When I step out of the tube station into the open, I shield my eyes, momentarily blinded by the sun. As I take in the sight of the wrought iron balconies, the quaint red scooters, the wedge-like old-world buildings, reality sinks in: Here I am, in Paris, a place I’ve wanted to visit since I was a kid.
Blame it on croissants, a romantic imagination, and ABBA (One Last Summer, anyone? Walks along the Seine, laughing in the rain / Our last summer / Memories that remain / We made our way along the river / And we sat down in the grass …). I had such serious Francophilia that, when I was in university, I took two semesters of French lessons. I soldiered on for about two levels before the French R did me in. It was fiendishly hard to pronounce, but it wasn’t enough to kill my Parisian dreams until, ironically, I had saved enough money to visit the place.
I started hearing all kinds of things about Paris. How dirty it was. Pickpockets. Rude people who refuse to speak English even though they know how to.
Terrified that the reality would crush my dream, I put off visiting the city until early this year, when a chance of a lifetime dropped into my lap …
And I am here at last.
Knowing the sun will be dipping soon, I satisfy myself with a quick selfie and make my way to Hotel Signature St Germain. Paris is so pretty! It’s difficult to keep my eyes on the map and the pretty shopfronts at the same time. Before long, I’m hopelessly lost. Reluctantly, I stop walking and start scouring my vicinity. My eyes fall on a woman standing on the pavement.
“Excuse me, do you speak English?” My heart thumps madly. Would she cast me with a withering stare before barking out frosty French?
“A little,” she says in English, thank God, before a smile softens her handsome features.
Her “un peu de Anglaise (a little English)” is actually more like “beaucoup (a lot)”. She gives detailed instructions but, even so, unaccustomed to the lay of the land, I get disoriented again and find myself standing in front of Bank Paribas. Worried, I peer at my map.
“Can I help you with anything?” Those English words, uttered in an unexpected Anglo-Saxon accent, are uttered by an elegant middle-aged lady who reminds me of the actress Anne Bancroft with her dye-free bob, long woollen coat, electric blue jeans and the most famous fashion import to have come out of France in recent years, the Longchamp La Pliage.
I tell her. She nods understandingly, before saying in a self-deprecating tone, “Oh, I’m going to need my reading glasses.”
After several minutes of poring over the same map, she throws her hands up helplessly. “I’m so sorry. I have been useless in helping you,” she says, her voice filled with genuine regret.
I thank her and, trying not to panic, walk towards a row of waiting taxis.
A tall, lanky guy with salt-and-pepper hair comes out of one. He only speaks French, but mixed with sign language, I somehow understand that he could drive me to my destination, but the place is so near that I should just walk there.
My ears perk up at the word gauche. At that moment, I am ever so thankful for having taken French lessons in USM because I know what the word means: Left – turn left at the fork.
Three nice Parisians in one day? Maybe it is a fluke, but then something happens on the third day that convinces me otherwise.
During a stroll in the Spanish quarter, I trip on the cobblestoned street.
As I’m lying there in a heap, trying to recover my senses, a whole group of solicitous locals surrounds me, peppering me with questions:
“Are you okay, mademoiselle?”
“Do you need help? Shall we get you to the hospital?”
One lady even asks me to “try to move your ankle” before reluctantly letting me out of her sight.
By the end of my stay, I have not met any nasty pickpocketing Parisians I’d heard so much about.
“I hope you enjoyed yourself,” Delphine the floor manager says on the day I check out.
“Oh, yes. This trip has exceeded my expectations. I did not expect Paris to be so … wonderful.”
Something in my voice, or my hesitation, must have tipped her off. “Because you’ve heard about how Parisians can be ….” she trails off, eyes twinkling.
We both know what she meant, of course. I blush guiltily, half-expecting her to launch into an impassioned defence of her countrymen or a diatribe against cliches.
To my surprise, she does no such thing. In an even voice, she says, “In every country, there are nice people and not-so-nice people. It’s up to us, really. If we are nice to other people, other people will be nice to us. It’s easy.”
Delphine’s words seem more relevant now, in the light of what happened in Paris some weeks ago.
The morning I found out about the attacks, I cried. To be honest, the strength of my own reaction surprised me. I’ve visited a lot of other countries where the people have shown me kindness and generosity.
Perhaps this hit home because it could easily have been me.
My first instinct was to dig up my photos and scroll through them anxiously, wondering if the little restaurant down the street that serves the most amazing macaroon I’d ever tasted be OK. Did anybody from those beautiful flower shops that resemble miniature fairylands get hurt? And Jean, you sweet hilarious waiter at the corner bistro – please tell me you’ll still be around to entertain me with silly jokes when I come back.
My dear Paris, I know deep in my heart that this incident will change you. No place – or people – can experience something like this and stay the same. But I know that from this, you will emerge a stronger, braver, more resilient city than the one I fell in love with last February.
Alexandra Wong (www.facebook.com/MadeinMalaysiabook) can’t wait to go back to Paris and build new memories.