Tag Archives: Kindness of strangers

Hungry in Paris (Ask and it shall be given, part 5)

The following is a true story about one of the most randomly extraordinary things that’s ever happened to me. I want to share it with you here, to the best of my recollection.

I was 16 years old in 1992 when I went on a student trip from Puerto Rico to Oxford, England for a 3-week intensive English course followed by one week travelling in France and Spain. While I’d already been bitten by the travel bug years earlier, this was my first time away from home without my family or friends. That was its own big deal.

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The view from atop Carfax Tower in Oxford

The host family assigned to me in Oxford was an elderly couple living in a tiny house on a street almost identical to the Dursleys’ Privet Drive in Little Whinging.

privetdrive

Left: the house I stayed in outside Oxford. Right: a photo I took of Privet Drive during a visit to the Harry Potter tour at Warner Brother Studios (London) this year.

The woman kept a padlock on the house phone, presumably to keep us student boarders from making long distance phone calls for hours and hours. She never hid her dismay when I turned down constant offers of tea throughout the day. “How can you not want a hot drink?!” (I lived in Puerto Rico where it’s 85 degrees year round!) And the sandwiches she gave me for my school lunches were either cheese and tomato, or tuna fish with butter and cucumbers. One time she asked me what I normally ate cheese sandwiches with, and turned her nose up when I answered ham.

But I digress.

When the three weeks in Oxford ended, my fellow students and I were revved for the upcoming week of straight vacation, starting in Paris. We grabbed our last packed lunches from our British host families, and hopped on a bus to London, where we boarded a train to one of England’s southern port cities (I think it was Plymouth) for the ferry boat crossing over the English Channel into France. I’m pretty sure I ate my sandwich (was it tuna and cucumbers or cheese and tomato? I can’t remember) well before I got on the ferry, and had basically no more food for the journey after that.

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Starting the journey

To say that the waters were choppy that day is an understatement. Though I was mercifully spared the miserable seasickness, I did witness a good number of my fellow travelers running to toilets with pale, drawn faces.

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The ferry boat ride

After that was over, we still had to take a train to Paris.

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Train ride to Paris … by this time in the day I would’ve given anything for a tuna and cucumber sandwich.

Finally, it was a drizzly early evening when we arrived at our Paris hotel. It was, in fact, dinner time, and just a few minutes too late to exchange money at a bank or at the hotel’s front desk. This was a time before you could go to any cash machine and withdraw money. Most people still traveled with travelers’ checks, the currency was francs, and none of us had any. We had a few British pounds left over, which did us no good whatsoever. Since most of us were high school students, we didn’t have credit cards, and I have a sense (my memory on this is a bit fuzzy) that some of the restaurants where we asked didn’t even take plastic.

What could we do? A group of about four other students and I started to walk around the city, trying to figure something out. We were wet, exhausted, and hungry. So we came up with a plan to approach someone who looked local, and ask them to withdraw cash for us using their bank card in exchange for pounds and travelers’ checks. It was a long shot, obviously, but we were starting to feel desperate. The first few people we asked –wait for it!– said no.

Right as we were about to give up, someone looked up and noticed the names of the cross streets where we were standing: they were Rue de la Providence and Rue de l’Espérance.

RueEsperanceProvidence2Cropped

So we figured, since we were literally standing on the corner of Hope and Providence, maybe we shouldn’t give up … surely someone would help us! That’s when we saw a pregnant woman exiting an apartment building. We approached her and quickly explained our situation.

To our shock and delight, she told us yes, she would withdraw francs for us in exchange for our travelers’ checks and pounds … on one condition: that we sit and have a drink with her before heading off to dinner. Starving as we were, we agreed. The woman went to an ATM, got out cash, and together we found a bar and sat down for a drink. I have only a very vague recollection of what she looked like, and she didn’t tell us much about herself. Funnily enough, we did learn that she was headed to the UK the following day, so she’d been on her way to the ATM machine anyway, and she was happy to take our British pounds.

