The end of a chapter

Aboard the TGV to Paris I could exhale a little. After the morning’s frenzy and the schlepping of my five bags onto the train I was thrilled to be able to sit for a while. Several stops came in close succession: Montpellier, Nimes, Avignon. And then there was the long, uninterrupted, very fast sail up to Paris.

Spring Break was on and the train was full. My seat was part of a group of four that faced each other across a table. I shared the table with a little family – a woman and man and their boys of three and four. The older boy, Aaron, wore purple eyeglasses and was quiet. He eyed me suspiciously and whispered often to his dad (about me, no doubt). Aaron’s little brother Julien, though, had energy to spare. Both boys had Matchbox Ferraris and the tabletop was a convenient racecourse; Julien’s car never stopped moving.

Back and forth from the window to the aisle edge of the table it sped, Maman’s hand preventing it from sailing over. Occasionally she would warn Julien not to bother le monsieur, prompting Julien to stare at me for long stretches. His looks contained less fear than wonder about how serious an offense it would be if his red Enzo did crash into monsieur’s lap.

In a spontaneous act of international diplomacy I asked Julien if I might see his car. He hesitated briefly but slowly offered it across the table. I made chitchat about the car being italienne and rouge and vite but his little hand remained extended – palm up – and he only wanted his Ferrari back. Undeterred, I asked Julien if he would help me learn some French words. He didn’t answer but I persisted.

“Quel est le nom de cet animal?”

Une vache.”

He wasn’t interested in much except his red car. Aaron still whispered conspiratorially to his papa while looking at me with concern.

Maman continued to warn Julien about letting his Ferrari go into my lap. Joining the fray I said to Julien (with the biggest clown-face smile imaginable, so he would HAVE to know that I was kidding around), “Si ta voiture vient ici – pointing to my lap – elle est la mienne.” If it comes over here, it’s mine.

Maman repeated my admonition but it served only to cajole Julien to mischief. He pushed his car back and forth a few more times before letting it loose towards me. Over the table it rolled and I caught it. The little hand came forth but I said – again with my super-jolly smile – “Non. Elle est mienne maintenant.”

I was unaware up to that moment how quickly a child could make the voyage from happy to hysterical. Hardly one second after maintenant passed my lips the 2nd Class coach was filled with shrieks of terror, and a tiny branch of the French water utility somewhere behind Julien’s face released a flood of tears. As heads appeared over the backs of seats in search of the source of the howls, I slunk deeply down into mine.

Maman comforted the boy while looking guiltily at me. She had, after all, participated in the charade. I immediately produced the Ferrari from beneath the table. Julien snatched it from me, and just as quickly as his hysterics had begun he returned to his tabletop racing, scored by his melodic “Vroom vrooms.”

The rest of the ride to Paris was blessedly calm.

Normally I would be thrilled for even a few hours in Paris. This time, I only wanted to go home. My months in France had been a gift I gave myself and I mined from them a rich bounty of insight and direction.

It did not help my enjoyment of the City of Light to be lugging five heavy pieces of luggage. The 100-meter walk from Gare de Lyon across the street to my hotel took about half an hour; I had to stop every so often, remove the bags from my sore shoulders and back, and catch my breath.

I spent the afternoon and evening wandering, making only one planned stop, for lunch at La Cagouille. It’s a little seafood place in Montparnasse that we discovered some years ago. With high Zagat numbers and no tourists, it’s just my thing. This was my fifth or sixth meal there and for the fifth or sixth time I ordered grilled mackerel with mustard sauce. It was a meal I didn’t have to think about and that was just fine.

The next morning I boarded an Air France shuttle bus to Charles de Gaulle airport, and then I flew to the United States.