The City Of Enlightenment

Carole Wyatt

Copyright 2003 by Carole Wyatt

Photo of Eiffel Tower in Paris.

The Paris train station bustled with people moving silently and quickly to their destinations. Vendors shouted out their wares at the hurrying passengers to be heard over the screech of train brakes. An occasional baby cry pierced the air thick with smoke from the arriving engines. I sat on my suitcase and pondered the scene while waiting for the train to the coast. Goodbye Paris, time to move one.

Paris, the city of lights, the city of dreams, and the city of romance was not the Paris I found. It was like stepping back into the past touring places up to now only seen on the History Channel. The monks, who maintained Notre Dame urged me to the top with a smile never imagining I could make it all the way up, American tourists seldom did. It was a matter of pride besides the three flights of stairs at work prepared me. Once up, the spectacular view left me amazed. The Eiffel tower stood in the distance just like on the postcards. A serpentine line stretched around it, which discouraged me from visiting. Instead, I imagined the view to be almost good as the one from the top of Notre Dame.

Located on the picturesque Left Bank squeezed in between two taller buildings sat my quaint bed and breakfast. Only a striped canopy that extended out to the sidewalk announced its presence. The landlady chattered away to me in rapid French while I seemed to encourage her gregariousness with my Miss Piggy French monosyllabic replies. The abrupt, rude Frenchmen featured in almost every travel horror story didn’t show on my trip. Friendly natives smiled and chattered, unfortunately I didn’t understand most of what was said. Hand gestures, and sometimes even pulling me in the desired direction, or shoving pastries in my face got the message across. Miscommunication usually involved money when I was either exchanging it or expecting change. International travel wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.

Some things were so different while other things remained the same, well almost the same. In a large shopping mall in the middle of Paris, a two story Burger King dominated complete with white tablecloths and red candles. Parisians and tourist alike sat drinking red wine with their Whoppers. Despite the rulings of the French culture minister, American movies reigned supreme at the cinema. A touch of homesickness prompted me into the cinema only to indulge in the surreal experience of listening to Eddie Murphy speak French. My ears still ringing with Eddie’s perfect Parisian accent, my other senses encounter the bidet. A urinal gone mad that sprayed water up instead of down. The bidet was a definite culture shock that earned my respect. Still the general attitude about public restrooms was an even bigger shock.

While touring Versailles, the search for a restroom found me in line with a few hundred other women. The bathroom attendant motioned the willing into the men’s restroom which did not have a line. Hurrying in with the other women, I vigorously grabbed the opportunity to bypass dozens of women waiting for toilet facilities. Men crowded around urinals joked and called out greetings at our entry. Mumbling an apology I locked myself in a stall waiting for an appropriate moment to escape.

While that was an exciting moment, the best was the Louvre. The Louvre, the name had been bandied about by intellectual sorts as long as I could remember. Pickpockets are in the Louvre, please secure your purses and wallets, the announcement played continuously in five languages as I examined the exhibits. Winged Victory stood not more than eight foot from me, something before I had only seen as a small black and white photograph in my Art History book. A velvet rope kept the gawkers away from the Dutch Masters display. A nearby Brit nodded at the exhibit and explained a terrorist had attacked the year before. Terrorists, attacking some old dark paintings by Dutchmen, what possible statement could they have made? My ponderings on art vandalism soon ended as I drifted over to view the Mona Lisa. It was much smaller than I imagined still perfect in its climate controlled case. My new found museum buddy informed me I was lucky to see the Mona Lisa because usually the crowds around her were extreme. Slipping away to the Rodin exhibit, I managed to lose my self appointed guide. Art was something to be contemplated in silence. Still avoiding my guide I slipped out the side door which I wasn’t sure was an official exit.

Numerous people hawking various wares dispelled me of the idea that I found a secret exit. Shaking my head no, I darted around their outstretched hands displaying perfume, postcards, purses with famous paintings duplicated on their sides and scarves with the Rose window imprinted on them. The main boulevard sighted I surged ahead unaware that I had one last hanger-on trailing me. His beautiful precise English alerted me that this was not a Parisian. Where had I heard that accent before? Startled by the accent I stopped which was misread as an encouraging sign. His smile was wide in his burnished face as he held out a bangle bracelet. No money, no francs, I explained. American dollars would do pegging me easily as an American by my soft rounded, syllables. My hesitation noted he launched into a tragic story about his whole family immigrating and he was their sole source of income. Handing over a five dollar bill, I knew I had been had, but it was such a convincing story and he told it so well. All in all, it wasn’t a bad bracelet about an inch wide and ivory in color. Turning it I looked for the mold line or the made in China imprint without any luck. Just at the edge of my mind, I wondered if it could be ivory, but rejected that thought.

Rubbing my fingers over the bracelet, I re-examined it as I waited for the train that would soon take me to my ferry that would start the British Isles part of my tour. The Chunnel would be much quicker, but considerably more expensive for a person on a budget besides the ferry wasn’t bad. Last time, I was on the ferry they had excellent food, the equivalent of being in a three or four star restaurant. My stomach growled at the thought of food. The vendors at the fringe of the building sold food. Visually I scanned the stalls hoping to find a pastry seller when I noticed the woman. She was a tall long legged beauty moving with an athletic stride. Perhaps I noticed her because she stood out with her long mass of tiny black braids and ebony skin surrounded by slight winter white people clutching purses and luggage. For a moment, I admired her confidence and her attitude and wish I could be similar. Behind her slithered a small white female who was gaining distance rapidly. Maybe they’re friends, yet the slitherer was moving in such a furtive fashion that other people were stepping away from her.

Eyes glued to the  drama, I wasn’t ready when the furtive woman pulled out a knife and plunged it into the striding woman. The woman fell immediately like a sparrow shot out of the sky. The furtive female who was so noticeable before had disappeared. The crowd simply flowed around the fallen beauty no screams of horror were uttered, no self appointed hero was running down the felon instead they were all looking for their train platforms. Seconds later paramedics arrived and placed the woman on an inflatable stretcher and bore her away. Was she dead? How could she be otherwise with the large knife handle sticking out of her back? How could the people be so apathetic?

My train was announced and I grabbed my bag looking back at the scene of the crime one last time. What could cause a person to act in such a way? Jealousy, she was a beautiful woman she probably could have stolen anyone’s man. Maybe the woman was a refugee from another country, there was an underlying bitterness to the influx of refugees France was experiencing. Did I just witness a terrorist attack? I didn’t know, perhaps this happened everyday so no one was surprised.

Thinking back, I realized the people started moving away when they spotted the slinking woman. Maybe on some instinctual level they felt threatened. It was a hard lesson to accept that reality is so different from the manufactured fantasy. My trip to Paris was unforgettable to be sure. Would I hold that one incident against the city? In truth, I couldn’t because it could have just have easily happened in LA, Athens, Rome, New York, even my own hometown. Would I act like the Parisians and assorted tourists hurrying off to my train? Come to think of it, how did I act? Frozen in silent horror I watched the whole episode play out without speaking a word of warning or taking a step forward to help. What a hard truth, the City of Lights had become the City of Enlightenment.  

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