She was also lonely. I got the strong sense that her baby’s father was not in the picture. Then she said something like this: “How funny that we met each other on the corner of Rue de la Providence and Rue de l’Espérance, and that we were able to help each other. See, it wasn’t just me helping you get your money, but you have also helped me by sitting with me these few minutes and talking to me, keeping me company. So in a sense, we needed each other.”

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Paris the next day

I think she declined to join us for dinner. Soon we completed our money transaction and parted ways, wishing each other all the best. Then my friends and I took the money to a Chinese restaurant where we had the grandest and finest Chinese feast I’ve ever had in my life. At least that’s what it seemed like in my 16-year-old mind, and who is my 40-year-old self to tell that girl otherwise? Mistaking our jadedness for wisdom is such a common blind spot among us grownup types.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the kindness of strangers in France. In fact, I’ve shared the stories here, about the incident with a cash machine in Paris and the time a few years later when my husband and I were hungry in a tiny French village. Isn’t this trend kind of mysterious and amazing? But all these things really happened. And remembering them touches a place deep in my heart where my own pure goodness lives alongside my faith in the goodness of others. Call me crazy, but I think we could all stand to tap into that place more often.

This is my favorite one of these stories, though. I have no idea if the woman would remember the role she had in helping a group of hungry Puerto Rican students get money for food on a drizzly Parisian evening 23 years ago, or that the thought of her poignant generosity and vulnerability still moves me deeply and lifts my spirits every single time. I especially think about the power of asking. It’s not just that you might actually get what you’re asking for (which in itself is pretty awesome), but it’s how the act of asking for help opens the door to keep kindness flowing. And to think it happened on the corner of Hope and Providence!


 

Note: A new friend I made on this trip was a law school student, (I believe) at the University of Puerto Rico. By the time we made it to Seville, I had all but run out of money, and she lent me money so I could buy souvenirs for my family at the World Expo. I promised to pay her back, but then we lost touch completely after coming home from the trip. I don’t even remember her name! But I did circle her face in the only two photos I have of her. I would love to track her down, to thank her again and to pay her back. Please help me share this blog post, so we can keep up the spirit of pay it forward! (Or in my case, in the spirit of paying her back…)

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Ask and it shall be given. Part 3, Theater!

askForWhatYouWant
(Here are Part 1 –Paris– and Part 2 –Alanis Morissette and Elizabeth Gilbert–  of Ask and it shall be given.)
Do I always believe this quote by Maya Angelou? Please. Does anyone, besides maybe Wayne Dyer? The truth is no one always gets what they want. It’s also true though–cliché alert!–that we never know unless we ask. Here are two stories I present to you as evidence.

London
The first time my husband David and I went to London together was in 2007, years before parenthood. For our next-to-last night there, we bought tickets to see Fiddler on the Roof in the Savoy Theater. He and I have always loved this musical, and were so excited for the opportunity to see it.

Geeking out in front of the Rosetta Stone. (My background is in historical linguistics.)

When the night of the show came, we first had dinner reservations at a famous restaurant nearby called Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. It’s one of the oldest continuously operating restaurants in Britain. And may I say, it’s quite the experience. (Can’t believe I couldn’t find photos from our dinner there, sorry!) A gentleman who I’m sure had been around since at least Shakespeare’s time pushed a silver domed trolley around. Under the dome was a huge piece of prime rib, to be carved with flawlessly executed olde English flair directly beside your table, and served with boiled potatoes and Yorkshire pudding. The man was as delightful as he was ancient. He only scoffed a small amount when I ordered fish instead of beef, and he happily posed for pictures with diners like a bonafide celebrity. The meal was so enjoyable in so many ways, it felt like an embarrassment of riches that the main event of the evening was yet to come when Fiddler on the Roof started at 7:30.

Shortly after this delightful dinner, we strode into the vestibule of the Savoy Theater, so excited, but surprised to find that we were the only people there. Hmm. David hurried to find someone we could ask what was going on, and returned with an usher, who very nicely escorted us into the theater, right after he told us the show had started at 7!! Oh … HELL no. To this day, we don’t know how we made that mistake.

