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When You're Alone in Paris, City's Glory and Romance Can Get to You
Paris is one of the world's most romantic cities. Everyone knows that. Earlier this summer, I actually saw it with my own eyes. Practically every place I went I saw couples holding hands, embracing and passionately kissing.
Whether it was on the crowded, stuffy Metro, at a bustling open-air market, in a department store or along the picturesque Seine River as green, slimy water lapped up on the banks, romance did fill the air.
"To know Paris is to know a great deal," Henry Miller wrote. "What eloquent surprises at every turn of the street. To get lost here is an adventure extraordinary. The streets sing, the stones talk. The houses drip history, glory, romance."
Even in the narrow streets near my hotel, where dog droppings dotted the path like land mines, one consistent message rang out: Paris is for lovers.
Only one hitch: I was seeing it but not feeling it. My 17-day excursion did not spark any romantic flames. Despite making several friends and meeting some interesting people here and there, I was pretty much on my own most of the time.
Along with the typical tourist stops, including the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and a half-dozen other museums, I had clichéd encounters with rude waiters, over-zealous pan handlers, attempted pickpockets and people on bikes with baguettes protruding from their side bags. There's truth to some clichés even if I didn't see any guys in berets or any hunchbacks at Notre Dame cathedral.
But I also met a cast of interesting characters: American college students backpacking who had a bag stolen; an internationally-acclaimed etiquette expert from New York City who thought I was polite because I allowed her to pass me first on a narrow street; a newspaper reporter from one of America's top newspapers; an American military family in transit from one deployment to another; an anthropology professor from Bratislava; and an American literature professor from Poland.
I also connected with a number of Parisian Jews via my new friend "Celia," who introduced me to her friends at a Shabbat dinner and showed me some nice restaurants. She also invited me and her friends to her cousin's Wednesday afternoon wedding at a huge, historic synagogue in the Jewish quarter.
The Jewish quarter, called Le Marais, was an intriguing mix of Sephardic and Ashkenazic influences. During my two excursions there, I had two meals. Neither was remarkable, even though the host at an overcrowded Israeli restaurant told me, "This is the best falafel outside of Israel." A few days later, a waitress wordlessly slammed down a $9 slice of kosher pizza and a Coke in front of me. That was as friendly as anyone in Le Marais got. I've had better pita and humus in Syracuse.
My Parisian trip also took me to a grand synagogue, the Temple Victoire, built in 1874, where I had to produce proof that I was Jewish before passing through security for Saturday morning services. I barely understood anything in the service, which by American standards would be on the Orthodox side. But it was nice to experience the service where the staff wore Napoleon-era hats and jackets. The historic building, with high vaulted ceilings and stunning stained glass, made for a beautiful setting, even if no one talked to me.
Later that night, my last Saturday in Paris, I headed down to the Seine to stroll around and have dinner on the Left Bank. I braved sun showers and walked past the Louvre one last time.
I then crossed the Pont des Arts, a smaller, wooden bridge over the famed Seine, which is a haven for everyone from fishermen to young, artsy teens. A nice woman who looked like she was about my age passed by. We shared a glance and I asked if she could take my picture. She then asked me where a museum was, pointing to her guidebook.
Even though I don't understand or read Polish, she was almost mystified when I noticed her guidebook was in Polish.
"Bette," an American literature professor, was attending a conference and this was the first night she'd had to get out and see the city. We chatted for about 40 minutes, and I offered to take her picture. The batteries in her camera died. I said I'd use my camera and e-mail them to her.
"What is your wife going to think when she sees pictures of a strange woman in Paris?"
"Unfortunately, I don't have a wife or a girlfriend," I said.
"I thought you might be one of those guys who forgets to wear his wedding ring and then confesses that his wife doesn't understand him," she said.
"See, no ring," I said, sighing.
"Why would you want to be married anyway? Marriage is like bondage," she said.
Maybe I missed a sign. After we crossed to the Left Bank, we parted ways.
I wandered into the heart of the St. Germain district, once the center for American ex-pat writers. I thought it would be nice to have my last meal there. As I scanned the menu at the famous Les Deux Magots, I saw a woman waving. Surely, she was not waving at me. But in fact she was. It was Elena, whom I'd met at last week's Shabbat dinner.
I didn't think I would ever see her again, especially in such a random way. She invited me to join her and her friends for dinner, a small group of Jewish people from Paris and Marseille.
I knew a few people in Paris and I ran into one of them on my last big night in town. It was a totally Parisian moment.
Roy S. Gutterman is a Syracuse, N.Y.-based writer. To contact him, visit www.Lrev.com.