wanted to snatch it back.
“Mademoiselle, Paris is the best city in the world.” He puffed his chest up. Julie couldn’t believe she had just offended the old man, only the second person who had shown her any kindness in the last three weeks. The first being Eric, but he was possibly only after one thing, or was a serial killer.
“No, I love Paris, really, I just don’t know it well. I haven’t been here since I was twelve. It’s boring for a little kid.”
The smile that had been inching across his face with the word ‘love’, fell into a frown again around about the word ‘boring’.
“I’m sorry, I am being so rude. It was a school trip and I was homesick. I am going to enjoy Paris this time. I promise!” she said.
He put his hand on his chest over his heart and closed his eyes. “This time, in Paris, you are going to fall in love!” he said softly.
Julie was pretty sure he was talking about falling in love with the city, but she realised that she was suddenly open to other possibilities…
to be continued…
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Copyright: Christine Betts
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