The usher then assigned us temporary seats until intermission. Because the seats we’d bought were so good and close to the stage, it would have disrupted the production to let us take them right away. The song we entered to was To Life-L’Chaim. A favorite, to be sure, but what about Tradition?! Matchmaker?! If I Were a Rich Man?! I was close to tears. During intermission, when I saw just how wonderful our seats were, I shed a few. I told David we had to come back the next day and see it from the beginning. “Let’s at least ask!” I may have even suggested we buy a second pair of tickets for the next night, or that we propose standing somewhere in back. But the plan was, first, to explain what happened, and ask if they’d just let us sit through the first few numbers the following night in whatever seats they had. David was hesitant. It was embarrassing, of course. And why would they say yes? Finally though, he agreed that the worst that could happen was they’d say no.

The theater manager wrote down David’s name, and told us it could be arranged for us to attend the first half hour of the show the following evening–for free! She told us there would be a different manager on duty, and that she’d explain the situation to him, so he’d know what to do. David and I were excited … and skeptical. Show up and tell a different manager that someone had promised us the previous night to let us in for free? Um, no.

Picture from our last day, most of which we spent wondering if we’d get to see Fiddler on the Roof from the beginning…

Imagine our surprise when the manager on duty the following night sprung into action with what seemed like crystal clear recognition the instant David said his name. He didn’t wait for further explanation. Hell, he didn’t even ask for I.D. He just went to the ticket window, and produced an envelope with two tickets for us. They were for two pretty decent seats, together! Fiddler on the Roof became the definitive highlight of that entire trip for us. It’s a story I love, and love telling.

New York
I don’t have to tell most of you about my long-standing love affair with New York. Being a fan of Sex and the City as a single gal in the late nineties probably had a little bit to do with that. A couple of years ago, it was announced that Sarah Jessica Parker was starring in a play called The Commons of Pensacola with none other than Blythe Danner. I decided I just had to go.

As soon as the tickets went on sale, I tried to buy one online, but kept getting a message about no tickets available. Next, I called the theater, The New York City Center. The guy explained that theater “members” get first dibs on all shows. Once members have purchased their tickets, a limited selection of seats becomes available for “the rest of us.” They had no idea when that would happen, only that it was very close to performance dates, at which point they expected tickets to sell out pretty fast.

Through a series of circumstances that included family obligations at home and hotel reward points, I soon narrowed down the dates when I’d be in New York to one night. I’m not usually this brazen in my wishing and hoping, but at this point, I had to see the play on that very specific night. So I started to check Every. Single. Day. Sometimes more than once a day. Still nothing. Everything was in place for me to go see the play … I just didn’t have a ticket for it. Yet. The quest got to be a bit of a joke between David and me. Then one day, the heavens parted, and voilà. Tickets available for online purchase! I bought one on the spot. And when, out of curiosity, I checked back for a few consecutive days afterwards, I once again found nothing available. Lo and behold, it’s a tiny, intimate theater, and I had a seat very close to the stage.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, I know this type of wish-come-true seems pretty trivial, even shallow. I get it. Theater is a privilege. And with everything that’s going on in this world, life is about so much more than enjoying a performance from an awesome seat. But I think valuable lessons can also be learned from things going right, from something wonderful that you almost gave up on, but didn’t. I’m not always going to get what I wish for, and sometimes that’s where the blessing lies. Sometimes, though, if I pay attention and know what to tune into and keep at it, enough of the important factors can align perfectly. And the answer is yes. And it then occurs to me that if this can happen, what else can I dream into reality? May you have many such moments. Just remember, you’ll never know if you don’t ask!

Oh yeah, the following morning, I got to listen to Wayne Dyer talk about manifesting dreams. And did I mention I got to stay in New York for free that night? I’m telling you … !

I had one of the best pizzas of my life the night of the play.
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Ask and it shall be given. Part 2, Oprah and Alanis.

