“Parisian Women on Bicycles” & “The Young Woman in the Café”
Two years ago today, I was in Paris. I was there for two weeks, and I loved it. Loved it so much that when I returned, I wrote a memoir about the experience. Following are two of the sketches from the memoir. I might publish the book of them sometime, but for now I hope you enjoy these two.
“Parisian Women on Bicycles”
Every morning while strolling or sitting in a cafe, I see them—women on bicycles in rush-hour traffic. Upright, intrepid, models of excellent posture, they ride fearlessly alongside city buses, their scarves flapping in their wakes. They wear skirts, high heels and no helmets, which simultaneously thrills and horrifies me. I don’t know these women, but I worry about them. I wonder what jobs they’re going to, and I wonder if, somewhere in the city, one of them might be killed that day riding to work. Somehow it seems impossible. I watch the buses, the trucks. There is a synchronicity in the traffic that precludes this from happening.
Not all of the women are objectively beautiful, I suppose, but they are all beautiful to me. Their bravery or foolhardiness imbues them with an exotic quality that makes them a joy to look at. The way they glide alongside the buses, the bus mirrors only inches from their heads; the way they smoothly negotiate turns at the intersections, following scooters right through holes between the cars; and the way they pedal crisply, careful not to get their heels caught on the pedals—all of this makes them living pieces of art moving through the city. I wonder if any of them are aware of how they add beauty to Paris, and I think some are.
These seem to have styled themselves especially for their commute, conveying the tacit attitude of “If I have to ride a bicycle, I’m at least going to look chic doing it.” Their hair is carefully coifed, their scarves bright and colorful against contrasting outfits. They pedal with faint, self-aware smiles on their faces, glancing at men like me out of the corners of their eyes. They flirt with us as they flirt with danger on the road.
I’m alone one morning waiting to cross the busy Quai de Montebello near Notre Dame when I witness a sight that nearly causes me to swoon. Coasting out of the rising sun is a cinnamon redhead (and I’m a fool for redheads) on a Tiffany blue bicycle. She wears a rakish pair of eyeglasses and a sheer blouse showing a black bra beneath. It’s the most shockingly sexy sight I’ve ever seen. My eyes must dilate because as she whisks by because she gives me a knowing smile. Men have left wives and children over less than this look, and for a secret moment I wish I were 20 years younger, and single, and on a bicycle beside her. But I’m none of those things.
I stand at the corner, ignoring the changing crosswalk signal, watching her pedal away into the distance until she crosses the Seine at the next bridge and I lose sight of her. I wish I had someone with me to be a witness to what I just saw, but reconsidering it, I’m glad that only I experienced the redhead on the bicycle. I know then and there that it’s a moment that was meant for me and me alone, and it’s one I’ll treasure until the end of my days.
“The Young Woman in the Café”
We arrive at the Musée d’Orsay, a former train station converted into a museum, an hour before it opens. The plaza in front of the entrance is windswept and empty except for three people huddling in the ticket line close to the building. Crossing the plaza, I spy a cafe across the quiet Rue de Lille.
“Let’s go have a café crème,” I say.
Alexas, having learned not to get between me and my desire for more coffee, acquiesces. We walk down the stairs, cross the street and enter the cafe. It is eight-thirty. Five locals crowd around the bar sipping espressos. One man reads a newspaper, Le Monde. I smile at the waiter and say, “Bonjour.” This is our third morning in Paris, and despite the cold I have coming on from my rain-walking the day before, I’m feeling confident. I ask in French if we can sit at a table just inside the doorway with a clear view of the street and the Musée d’Orsay across it.
“Pouvon nous nous asseoir ici?” I ask.
The waiter nods crisply and says, “Oui, monsieur—anywhere you like.”
We sit and he hands us a pair of menus. Feeling the effects of a cold coming on—congestion and fatigue—I decide I want some jus d’orange with my café crème, and so I order a complete petit dejeuner, which comes with both and a croissant. Alexas has thé, or tea, and nothing to eat.
