It’s now officially ‘that time of year,’ just a week away from the first day of winter and each day as I walk home in the late afternoon, I look up and marvel at the endless, twinkling lights that have been draped from building to building, some in the shape of huge snowflakes, others in more simplistic yet beautiful festive formations.
Christmas is unquestionably upon us. Each afternoon delivers a little treat in the form of a post lunch window of sunlight, before casting evening shadows at approximately 4.30pm.
The chestnut roasters on street corners are busy at this time of year. I always look on with slight amusement as tourists haggle for a better price during the summer months and now, the city is reasonably quiet and the roasters wrap a handful of chestnuts into newspaper with a new found purpose. The buttery scents from the boulangeries, married with the smell of roasting chestnuts, complete with twinkling lights under a freezing night sky, is enough to send me into a complete episode of warm fuzzies.
The collars of winter coats are adjusted under the chins Parisians as they emerge from the metro and the mood is happy and wintery and I can’t stop humming ‘it’s the most wonderful time of the year’.
One thing that I’m becoming increasingly used to, is the delayed delivery of ‘l’addition’ to my table at the end of a meal or a simple glass of wine or cup of coffee.
It is not that the waiters are rude, or complacent, more that they encourage loitering in this city; there is no hurry to move on and the table (once occupied) is, quite literally, yours for as long as you may wish to occupy it. As a person who hails from a city where café tables are filled with screaming children and immense congregations of adults who ignore the occupants of high chairs as they throw fists of smashed avocado in any direction they wish while queues of people wrap their way out the door of cafés, resulting in the bill being delivered with a swiftness reserved for an eviction of squatters in a decrepit house, it has taken me quite a while to get used to the fact that it’s quite ok to occupy a seat in Parisian cafés for hours if one may wish to do so.
The absence of high chairs and congregations of entire mothers groups and the sounds of screaming children is a welcome bonus, and without sounding like a horrible old woman (I know, I do), I thoroughly enjoy the civilised behaviours dans la terrasse in this city.
Last week I sat outside of a café not far from the Sorbonne, catching the last of the afternoon sun while completing several rounds of my favourite mental exercise – people watching.
This habit is endless and cliched and oh-so-satisfying and on this particular occasion my attention was drawn to the couple on the table in front of me. The mood was loving and kind as they sipped their wine looking longingly into each other’s eyes. I penned a novel in my mind as I observed their nuanced behaviours, with the final chapter written as he stood up and kissed her goodbye- it was long and passionate. He rubbed her back before adjusting the scarf wrapped through her hair and I tapped my foot on the concrete before dropping my eyes to an invisible text book on my table in a desperate attempt not to be caught writing their love story in my mind.
And just like that, they were gone. The woman disappeared down the stairs and into the metro station, he wandered down the street, his shoulders held high and his demeanour proud.
As I took the final sip from my glass my eyes fell back to the scarf wearing woman’s seat where her phone sat, a lonely reminder of their romantic rendez-vous.
My worst nightmare is leaving my phone on the back seat of a taxi, or in the pocket of an aeroplane seat or in the cinema- anywhere for that matter. I pat myself down all too frequently chanting ‘phone, purse, keys’ before scrambling through my handbag in haste as if the former three items might have grown wings and learnt to fly in the time it has taken me to finish my foie gras.
When I noticed ‘phone alone’ sitting on the seat right before my eyes, my initial thought was to simply grab it and telephone the last dialled number on the call list. But something told me this wasn’t a good idea- my imagined blockbuster created in my mind only moments earlier, had concluded that this hadn’t been any normal meeting between a couple who’d sworn to love each other ‘until death do us part’.
Rather, it was a secret lunchtime tête à tête between two people who had seperate houses in the country, a handful of children born to separate spouses (who, maybe they had sworn to love until death did they part), and it was not in my interests to get involved.
The phone was unlocked, meaning I could surely just head straight to the first message and respond with ‘this phone is at Cafe Mont, Boulevard Montparnasse 14 eme’ and whoever received it could simply call the owner of the phone in their office and that would be that.
In the message at the top of the list ‘Luc’ wrote, ‘Tonight, don’t forget we have dinner with the neighbours, can you please organise a gift’.