In 2012 and 2013, my sister Laura and I attended a conference in DC hosted by the publisher Hay House, called I Can Do It. It is an annual event in different cities worldwide that features authors like Brian Weiss, Christiane Northrup, and Gregg Braden. It has been a fantastic time, not to mention an awesome opportunity for Laura and me to have girl time together, away from our husbands and kids for an entire weekend! We’ve resolved to make this, or at least something like it, an annual tradition.
Laura and I. My first photo with Brian Weiss. One of my favorite Power Point slides, by Gregg Braden.

A few weeks after last year’s I Can Do ItI learned that there had been another conference–which I had just missed–in which Alanis Morissette and Elizabeth Gilbert had both been among the speakers. Hang on, what do you mean I could go somewhere and listen to Alanis Morissette and Elizabeth Gilbert speak? Don’t ask me why this thought had never occurred to me before, but it hadn’t.

Now I was on a mission. And I said to my husband, “Next year, I will not go to I Can Do It. I am saving our money … I need to go to this other conference!” I started checking in regularly, but neither Alanis nor Elizabeth appeared as one of the confirmed speakers this year.

This didn’t faze me. And I somehow knew that if seeing these fabulous women in person was a possibility, 2014 was the year when that would happen. Was this rational thinking? Perhaps not. Listen, some somedays don’t need to happen this year. Some day I will go to Paris again–not this year, and that’s okay. But the distant unknown future is not the place for all of my somedays. Where’s the point in that? I don’t dream in abstract wouldn’t-it-be-nice terms. Uh-uh. So I kept my eyes open for something–anything.

Then in January, a brochure from the Omega Institute arrived at our house, announcing the following workshop.

Shut the front door. My heart started racing; it seemed too good to be true! My husband was in Indonesia for work that entire week, and I emailed him immediately. “Honey, we need to talk!” Within 24 hours, I had booked the weekend.

In the weeks leading up, I wasn’t certain what to expect. James Van Praagh appeared as the lead teacher, and I started to wonder whether Alanis would be there the entire weekend, or maybe just for one of the sessions. (I like James, but my love for Alanis runs deep, and has done for years–I dedicated a blog post to her a few months ago.)

Friday night arrives, and there they both were!

There she is! And there’s James!

And so it was, a weekend with James and Alanis. She wasn’t just physically there for the entire workshop. She was present, warm, funny, real. James was humble, emotional, very available and easy to talk to, and also funny. Together, their chemistry was fantastic. And the group in attendance was made up of individuals who were all kinds of awesome.

We talked about creativity and art. Harnessing the lousy feelings in life and redirecting them creatively. Meditation and prayer. Children and parenting. Finding strength rather than weakness in our unique sensitivities. Giving ourselves permission to truly exercise our self-expression. Getting over what other people think of us. There was also dancing both Saturday and Sunday…I danced with Alanis Morissette.

You know when the reality is even better than anything you could have dreamed? That. The words that best capture what it felt like for me are, “May I always remember what this feels like!” I thought that over and over again during the weekend. I’d wanted a lecture with Alanis Morissette. What I got was an entire weekend, in an intimate setting, discussing art, love, spirituality, and healing, along with the incredible James Van Praagh, too. And it had only been six months since I dreamed it!

When my husband asked me as I came home Sunday night, “So how was it?!” I burst into tears. For days, I cried happy tears every time I talked about it. I honestly still can’t believe it all really happened, and I sit in awe as I write this blog post.

James and Alanis created a Facebook page for the event, and these photos were posted on there. I’ve circled myself in red.

It was kind of like my Oprah Show moment, back in 2009. I had dialed the number you were supposed to call for getting seats at a taping of an Oprah Show countless times. Late one night, I submitted a form for last minute tickets online, thinking, “What the hell, it’s worth a shot.” It only took a few days…

Now, here’s something that only Oprah fans will likely get: When you come home one day and see Harpo Studios among the missed calls on your caller i.d., you know something special is happening. They left a message, with a number for me to call back! This was a Monday, and they had tickets available for a taping that Thursday. I can’t remember exactly what I said. It was probably something like, “yes, God yes, hell yes!” And get this. I was able to use frequent flyer miles, and only paid around $25 for the round-trip ticket. Also? My classes that semester were Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays; I flew to Chicago Wednesday evening, sat at a taping of the Oprah Show Thursday morning, flew back, and was back in class Friday morning. Never missed a minute of work!