As we wait for our food to arrive, we discuss my cold, which, since I’m a mild hypochondriac, Alexas wisely decides to downplay. “You’ll be fine,” she says over and over. Temporarily appeased, I look around the cafe.
There is a ground-level seating area around the bar, and two other seating areas up some steps. There are mirrors on the walls, probably to give the illusion that the place is larger than it actually is. Our table is tin- or aluminum-topped, and I’m staring at the reflection the overhead lights make in it when our orders arrive.
“Bon appetit,” the waiter says and walks away.
Now, you’re probably wondering, “If this sketch is entitled ‘The Young Woman in the Cafe,’ then where is she?” Well, she’s almost here. I want to give you some of the atmosphere first, because the look of the cafe and the feeling you get from the young woman are—
Wait, she’s here.
She walks in and speaks in French to the barman. Her body language suggests that she has never been here before, and the regulars who are comfortably gathered around the bar stop what they are doing to glance at her.
I’m a bad judge of people’s ages, always assuming they are younger than they actually are (because I don’t feel my own age), but something in the surety of her posture tells me she’s in her late twenties to early thirties. Like a lot of young women in Paris, she wears eyeglasses instead of contacts, and in a nicely fitting gray suit, she has the look of an Everywoman.
She goes to a table outside, hangs her purse on the chair back, and lights a cigarette. A lot of women in Paris smoke, I’ve noticed, and since I loathe smoking it makes me wonder if I could ever find them truly desirable—if I weren’t married, of course. Would I, like a lot of French men seem to, be able to overlook the habit? I’m not sure.
She shifts in her chair so that her profile is directly to me in the window. For a moment, as the sun catches her full in the face, I admire her. Her hair as black as a raven’s wing, her ordinary eyeglasses, her fine jaw line. She takes quick, nervous puffs on her cigarette, and when the waiter shows up with her espresso, she dumps an entire tube of sucre into it and stirs.
Practiced in the art of smoking and drinking coffee at the same time, she holds the cigarette in the crook between her fore and middle fingers, and pinches the tiny espresso cup handle between her forefinger and thumb. She sips the coffee, puts it down, puffs on the cigarette for a while and picks up the cup again. There is something desperate and lonely in this, and I start to wonder what that is and what her life is like.
Her legs are crossed and she leans back in the chair and gazes up the street at something I cannot see. Is she gazing at something, though, or is she thinking? I can’t tell.
Since she doesn’t have a wedding ring, I imagine that she recently split from her boyfriend. Who dumped whom, I wonder. The gazing and the nervous smoking suggest that he dumped her, or vice-versa and now she’s unsure if she made the right decision. But the contemplative way she sits back in her chair suggests detachment, as if she did what had to be done. The neatly pressed suit, her slender build, her shoes with a low heel—all of these belie a woman to whom career is paramount. She is advancing in her career, and the boyfriend resented it or was getting in the way with his neediness.
She turns her head to look at the looming Musée d’Orsay across the street and her black, black hair flounces on her collar, reminding me of a girlfriend who would make booty-calls on me, long before the term existed, and whose jaw was firmly set like this girl’s when she refused to stay the night and instead dressed in a rush and, keys jangling, hurried down the stairs.
Then again, maybe the girl’s demeanor has nothing to do with romance. Maybe she has a major presentation today, or maybe she is unemployed and this morning is the interview for her dream job. What kind of work she does would be anybody’s guess, and I leave the question at that.
I finish my croissant and café crème, washing it all down with the jus d’orange, and declare to Alexas that I’m not going to let my cold detract from this day. This is our third morning in Paris, and today we check out of the hotel and into an apartment near Notre Dame. We’re both excited about seeing a new neighborhood in Paris, and we discuss the plan to retrieve our bags from the hotel after enjoying the Musée d’Orsay for a few hours, and when I look up again the girl is gone. This pains me, because although she is a nameless stranger to me, I have moved over 40 times in my life and the idea of another person coming into and going out of my life fills me with an empty sensation, one that I have felt far too many times before.