I arranged a twelve day trip to Paris for myself as a retirement gift. I love city vacations, being whisked far away from home and dropped into a place I’ve never been before. I observe the people, the architecture, and as I shop, the strengths and weaknesses of economies. I take in the smells and listen to the mechanical sounds and conversations. I strain to understand the spirit of a locale as I study frowns and smiles trying to look into hearts and souls.
I have been blessed (or cursed ) with a compulsion to see the “whys” behind every situation. Parts and fragments irate me and I’m always looking for the big picture or themes. This search has made me a constant observer and a lifelong learner.
Traveling to cities around the world feeds my habit. I devour history and art. In Paris, I became a visual glutton gobbling up the antiquity and beauty which appeared at every turn. I walked an average of six miles a day. Starting at my hotel near the Eiffel Tower, I branched out in various directions.
I rested every afternoon in one of the many outdoor cafés. The French are the supreme connoisseurs of social observation. All chairs outside any café face the flow of humanity and meal times stretch on for maximized intervals of study. I would order a pastry and a cappuccino (the steamed milk elegantly added to my cup by a waiter} and become a visiting member of the jury of amateur judges.
One afternoon, I chose to have dinner early before I started my trek back to the hotel. I sat in a café enclosed in glass because it was chilly and it looked like it might rain. As I ate, I watched people emerging from the subway system. It was 4:00 pm and many people were returning from a long day at work. A man appeared twenty feet from the subway stairs and stopped. He was a middle-class Parisian, his shoes were not of designer quality but were clean and well polished. His slacks and shirt gave the impression they were his special clothes reserved for funerals or an occasional church service. He protected himself from the cool air with an outdated black leather blazer. As he stood watching the gaping hole of the subway, it was apparent he had put a lot of effort into his appearance.
What made me continue to watch was what he carried. In one hand, he held a large sky blue golf umbrella, big enough to provide more the adequate cover from the strongest of rainstorms. In the other hand, pressed close to his heart was a dozen red roses accented with baby’s breath and wrapped in clear florist cellophane. He stood there unaware of my French-style intrusion into his privacy because he was so intent watching the arrival of the people pouring out of the subway.
4:15, my meal arrived. I ate and watched the street before me. The man continued to stand guard searching the faces as they walked passed him.
4:30, 4:45, I watched the man strain his neck to look beyond the opening in the sidewalk, trying to see into the black hole for the object of his longing.
5:00, I began feeling stressed but my stubborn curiosity wouldn’t allow me to leave. I ordered another cappuccino knowing it would keep me up that night.
5:10, the man’s shoulders sagged, he was getting tired and he let his hand drop and the roses hung upside down almost touching the dirty sidewalk. As the sun sunk lower, the bouquet became the color of blood drying around a wound.
They say an observer must be careful not to become emotionally involved with the observation. But I became very aware of the universal theme playing out before me. I had lived the pain of putting my best self forward and having it fall short. Why does this man linger so long? Why do people put so much hope in unhealthy relationships? Why do we try so desperately to win the approval of people who don’ care?
5:20, I couldn’t stay any longer and I went to the restroom to buy more time, hoping that the situation would have resolved itself when I got back. But when I returned to my table, the man was still here.
I paid my bill and exited the restaurant. I started to walk passed the man but I couldn’t. I went up to him, touched the hand holding the flowers, and told him I was sorry. He looked at me in total confusion and I realized he spoke no English. He had no idea I had become a part of his life. I felt like a fool.
But something made me try again. I smiled, nodded knowingly, and said, “You ae a good man”.
He smiled and I quickly walked away, a bit ashamed of myself but at the same time glad I had done something. I headed toward the setting sun following a pathway along The Seine. My racing heart slowed down as it matched the steady rhythm of my steps. Once again I pictured the poor man waiting to be accepted and possibly loved. I hoped he would someday come to appreciate his worth and know it was enough, not for everyone but himself.
I hoped that I had finally learned that lesson.
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