Holy mother of all clichés. Wait for it, ’cause you know it’s coming: Dreams come true, man. This sh*t is real! And I don’t think I am any better or prettier or more interesting or deserving than anyone. I do, however, dare to dream big, like my parents taught me.
These are my go-to moments. Whenever I feel lousy, I think of the miracle that all my loved ones are well and healthy, and I revisit the wonder of what’s possible when I give myself permission to really dream it.
So instead of the I Can Do It conference, guess where Laura and I are spending our sisters’ weekend this year? See photo below. One of the speakers scheduled to be there? Elizabeth Gilbert. I’m telling you … !
(You can read Part 1 of Ask and it shall be given here.)
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Just Say Hello

Last month’s issue of Oprah Magazine featured a piece called Just Say Hello. I loved discovering that many other people also experience loneliness, that it’s a natural phenomenon of the times in which we live. It’s not that I feel all alone in the world. Goodness knows I have plenty of love in this life; I know it too. Sometimes I just crave a little more than I’m getting, that’s all. I have visions sometimes (thank goodness, only sometimes) that everyone else but me is enveloped in vast circles of friends with whom, on a routine basis, they have fantastically fabulous coffee dates, dinner parties, and joint family vacations filled with depth and laughter in equal measure. When I recently learned of the term FOMO*, I thought, wait, I’m not the only one who feels this way? It’s been validating and reassuring to know–pun!–that I’m not alone in experiencing loneliness from time to time.
*In case you didn’t know, FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out. Because now everything is expressed in acronyms and abbreviations.

I was instantly on board with the Just Say Hello campaign, and wanted to share a story about a time recently when saying hello made a difference for me. So I’m sharing three.

1. While my 4-year-old son is in preschool three mornings a week, I typically walk to the nearby Whole Foods, where I spend the morning writing in the mezzanine café area. One time I spotted the mother of one of the new boys at my son’s school, seated nearby. After a while, we made eye contact, said hello, and started talking. We already knew that each is an O Mag subscriber. Turns out she’s a writer–nonfiction–who has been employed by various magazines and now generally works freelance. I told her I am writing my first book, that writing had always been my dream. I did it in my not infrequent “but please don’t think I have delusions of grandeur!” manner. It’s something that plagues me, but which I am getting better at overcoming. She, in turn, became an instant supporter of my dream, and the two of us now get together every week for writing dates while our boys are at school. We write together and talk about our writing, but we also talk about parenting, family, life. She has become a dear friend. In fact, we both now have tickets to see Oprah at DC’s Verizon Center in September! This is all happening because one of us said hello.

There are at least two other women who are also regulars there, with whom I routinely take turns watching each other’s things while the other one uses the restroom. We haven’t become friends, and that’s okay. But one of them has referred to me as her Whole Foods work buddy.

2. During another one of my writing mornings, I sat next to an elderly gentleman. I’d never seen him before, but he reminded me an awful lot of my beloved paternal grandfather, who died in 1999. Most people who sit in the café area are either eating a meal, or they have a book, a laptop, their phone, something specific that’s keeping them occupied. This gentleman had a newspaper opened to the sports section, and was looking at it only halfheartedly. He started to look up at me the moment I approached. I said hello. Then I kind of plopped down in the seat next to him and proceeded to my ritual: find a couple of disinfectant wipes to clean up the area where I’m sitting (my family has had a few recent bouts of illness), take out my laptop, iPod, huge bottle of water, and snack, turn on the sound and vibrate on my phone (in case someone really needs to reach me), remove my coat and other things, and put in my earphones. Come to think of it, it must be a pretty ridiculous spectacle–I take a good several minutes to do it all.