I concluded that Luc must be the (I imagined), handsome 60’s heartthrob Alain Delon-esque French husband of the beautiful scarf wearing woman. Oh, but hang on, upon checking the time that he sent the message, I noticed that it was sent only half an hour beforehand, when she was sitting at the table in front of me, quite clearly not with him. Sleuth shoes on my huge feet, I decided against texting Luc. His wife was most definitely having an affair.
Further down the list another man named Pierre wrote apologetically to ‘his darling’ advising that he couldn’t have dinner on Thursday night as he had to spend time with his family ‘this is life’ he explained, before adding ‘instead, meet me for lunch on Tuesday, 12.30 at Cafe Mont’.
Bingo! Fumbling through the keyboard (and my mind) I responded to Pierre with a very basic, present tense message which looked a bit like this- ‘you were here, now you are not. Your friend had a phone, now she does not. I have her phone, it is now with the maître d’ at Cafe Mont, please can you tell the owner of the phone, thank you very much’.
My message felt austere and not at all sincere but it was also 100% reflective of my endless struggle with speaking French. I often feel a little bit disappointed when I’m unable to dance through the language and hamstrung without nuances and I so miss wrapping poetic overemphasised adverbs throughout each sentence. Rather, I speak as though I’m about five years old, or just plain bored. Neither could be further from the truth.
Feeling satisfied that Luc’s wife and Pierre’s mistress, would get her phone back without anyone getting into too much trouble, I paid the bill and explained to the waiter that I’d sent a message to the friend of the proprietress of the phone. He gave me a knowing look and a smile, before reassuring me that he’d keep the phone at the cafe until they came to retrieve it.
Walking home I realised that the mystery would remain unsolved in my mind – I had no way of ever finding out if the owner of the telephone had in fact retrieved it, and I swallowed a lump in my throat as I passed by the church Saint Sulpice, hoping that I hadn’t made a blunder in my detective work.
Poring over textbooks later that night, I decided that I had to do somthing about my unintentionally austere delivery of phrases in this language. Grabbing a pen and a pretty pink card, I wrote to Nadine, the beautiful woman who lives upstairs and has done for over 55 years. ‘Dear Nadine, please come for a cup of tea on Saturday, I would very much like to speak with you’. Once I’d brushed my teeth and was ready for bed, I slipped out the door and left the note on her staircase.
Nadine speaks French beautifully and as a retired school teacher, she is slow in her delivery and always so kind to me. When I returned home the following night, heaving my basket laden with school books along with half of the supermarket, I fumbled for my keys and burst the door open before quickly closing it behind me, trapping the cold air outside in the hallway. A note on stationary decorated with two smiling cherubs (their eyes looking only the slightest bit insane), fell to the floor and it read ‘Yes, I will come on Saturday. My son visits each Saturday so he will be with me as well. I will see you then’.
Jérôme and Nadine arrived on Saturday morning with a paper bag filled with fresh croissants, ‘it’s normal’ she assured me as I thanked her with an enthusiasm more appropriate for a gift of a cheque valued at say, a million euros.
The following hour was spent chatting about all things French and with tales of our lives here in Paris. They told me about every prior tenant of this apartment, dating back to the 1960s when Nadine and her husband first came to live here with Jérôme as a child. I explained that I had read an article in the newspaper the day before which stated that 25% of apartments in Paris are unoccupied, with property prices making it almost unaffordable to purchase real estate in the current climate. Each time I stopped to draw breath in an effort to reduce the rose in each cheek caused by an unnecessary feeling of frustration as I delivered sentences peppered with a thousand mistakes, they urged me to keep going. ‘You are reading the newspaper and you’re speaking French, you must not stop,’ they both smiled, ‘we can understand everything you say’. I muttered something about being like a child and thanked them for their encouragement and kindness. They stood up to go about their day, leaving me with a kiss on each cheek ‘à bientôt’ Nadine said, at least three times.
I will see her soon, because it is moments like these that bring me one step closer to feeling less awkward and austere, rather, genuinely sure that I will one day be able to solve a mystery in French, eat a croissant in French, dance around adverbs and write an essay in French with the same confidence I do in this language.
That day will be a very French affair.
Pictured: A typical Parisienne vendeuse.