Today I did a day-trip to Paris. Yesterday I had been skiing in a snowy forest and then carting three pairs of skis and boots back to the car in a sweaty feat of mother-child coordination.
But today, I was dressed in the smartest selection of clothes I could assemble from my mountain-woman wardrobe. I’d even applied my fancy lipstick, used only once since I’ve been here. In between a Steiner school and a mountain home, there hasn’t been much need for sharp dressing. But on this day I wanted to look my best. I was going to meet the gentleman behind the elegant emails.
It had all started over a coffee with a friend. She’s recently started organising small-group tours overseas and we were tossing around possible trips we could do in France.
“Everyone loves Provence,” I said.
“And the French provincial style is really popular for homes here.” I pointed out, probably inspired by having recently installed some light fittings with the help of a French interior designer.
“What if we brought the two ideas together and organised a ‘Design and Décor in Provence’ tour?”
We both got very enthusiastic and began ordering books on Provence from the library. I also contacted that French interior designer.
“I’m actually from Provence.” He replied. “And I know someone you should contact.” He added.
“He was actually my design teacher in France. He did the sets for lots of classic French films as well as décor for grand houses, some in Provence. I’ll put you in touch with each other.”
Mustering together my politest French, I followed up his introduction email to this international interior designer with a note explaining our nascent idea. The response was a delight:
“My dear Madame Waites,” it read “I would be indeed charmed to accompany you on this cultural promenade in Provence.”
It was written in the most courteous French with all the refined finishing salutations that English sadly disposed of about a hundred years ago. I felt honoured to be begged to received someone’s distinguished sentiments.
We’d had a few encouraging email exchanges and then I’d been caught up in the preparations for departure to Alsace. I’d had vague intentions of trying to line up a meeting while I was in France. But with so many unknowns about my new life in Alsace, most pressingly child care arrangements, I hadn’t been able to see my way through.
But, at the midway point of our stay, I’d gained a firmer knowledge of after-school care options. I could feel a window opening and I reached out to propose a meeting. The midway location was set as Paris, so I started researching transport options: express train – several connections, too long, car – over three hours one way, forget it, aeroplane – just possible. With the school a half-hour drive from the airport, I figured a 5.10pm arrival back there should just enable me to make the 6pm after-school care cut-off. I steeled my nerve and booked the tickets.
And now, here I was, in the middle of Paris at midday on a cold, sunny Monday. I had popped out from the underground to find myself immediately opposite our designated meeting place – the brasserie Bal Bullier. The white stone apartments, so distinctively Paris, lined the street and outside corner cafés and bars, the wicker chairs sat facing the boulevard. I was somewhat stunned to actually be in the City of Lights.
The pedestrian signal turned green. I resolutely strode out into the crossing and pushed open the brasserie door. A neatly dressed gentleman sat reading a book at a table near the entrance. I took the table alongside and asked the waiter for a bottle of water, explaining that I was expecting a friend. As the waiter walked away, the gentleman at the next table leaned towards me: “Vous êtes, peut-être, Madame Waites?”
Thus began a charming encounter. Our luncheon conversation began with Provence plans but then drifted into travel, art, languages. The wintery sun filtered through the windows. The aproned waiters cleared the tables. The lunchtime crowd dissipated around us as we sat engaged in conversation. We finished our coffee and paid the bill.
Although we had greeted each other with a handshake, we parted with the warmer French tradition of the “bises” – an air kiss on each cheek.
“Until the next time in Provence!” I said with a wave as I walked out the door, across the road and down into the metro.
I had traversed no more than 100m of Parisian soil during my entire visit to the capital, but I felt like I’d come a long way in deepening my acquaintance. The elegant écrivain had become a friendly face and a convivial co-conspirator.
“Words can be wonderful,” I mused as the metro whisked me back to Orly airport, “but nothing beats human encounters.”