Somewhere over the cold Atlantic, French words start sailing through the waters of my memory. Seventh- and eighth-grade French classes (thank you, Mrs. Watts!) and my three previous trips reward me now. “Bonjour madame!” I say to the border policewoman at the airport, feigning confidence.
I manage the airport ATM, withdraw Euros (high to the dollar nowadays) and slip into one of the cabs lined up outside.
“Parlez-vous Englais?” I ask.
“I am learning,” he smiles. We laugh about our mutual language deficiencies; his native tongue is Senegalese and he prefers English to French.
Paris is etched in snow. The morning sky, grey, is alive with romance because Paris, in any weather, is juicy.
I am two hours early and cannot get into the apartment that will serve as my home base for the next four nights. Few people are on the streets now, and none of the stores in sight are open. I drag my red suitcase through two inches of snow that has partially melted. The sound of the slush under the wheels grows louder behind me. A Frenchman waiting in a car at the curb rolls down his window, watching me. I turn to see that I am snow-plowing the sidewalk with the bottom of my suitcase, look at him: we both chuckle. Only in Paris an hour and already two shared moments of laughter with strangers.
At the corner I make a right and head for a busier street. I am dressed all in black, and so it is easy to pretend I am French. At the corner, across from Le Fermer d’ Hugo, lines of black-coated people assure me that I have found the local boulangerie. The intoxicating aroma of yeast, flour, sugar, butter, lemon, vanilla, dares to penetrate the sub-freezing air. Later, savoring a fresh croissant with cafe au lait, my ears begin to notice the musicality of French conversation. There is a lilt to the speech: words surge together towards the upbeat, usually so quickly that I cannot decipher them, and many sentences end on a higher note than the one that started the sentence. Everything a Frenchman says seems punctuated, emphatic.