A change

Down the street, I see a Starbucks. It proudly advertises it has Internet access. I need to let my friends and family know I’m OK.

And yes, it’s moronic that my first baguette in Paris will come from a Starbucks, but I’m hungry and I need Wi-Fi. I stand in line, reading the menu. Everyone in front of me is young, thin, and chattering away in French. I wonder what I’ll say to the barista.

I’m sure he can speak English, but I have to use my French; I got a degree in it, for crying out loud. But I’m so nervous. It’s forty degrees Fahrenheit outside but I’m sweating bullets in here because I’m about to converse with a real French person for the first time in many years. I hope nothing comes out of my nose.

I give him my order. He understands. I exhale. Then he grabs a paper cup, a black marker and looks at me.

Prenom?” he asks.

Ok, I got this. He’s asking for my first name.

“Cathy,” I say. He stares at me blankly. Then I remember, I’ve got to drop the “th” sound because the French don’t understand that sound.

“Cah-ty,” I say, trying to make it sound French.

He still doesn’t understand.

OK, now what do I do? In my college French class, I was always “Catherine” so I blurt out that name, dropping the “th” and rolling the “r” with a percussive flare. He smiles and nods while scribbling “Catherine” on my Starbucks cup, and I feel like I’ve changed into someone else.

In Paris, I’m Catherine.


The amoeba in Paris

I know I don’t look French.

I have a little button nose, a pale, round face from my Welsh ancestry, and it’s impossible for my wrists to fall backwards in that sophisticated gesture like French girls do, usually with a cigarette. My wrists are tight, my legs are solid and I usually hunch my shoulders when I get scared.

how to walk past a sidewalk cafe

how to walk past a sidewalk cafe

Although I’m in a fashion mecca, I don’t carry a designer purse or wear fine jewelry. I want nothing that calls attention to myself. I see no point in it.

Women who walk along in Paris, wearing all their precious baubles are saying, “Hey, I have nice jewelry. You could shove me into this picturesque alleyway, hit me over the head with your empty wallet, and take this bounty for yourself.”

I don’t mean to say there are thieves everywhere in Paris but I don’t want to mislead anyone—I just want to look clean and middle-class.

I pass a café. The sidewalk tables are packed with beautiful people. When I look at them, I see they are staring back at me and smoking in a very existential way—dragging and spewing smoke while squinting, like in the movies. Why are they looking at me? Are they attracted to my cleanliness?

I walk past more cafes. More eyes. More staring. I thought I could disappear into the crowd here. But then, I understand. People-watching is the sole occupation of anyone who sits at a sidewalk café.

Yes, there’s a bit of conversation going on, some drinking, and some smoking, but basically, a street in Paris is the runway; I am the reluctant model. This is the microscope; I am the amoeba.


On the street in Paris



I had to get away from the small town where my ex- lives with the girlfriend, twenty years younger than me. Every time I go anywhere, I scan the crowd for their faces, petrified I’ll see them, arm-in-arm, happy in their gauzy Hallmark kind of love.

I don’t scan the crowd for their faces here.

During my divorce, I was so stressed out that, in the middle of the night, I would toss and turn in bed so much, I counted it as aerobic exercise.

When the divorce was final, I ended up hiding from life until I was practically frozen. I knew I couldn’t stay one more night in my chair, watching television in that empty house.

I had to get out. So I went to Paris.

Men of the 2nd arrondissement

Men of the 2nd arrondissement

Apparently, when I get out of the house, I really get out of the house.



French lesson

I keep walking. There are a million shops here on rue Saint Antoine in the Marais district: clothes and shoe stores, dry cleaners, cafes, bookstores, two bakeries, Chinese take-aways, a wine shop, and a cheese shop. There’s even a foie gras shop.

Past the church, rue St Antoine has three busy east-bound lanes of traffic.  On the south side of the street, next to the shops, a granite-paved lane doesn’t have any markings. No curbs. It looks like a pedestrian walkway. Well, it isn’t. A truck comes barreling right up behind me. I could easily get killed here.

It seems like everyone is out shopping today. I jump into the stream of humanity and go, keeping pace with the crowd. I try to walk with confidence like I know where I’m headed, although I don’t know where I’m headed.

I walk past a fish market with a case filled with huge, pink fish lying on mounds of ice, their glassy eyeballs staring in that dazed “why me?” look. I stop and check the prices. I can never eat here.

At one point, I slow my pace so I can stand for a moment and get my bearings again. An old woman almost slams into my backside.

“Sorry,” I say immediately, then I blurt out my French translation: “Desolée, madame.

She walks past me, muttering something about my mother. Great. I’ve been on this street in Paris for two minutes and already I’ve made somebody mad. I watch the old woman go waddling down the street, her broad figure draped in a black shawl.

I wonder about that old woman, and also that man I bumped into at the Charles de Gaulle airport yesterday. They both said something about my mother. Isn’t that interesting?

Then it dawns on me—mere (mother) sounds a lot like merde (sh*t).

If I knew less French, I’d be much happier right now.

The French waiter

A handsome French waiter, in his late twenties, is standing on the sidewalk beside some small tables, set ready for lunch patrons. Sparkling glasses, silverware, white tablecloths. He’s wearing a long, white apron tied around his slender waist. His thick, black hair is combed straight back.

A very handsome man. Someone should take his photo – the iconic French waiter. I’m walking straight toward him. Oh my, he’s gorgeous.

We lock eyes. I look away quickly. Men that age never look at me – I’m usually free to gawk all I want. Maybe he thought I would eat here if he did that. Or maybe my hair is sticking up funny. I finger my scarf to see if the tag is showing. My eyes are down, watching the pavement go by under my black boots. I want to look at him again.

Just before I pass by, I take another furtive glance upward.

Bonjour, madame,” he purrs, just at the moment when our bodies are close.

Bonjour, monsieur,” I manage to say.

What just happened? I thought I could be invisible here in Paris, like I usually am in the United States. Was that a sexual thing? That can’t be a sexual thing! I’m old enough to be his…

But so much transpired in that small moment. He knew I was attracted to him, and it amused him. He kept his eyes on me to see my reaction. I enjoyed his sultry hello, perfectly timed. Those dark brown eyes. A tease. A flirt. A little bit of attention to reaffirm life. This is why I love Paris.


Le chien vs. le chat – animal discrimination in Paris

As dawn rises and sunlight fills the room, I’m aware of slowly ascending through the steps of wakening. No alarm blaring, no lawn movers roaring, no kids yelling; just a peaceful Sunday morning in Paris. This gradual awakening is like the softest experience of all. I feel so calm. I can’t believe I have slept eighteen hours. I never want to get out of this bed for the rest of my life.

A room with a view.

A room with a view.

I lie there, listening to the city sounds until ten o’clock, when I force myself to get vertical. I need to email my sons about my safe arrival in Paris. I pull on the cord that the landlady had quickly gestured toward while saying proudly that the apartment had Internet.

In horror, I see a dial-up phone cord dangling like an artifact from the previous century. My time in Paris will now include lots of time in Wi-Fi cafés.

In the kitchen, I pull out drawers to see what kind of utensils I have to work with. It’s pretty well stocked.

I notice a little cardboard poster stuck on the fridge with a magnet. I lean down to read it. It lists the emergency numbers in case you need la police or les pompiers (firefighters) or l’hôpital (hospital). Then I read chien perdu.

Are you kidding me? Losing a dog in Paris is at the same level of emergency as having a heart attack or a robbery?

Then I notice there’s no emergency number for chat perdu.