Our hearts dropped when we entered the Metro. She was huddled on the seat, face tear-stained and turned to the window, her extensions falling from her hair, her boots and fishnet stockings ripped and disheveled. It was clear that she was not in a good way. As the doors closed and we pulled away, she sat motionless.
At the next stop a man and two women entered our car, they looked at her as they walked by. A few seconds later the man walked back wearing a look of concern. He knelt to her and asked if she was okay. She didn’t respond. The two women came over to her, gently placing their hands on her shoulder, quietly talking to her without judgement. One went to the box to contact the conductor; we could hear the conversation, but we couldn’t understand what was said. But at the next station a Metro worker was waiting for our car. He, too, bore a look concern and was ready to assist. She did not want to get off the train, and the train moved on to the next stop. The women and the man stayed with her, a stranger to them. At the next stop they walked off together, and one of the women used the emergency phone to call for help. They were still with her as we pulled away.
At the open air market in an esplanade near the Bastille monument, I purchased a bouquet of miniature daffodils to emulate the French who are often seen carrying flowers. They were bright against my teal coat as we walked down Rue St. Antoine to the Ile-St. Louis to the St. Regis, our lunch destination. As we entered, a waiter greeted us and smiled at my flowers. “Ah! For me?” he asked. “Oui!” I responded, holding them out to him. He took them and lovingly placed them in his front shirt pocket, patting them for safe keeping. We laughed and he returned them back to me.
We entered the Luxembourg Gardens, and even though there were no leaves on the trees, the park was full of families enjoying the bright afternoon. Parents spent time with their children who were playing with the boats, climbing on the playground, playing soccer or basketball. The kids were smiling and laughing and shrieking with glee. None was having a fit or misbehaving or on a cell phone; the parents were present and doting, but overall unconcerned. None hovered. Parisians visited on park benches, played pétanque or tennis, others read in the quiet corners. The feeling of community overswept us.
The Church of St. Sulpice differed from other cathedrals; it was care-worn and showed its age. We wandered from alcove to alcove until we were approached by a tiny elderly lady in a purple cap. She scurried toward, eager to show us, complete strangers, the alcove for St. Joseph. Religious paintings depicting Joseph learning that he should wed Mary surrounded the sculpture of him holding the baby Jesus. He differed from the rest as his face beamed with light. “I asked the church to put a light on him, and every night I prayed and prayed.” She pressed her hands together, looking up towards God. “Then my prayers were answered. They put in a light for him.” She left us quickly as she came. We realized that this was the first time we had ever seen Joseph with the baby; it’s always Mary. Would we have seen it if she didn’t surreptitiously share her joy with us?
This is the story of Paris: a city full of people enjoying life, being present, and taking care of one another– even those who they do not know. Everywhere we have gone, we’ve been met with kindness. The city has been shaken with the recent attacks, but they have responded with generosity of spirit. Instead of striking them with fear, it has given them greater impetus to live the way life should be lived: with care, concern, and compassion.
Our waiter was abrupt and dismissive, frustrated by our lack of French. If he knew English, he refused to speak it and barely looked at us. After our drinks, I handed him the money for our bill, giving him my best, “C’est bon.” He stopped, looked at me, smiled, and said, “Thank you.”