One morning three years ago, I made my daily commute on foot from my flat in Paris to the Sorbonne, where I was undertaking a semester in French. On my walk, I passed a house that had forever caught my eye.
On that particular morning the front door was wide open, and the man who lives inside was busy rearranging his bookshelves. I wanted to ask if I could come in and roam around his house – I’d dreamed up a floor plan of rooms full of clutter, but I was late for class so I kept on walking.
And anyway, I’m not great with strangers and would have been too timid to ask.
Days later, I was sitting in a café just off the Rue de Rivoli, madly conjugating verbs with a cold glass of rosé. Half way through my être column, I felt a presence land in the seat beside me. Almost at avoir, I didn’t even glance sideways; I was experiencing a rare moment of understanding the language that was plaguing my every day.
“You’re from America?” Came a voice from the chair beside me. Looking up briefly, and noticing that the cafe was all but empty and the voice directed at me could have sat at any given table but had chosen to sit beside me, I responded curtly, “non”.
“I am from Tunisia” he explained eagerly, even though I’d shown little to no interest in him whatsoever.
“Tunisia is the most beautiful place, I will go there soon but in this day it is not safe,” he explained as I busied myself with notes on le futur antérieur (the future perfect), using the future simple form of avoir as an auxiliary, followed by the passe participe of the main verb.
Desperately wanting to be alone as I reached a milestone I’d struggled to conquer during previous weeks in class, I kept my head down and bit my lip.
“My father, she is in Tunis and my mother, he is in Paris.”
“We left Tunis many years before and I miss my father…”
“My brother, she is in Paris also and my sister, he is in Tunis.”
“Where are your family?” He finished.
“My family are on holiday” I replied, feeling bothered as I reached for my glass of wine. I was now so distracted and all my ‘future perfect’ effort was disappearing down an imaginary drain, right before my eyes.
“Where is the holiday?” He asked.
Without sounding utterly cantankerous, I really can’t stand small talk with strangers. Unless of course, I am sitting staring at a wall with nothing to distract me and I am not trying to wrangle something like a piece of writing, or a language impossible.
Short of saying “off you pop, pest,” I took a deep breath and reached deep within.
As for the French homework, she was going to have to wait.
“My family live in a country far away, they are very nice people and from time to time, I miss them. I live in Paris with my lover, he is from the land of Botatta and he has fourteen wives and sixty three children. His mother is a nurse, and his father is a car parking attendant. We met in the circus and he can wrap his legs around his head”.
“It’s love,” I finished.
“Does she love you?” He asked, as I stood up to pay.
“He does, a lot” I replied as I collected my bag, paid the waiter and walked away.
During this lockdown I’ve cast my mind back to the strangers I’ve met in my life, usually as I sit alone in cafes or as I stare out the window on long train journeys. I document these meetings as soon as they take place, just so that I don’t forget them.
In Paris I had plenty of them and in Morocco, they occur on an almost daily basis.
With this new found silence and day upon day to remember the past, I have found myself going through old notes and photos, where I am reminded of the places in which I encountered strangers who wanted to talk in moments that I didn’t.
One day about four years ago I was traveling on a train from Rome to Grosetto. I’d left Paris earlier that morning, and when I’d phoned ahead the night before to ask my hosts in Tuscany if they needed anything, the response was “Oh yes please! Just the most filthy, smelly sheep’s cheese you can find – loads of it”.
By the time I arrived in Rome, my bag had begun to smell vaguely like a barn.
Following a short trip in a taxi from the airport, I made my way to my seat on the train. In that moment, I was beginning to experience the travel sweats that are typically reserved for trips with carry on luggage which is heavy, because one has jammed too much in, and one is beginning to regret not paying the extra €20 for checked in bags. Carry on is also typically just the tiniest bit too wide for things like passages on trains.
Unwrapping my scarf from around my neck (it was cool when I left Paris that morning), I mouthed ‘ciao’ to the man opposite me. I can’t speak Italian, and I was feeling mildly awkward as little wafts of goat cheese came directly from the luggage rack above my seat. About an hour into the journey I opened my bag to retrieve a phone charger, and almost expected a bundle of straw to fall out and a chicken to escape.
The smell of barn was incredibly intense.
My companion opposite me began conversing in Italian;
“Are you a farmer?” He asked.
“No” came my response.
“Is there an animal in that bag?”
“No” I blushed.
“Your bag smells like goat’s pee pee” he laughed.
Of course I don’t actually know if that is what he was saying because as I mentioned, I can’t speak Italian, but I’m sure it was something along those lines.
This morning I found a picture I took three years ago of the street that runs along the west side of the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris. In that moment, I was taken straight back to the beautiful old house with the door wide open. I wonder if the man is ok, I thought to myself, the one I caught a glimpse of rearranging his bookshelves that morning three years ago.
And as for the Tunisian, I hope he too is ok, and I wonder if he has yet grasped that a man is he and a woman, she.
The complexities of language and meetings with complete strangers, and the fact that they are also a thing of the past in a time where we no longer happen upon people during our new life in lockdown, are all things to consider for the future.
These days whenever my phone buzzes, it’s likely to by someone I know on the other end. We launch straight into conversations about what we ate, what we might drink later, and who we’ve spoken to recently. It feels uniform and pleasant, but there is very little room for spontaneity.
I can only dream of being on a long train journey (oh, and how I’d love to go to Tunisia) and for a dreaded stranger to sit down beside me and ask if I’m married or if there is a goat in my handbag.
These days, it’s just my mind on a little journey madly plotting what I could possibly say next.
Which might explain why I’m late publishing this week; I’ve been knee deep in photos and memories, and visions from the past.
Pictured: A pretty towel on a brass hook in my bathroom.