I could see him looking up at me from time to time. I would smile back, eventually wondering whether I was bothering him. He then said, “If you need me to move, I can move to make more space for you.” I couldn’t quite tell at first whether that was sarcastic, but I was definitely starting to worry that I was irritating him. I told him no, thank you, that I had plenty of room. Then he pointed at his clothes, smiled at me, and said, “You know, I’m wearing this suit, which I first wore in 1948.” Irritated? No. Friendly? Yes–whew! I said, “Congratulations, sir, that’s quite impressive!” I then went back to my tasks, writing an email, drinking my water, though not without noticing that he kept glancing up at me from time to time. A few minutes later, he got up, and said this to me, “I’ll be leaving now. But I need to tell you this. You have a very beautiful smile.” This moved me intensely. All I could say was, “Wow, sir, thank you. That is so kind of you!” I was also reminded that this wasn’t the first time I was met with the kindness of an elderly stranger at a Whole Foods. The previous time happened when I broke my toe a couple of years ago, the story is HERE.

3. The final story happened in the waiting area of a local hospital. My 4-year-old had dropped “the weight of the world” (this was how my husband referred to his toy globe, in the photo below) on his big toe at an awkward angle. It happened on a Friday, and by Monday morning, he was in a lot of pain, and the bloodied swelling of the toe looked pretty scary. At the hospital, after my sweet little man’s injured toe was drained by three, yes, three orthopedic surgeons, we were sent to the X-Ray Department to determine whether it was broken. It was after 1PM. We had spent the entire morning there. I had exhausted the snacks for my son, and I could sense that he was starving and getting antsy about going home. He had been a trooper, to be sure. I just also knew that his trooperness was fading fast. The only place to sit in the waiting area was next to a woman who was doing needlepoint work. I said hello to her, and to myself said a silent prayer that she wouldn’t get on my case about my child’s behavior if he started to get fussy.

The woman immediately put down her needlepoint, and started talking to me. “What a beautiful, handsome boy you have.” “Thank you,” I said. He and I spoke a little more, in Spanish, and she added, “Oh and he’s bilingual. Good for you for raising him bilingual from such a young age!” “Thank you,” I said again. Then came, “Is he your only child?” Therrrre it is. Okay. It used to be that women asked me, “Is he yours?” They see a Hispanic woman out and about with a baby in the middle of a weekday, and they assume she must be the nanny. I was asked this countless times. These days, I’m most often asked whether he’s an only child.

“Yes, he is. He’s our one and only!” I responded. And then I waited for it. Here it comes. Now she’s going to tell me that children need a sibling, that it is selfish and unnatural to not give my son one. Ah yes, the footloose and fancy-free lifestyle of two parents who, after crunching numbers and considering health and other issues, decide that if they stop at one child, and live very strictly within their means, they can afford for the mother to give up gainful employment to stay home and parent their child full-time in the way that they envision parenting. It just screams selfishness, doesn’t it? Honestly? I have seen people who view the choice to have just one child even more harshly than the choice to remain childless. But I digress.

The woman now got out her bag to put away her needlepoint, and turned to me in earnest. She obviously meant business. I braced for impact. And here’s what she said. “Well, let me tell you something. I had an only child until I was 50. Then I adopted two children. I love them dearly, don’t get me wrong. But let me tell you, I am 84 years old now, and they are still giving me grief. I am exhausted. You’re smart to stick with the only child, honey.”

Whoa! Did not see that one coming. I love it when people surprise me. Can’t wait to keep saying hello!

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You won’t know if you never ask. Part 1, Paris.

I hate being told no as much as anyone, and sometimes I’ve chosen to play it safe and haven’t bothered asking for something. But I’ve realized I regret not asking more than I lament being told no, and some good stories have come from the times I’ve been brave enough to ask. One of these times was ten years ago–this week!–when my boyfriend David and I were on vacation in Paris. It was Easter weekend. David and I had been dating about a year and half.

