I had just emerged from the dark underground of the Métro into the light of Paris. It had rained. Cigarette butts, crushed and uncrushed, stood out prominently on the wet blackness of the paved landing. The young, as the French would say, hung around in their black leather jackets. A few motorcycles stopped by. Café Bastille inspired a little awe in its confident laziness. I strained to look at the name of the rue on the navy-blue and white street sign.
Rue de la Roquette. Le voilà.
I hadn’t lost it, then, after hours of navigating through airport-to-city public transport with my gingerly French and a pile of luggage that weighed more than half of what I did. I hoped house number 100 would show up magically, and soon. I didn’t want to be too far away from Bastille. The other end of the street, a quick Internet search had told me, was a lot less fun, not to mention shadier. I walked on, vaguely taking in the restaurants, cafés, and bistros of the rue. They didn’t matter. I only cared about piercing through the uncharted territory of the rue to reach number 100 as I dragged my huge red suitcase along. Where the pavement broke off into intersections, I did so with even more concentration.
It started to rain a little. My umbrella was ready. I was getting closer. A part of me was convinced it was entirely possible that I would just miss the 100. More than a part of me. The numbering appeared to be so random; I could also be on the wrong side of the street. Who knew what they did here? At 104, I took out the printout with the address and other details, including a little map, hoping something I had seen along the way would solve the mystery. I felt gauche. Parisian women don’t stop midway on the trottoir. They keep walking. Only vendors, flirts, and beggars stand. I didn’t know that then, of course, but I still felt stupid. I kept peering at the sheet. God knows it was futile.
A hand touched my forearm. I looked up. An old hunchbacked woman had stopped before me. Hair snow-white, and a face of
“Quel numéro cherches-tu?” she asked. What number are you looking for? I smiled for having been understood so easily without saying a word.
“Cent,” I said. Her face showed confusion. “Cent,” I repeated a couple more times. That didn’t seem to cut it either.
Was I pronouncing this goddamned little word wrong? I went over it again and again in my head—it seemed to be the right sound. Her face didn’t show a hint of understanding.
I was disappointed with myself. It had to be that I was doing this wrong. That didn’t stop her from insisting on helping me. She noticed the sheet in my hand and asked to see it. I pointed out the poor little “cent” once again, this time in clear numerals. She didn’t know where it was either, but led me to the doner kebab place I had just left behind. She did the asking for me. Apparently it was a couple feet away.
When we were in front of house number 100, she instructed, “You must always ask, my dear.”
I said a heartfelt “Merci.” She stroked me on the cheek, said the most heartfelt “It’s nothing” I’ve heard, and walked away.
Two days later, on Monday, I was at the Bastille again. It was 10 p.m. We had our first class in Paris that morning, after five weeks of instruction at Yale. I had had a long and rather unbelievable day.
10 p.m. at the Bastille was dark, loud and busy. I sat with my crèpe at the little bistro, a little disappointed with the amount of jam in it and the plastic silverware I was given, but unwilling to complain. Only the thought of the three hours of homework that awaited me disturbed my peace.
An old man with salt-and-pepper hair tied in a ponytail was sitting on the table beside mine. An old woman served him green tea in narrow glasses with colorful prints on them from a tea pot that had what one might call character.
He pointed to my red phone and told me to keep it safely inside. It’ll get stolen, he said smugly. I did so, and smiled.
“D’ou viens-tu?” he asked. I was slow to respond. “Tu me comprends?”
“Oui, oui. Je viens d’Inde,” I said.
He asked me to finish my crèpe and cross over to his table afterward. The crèpe took a few minutes. I did as he told. There seemed to be little harm in talking to an old man over tea in a busy square for a few minutes.
He offered me said tea. Thé à la menthe. It’s very good, he assured me. I had always been suspect of mint tea.
I would fail to understand, generally, just what led my friends to sometimes come back from the dining hall kitchen with a cup of Tazo Refresh in hand. Y’all don’t know tea, my sneer would say.
I couldn’t say no to the old monsieur sitting in front of me. I made myself feel better about liking it by reminding myself that it was a thing in France and part of their culture (by virtue of their having colonized most of North Africa at some point.)
He offered me a cigarette and asked if I would like to smoke. I smiled and said, no thank you.
Then he asked me if I had learned French in India. I told him I studied in the States. How long had I been learning the language? Five weeks. How long had I been in Paris? Just about three days. It’s unbelievable, then, that you talk like this. I told him that he was exaggerating; it was just that I didn’t have a strong American accent. The passé composé was far from natural to my tongue.
Alors, tell me then, you come from India and I am a man interested in politics, what do you think of untouchability and the caste system? It took me a second to digest that he actually wanted to have an intellectual conversation with me, and had started it by asking me about untouchability back home.
Over the course of the following hour and a half, I explained to him the current status of untouchability in India, that the reason I could study at Yale wasn’t that my parents were filthy rich, that I believed in God, and that I believed in karma. He made me explain karma and samsara, the cycle of life and death, in French, though I was willing to bet that he knew. He taught me the word âme, soul. He taught me a rule of pluralization we hadn’t quite covered in class yet (fondamental–> fondamentaux). He corrected my pronunciation of the French “u.” We talked about where we had been born and learned that we had both been displaced—my family from Kashmir in 1990 and his family from Tunisia in 1956. He told me that, à son avis, without history and literature there was no life.
Midway through the conversation he refused to answer when I addressed him with the formal “vous,” as I had for the last hour. Oh no, you don’t know any French, you can only say “tu,” not “vous.” I smiled but refused to oblige. In India I wouldn’t dream of using the informal with a man so much older than I.
At 15 minutes to midnight, I told him that I had homework to finish.
“Oh you must return then,” he said. Then, feigning sans-gêne, he asked, “You want to meet again?” Yes I did.
We exchanged email addresses and he gave me his telephone number. I didn’t give him mine; I told him I didn’t have a number yet. He lived right above the café at the Bastille. We would obviously meet again.
I emailed him the following week and kept waiting until my very last day in Paris, to see him par hasard at the Bastille or get an email in response. I waited in vain.
My very last day in Paris, I met an old woman recuperating from a hip surgery. We were in the quiet jardin behind La Comédie Française, away from the crowds of the Louvre. I was writing a postcard to my best friend from home and finishing a letter to my godfather. I really wanted to write, but we couldn’t help but talk. After a few words about the niceness of the garden, she asked me if I was from Paris. I couldn’t believe my ears. Again we talked for an hour. She left, saying she should really leave me alone to write.
She did, but came back after three minutes. “What is your name? We must not leave this here,” she said.
We exchanged email addresses. She asked me the meaning of my name. I should email her from Yale, she said. I could practice my French that way. I haven’t emailed her yet.
A month and a half ago, I got a response to the email I had sent in mid-July. The old man I had met at the Bastille had gone on vacation a few days after our talk. Was I still in Paris?
I haven’t answered back yet.