She’s sitting on a simple couch on the other side of the small room, the pair to the one I am trying to get comfortable in. We’re the only ones here, and had exchanged a quick, only slightly awkward smile when I first arrived, before settling into the silence, very aware of one another’s presence. There isn’t even a loudly ticking clock to distract or drive me crazy.
I look around the room to occupy myself. In another part of western Europe this would probably be called a drawing room, but here in the 1ère arrondissement of Paris, this comfortably appointed, not quite intimate anteroom of the third floor apartment was the waiting room of a doctor’s office. This is normal, and far from the strangest thing I’ve had to adapt to in the past two years since moving here.
It doesn’t take long for me to plumb the depths of the dark green walls, two chairs, one floor lamp, and zero magazines on the plain coffee table, so my thoughts drift to the trip I took to get here this morning. Coming from the 6ème by metro, I had not been able to avoid the Châtelet-Les Halles station against all my best efforts. I had only been there once before, and that was more than enough for a lifetime. An eternity of an underground labyrinth: dirty stairs, escalator hors service that had also become dirty stairs, endless tunnels echoing with the simultaneous music of five different buskers, a quai that I hadn’t expected to be where I found it, endless commuters all pale of face and dead of eye, driven by the thought of their next cigarette. As a non-smoker, I had only my thoughts of fresh air to sustain me, a fleeting memory of the sun I was becoming certain I’d never see again, and goddammit how did I end up on this quai again. Several more flights of stairs and a trillion once-white metro tiles later, I surfaced, gasping for air.
There were several people smoking at the top of the stairs and the always-gray sky cared nothing about the postcard city you’ve been waiting to visit your whole life, but it was enough to rekindle my will to go on. I probably had “pas parisienne” written all over my face, walking down the street smiling with newfound hope like only a foreigner would. At least it’s become second nature to avoid the little piles of dog shit on the sidewalks, numbering in the thousands in this quartier alone.
Thankfully, it wasn’t tourist season. That term didn’t make sense to me until recently. I figured tourist season meant, more or less, “summer” in whatever the destination country was. But here, truly, they merited their own season. The tourists started to come in around the same time as the spring buds, even with the same attitude: brave, sparse, a little frost-covered, cameras popping up like returned birds peeking out of old nests.
By summer it was full force, impossible to hear your own pencil scratching on sketchpad at the Louvre, every brasserie in the 7ème overflowing and overcharging for the same dish they’d served since the 40s when it was already bad, and pickpockets fairly dancing through the masses. Paris is like a beautiful woman who knows she doesn’t have to try, you’ll still flock by the tens of millions annually, dying to have her blow cigarette smoke out of her rouged lips and into your sweating face.
I had to admit, August did bring some amusement. Locals took off for their month-long vacances, and foreigners were left standing in front of closed doors, puzzling over signs that wouldn’t have made sense even in their own language: “BACK IN ONE MONTH.” Then I would remember that I was equally subjected to this, and hope that my fishmonger was having a lovely time in the south while I am at the mercy of the Monoprix fluorescent-lit basement marché until his return in September when the tourists would still be here. The last ones would cling like the final leaves of l’automne on the Champ de Mars, until all that broke the blazing nighttime silhouette of the Tour Eiffel were naked, spindly branches on trees that were sculpted into perfect cubes.
I sigh and lean back into my chair, forgetting for a moment that I am not alone. My waiting-room-mate also shifts a little in her seat.
She probably wouldn’t remember, but she was also here the last time I was, in this very doctor’s office, almost two years ago. I hadn’t said anything to her that time, either. I recall she looked a little lost that day, though not nearly as lost as I’d felt.
She doesn’t look lost today. I wonder what her story is, and try to guess. She does not have “pas parisienne” written all over her face, but neither does she have the jaded, haughty look that I passed on the streets, all day, every day. In stark contrast to boredom, her bright eyes were also drinking in the details of the room—myself included—in a way that she didn’t seem concerned about hiding.
I wonder what she’s doing in the city of lights, if indeed she is not from here. Is it for work? Study? Did she follow a lover here? No, I decide, surprising myself a little at the certainty. The woman in front of me was evidently that, a woman. I don’t remember having this impression of her last time, but she is unmistakably so today. She would not uproot herself for a fling and inevitably regret it forever. She lives her life with structure, with purpose. It is in her straight neck, her steady gaze. Her clothes are simple but well-cut, she looks comfortable and unburdened. She isn’t wearing any makeup, and I find that I really respect that.
As much as you can tell this from a person’s face, she doesn’t seem disillusioned. Not by life and, more remarkably to me in this moment, not by Paris. How?
Maybe she never had a postcard romanticism about it. Maybe this isn’t the ultimate destination of a lifetime of distant dreaming, but rather just a stop on a long and interesting road.
I imagine that, in spite of all her structure, she lets herself get carried away when she’s walking the narrow streets here. Entrances to forgotten covered passages, those alleyway worlds between worlds, signal to her in technicolor on otherwise gray avenues. At the beginning of each month, storefronts would refresh their window displays to her audience of one: a chocolate kraken battling a chocolate pirate ship here, a taxidermy wolf with giant wings there. She’s probably actually purchased an antique book from one of the green bouquinistes along the Seine, stacks of treasures for 2.50€ apiece.
Has she found that fencing school from 1886, that time machine? Does one of the hundreds of swords along its walls have a little leather finger cushion with her name on it, that she presses her prints and identity into every Friday afternoon?
Is she friends with the vendors at the Marché Saint-Germain? Do they greet her by name, tell her about the new strawberries and cheeses that have come in? If she ever leaves this place, will she cry every time she remembers the kind old butcher, miss his hugs, miss laughing at the same jokes he tells her over and over? (“Si je coupe les pattes du canard, comment va-t-il nager?”)
She looks fit, but I have a sneaking suspicion she’s slowly canvassing every boulangerie in the city, trying a single chausson aux pommes from each until she finds definitively who makes the best version of the pastry. A worthy mission.
She probably stays fit because she actually exercises regularly, I think with an involuntary frown. She watches the sun rise while she runs along the Seine, coming up to silhouette the winged horses of the Pont Alexandre with vivid pinks and purples, flashing its first oranges and yellows off the glass domed roof of the Grand Palais.
Is it possible she doesn’t even hate the tourists? Tens of millions of stories from all over the world, coming to her front door. Does she smile when she’s riding the metro? The whole of underground Paris is a block of Swiss cheese, it’s a miracle how it holds up. (Unless she’s at Châtelet-Les Halles, even she doesn’t smile there.)
The door next to me opens and startles me out of my reverie. The previous patient comes out and heads to the exit. As he passes me, his double passes my waiting-room-mate, until it disappears into the frame of the mirror. The doctor looks over her clipboard at me, then across the room to my reflection I’ve been studying, then back to me, eyebrow raised. She has “parisienne” written all over her face.
I get up to follow her into the examination room, pausing to take a final look back at the woman I’m still surprised to see in my reflection. Yes, I conclude, she’s not disillusioned because she finds the magic in everything.