We took a red-eye flight from DC to Paris and arrived in the late morning. After a long taxi ride and a good nap and shower in the hotel, we headed out to dinner, stopping at the nearest ATM to withdraw Euros. The bank was already closed for the day, but with a machine right on the sidewalk, that was fine. David got cash first, then I swiped my card, entered my PIN and desired amount of Euros (300), and waited. The machine gave me 200 Euros. Then the receipt printed, indicating that the machine had given me all 300 Euros, and that the transaction was complete.
Well … !
Shit!
Right?
Obviously we’d have to come back the next morning and try to get the rest of my money. It felt like a long shot and I was already feeling self-conscious about it, but 100 Euros, then and now, is a lot of money. What was the worst they could do? Say no, right? But I also had this bizarre fear that they’d arrest me and throw me in a French prison like Jean Valjean. (I have weird fears like that.)

Breakfast the next morning consisted of a baguette each for David and me. This was the thinnest, daintiest baguette I’ve ever seen in my life, and it had about an inch’s worth of perfectly softened salted butter spread along the inside. It was easily the simplest meal we had that entire trip, and anything I write ten years later couldn’t do justice to the beauty and comfort of that perfectly fresh crusty bread and butter with piping hot café au lait for me and hot chocolate for David. The non-English-speaking waitress was also a delight. We spent our time with her shrugging and chuckling at our mutual incomprehension, even as we still managed to understand each other on a level that we knew counted for something. Encouraged by such a breakfast, and “armed” with my ATM card, the receipt from the previous evening’s transaction, and my passport, we were ready to face the bank.

“Parlez-vous anglais?” we asked.

“No,” they answered.

I knew only a little bit of French, and the situation wasn’t super easy to explain. But once English was ruled out, we knew that our only hope for communication lay in my multi-lingual abilities. My German in college was decent so I tried that. No dice. And I’d studied Portuguese in grad school.

“Pas de portugais.”

I should say that this entire time and despite our linguistic limitations, the folks at the bank seemed genuinely interested in helping. In my anxiety, I looked at David and said something to him in English that included a Spanish word or two, probably Dios mío.

Then I hear, “Espagnol? Oui. Un peu.”

So what’s French for “Duh!” No, it had not occurred to me to ask about Spanish. But there it was, one male employee who spoke very limited Spanish.

I explained what had happened to him as slowly and carefully as I could, and watched as he translated for his colleagues. A female colleague then got up and left the room with a large key ring. The keys to the vault? Do banks still have vaults? Anyway, I assumed she was in charge. While she was away, the rest of the employees kept talking amongst themselves in French. After enough time had passed, I grew nervous and said to David something along the lines of, “Either she can’t get the vault to open, or this is the part where they confiscate my passport, cut up my ATM card, and have us arrested for trying to rob the bank, you know, go all Interpol/Bourne Identity on our asses.”

A few minutes later, the woman with the keys reemerged. She was looking at a newly-printed receipt she had in one hand. In her other hand? My 100 Euros!  Honestly, for all the misgivings we’d had, it all seemed rather easy once it was over. Something in their system probably confirmed the truth of my story. We’d been so nervous, yet all we’d had to do was ask. To celebrate, I went out and bought this hat which I’ve never worn since.

Pont Neuf with new Parisian hat.
Know what else? After dinner at a tiny, ridiculously charming restaurant on Île Saint-Louis that night, David and I got engaged! Ah, Paris in the springtime. It was a very good trip.
 
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Dude, where’s the love?

It has been one of those weeks. I’ve gotten little sleep, and my novel-writing stamina and enthusiasm have wavered. I’ve continued with my writing schedule; morale is low, that’s all. Also, there have been a few worries regarding my boy’s school. Then there’s the neighbor who wasn’t as considerate as I might have expected. The father with the car seat in the back of his own car who abruptly cut off, and nearly took down, my husband and my kid as they made their way on foot across the parking lot. At the pumpkin patch! The dude at the library yesterday, in charge of the second-hand bookstore, who nearly took my head off when I asked a question about the pricing of the books. The other dude, who sat across from me at “my table,” and proceeded to type on his laptop like the keyboard was a tough piece of meat that he was attempting to tenderize using nothing but the tips of his fingers. The whole table trembled like an elephant stampede. I wanted to reach over and smack him. Sometimes, I daydream that I have no filter whatsoever. I’ve done a lot of that this week. Because I am one of those people who, in times of low-energy fragility, have an extremely vulnerable emotional response to what I perceive as gratuitous unkindness.

After I completed yesterday’s scheduled ninety minutes of writing (over 2,000 words, yeah!), I finally had time to read an article that some friends had posted on Facebook via Huffington Post, called Surviving Whole Foods, by Kelly Maclean. I laughed out loud. This probably annoyed the meat tenderizer across from me; hey that’s just gravy, man. This is the kind of mood I was in. Maclean’s characterization of what it sometimes feels like to shop at Whole Foods was poignant, funny, and very relatable. And the parking lot? Spot-freaking-on:

“Whole Foods’ clientele are all about mindfulness and compassion… until they get to the parking lot. Then it’s war. As I pull up this morning, I see a pregnant lady on the crosswalk holding a baby and groceries. This driver swerves around her and honks. As he speeds off I catch his bumper sticker, which says ‘NAMASTE’. Poor lady didn’t even hear him approaching because he was driving a Prius. He crept up on her like a panther.”

Ugh. So true! Let’s face it, the place often seems to be predominantly populated by self-important types who appear to be so seriously caught up in what they put into their bodies, that they are far less concerned with what they put out vis-à-vis human connection. I was thinking about those types as I read the article. And then I remembered the day when I experienced a distinct exception to this phenomenon.

About a year and half ago, I had parked my car at the Whole Foods parking lot, and taken my son in his stroller to run a quick errand before coming back to shop there. When we came back to Whole Foods, I took him out of his stroller, and was attempting to get him into the shopping cart. He didn’t want to go in, and in the struggle, I accidentally pulled the wheel of the cart onto my foot, a lot harder that I initially thought. Bam. Broken pinky toe. I called my husband immediately to tell him what happened and to try to figure out what to do next. Throughout my talk with my husband, it felt as though I was the object of various forms of tsk-ing, hissing, and mean looks from passing strangers, because I could barely move, and was standing in the way of terribly important people, in a terrible hurry, wearing their trendy-pricey-skinny yoga leggings, carrying their $10 cup of freshly juiced green juice (probably their one meal for the day, I speculated).

Basically using the shopping cart as a walker, I managed to buy the few essential items that we absolutely needed at home. Then, with the help of a very friendly and concerned check-out clerk, I got my son back in his stroller, and the two shopping bags hooked onto the handles of the stroller. I made my way to our car, wondering whether I would even be able to drive home. It was my right pinky toe that I had injured. The parking spots next to ours were vacant, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was preparing to cross the empty parking spots diagonally to get to my car faster, when an elderly woman pulled up, clearly intending to park in one of those sports. I waved her in, I’m sure, with an exasperated eye roll. She, in turn, motioned for me to go.

So I moved, wobbling, in pain, close to tears, toward my car. Now on top of having a broken pinky toe and still not knowing whether I was going be able to drive home, I was going to get a talking-to about manners from an eighty-year-old woman. After I made it to my car door, the woman quickly parked her car. One second later, she was next to me. “Qué necesitas?” Of course she spoke Spanish! The woman wanted to know what I needed. I have no idea what I said in response. What I do know is that, in a matter of one or two minutes, she had loaded my groceries, my kid, the stroller, and my own wounded self into our car. “Yo seré vieja, pero soy fuerte! = I may be old, but I’m strong!”

I have since had a chance to personally thank the friendly check-out clerk for her help that day. In fact, I think that made her day when I did! But I don’t think I’ve ever seen my Whole Foods parking lot angel again. If there’s ever been an unlikely place for having a loving encounter with a stranger, I would tend to think that the Whole Foods parking lot, at the very least, makes the short list. I really love it when I’m wrong sometimes.

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