An unexpected Paris

PERSONAL JOURNEYS

July 09, 2000|By Susan Middaugh | Susan Middaugh,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A MEMORABLE PLACE

The most vivid memories of a vacation are its surprises -- the spontaneous exchanges between people that you won't find in a guidebook.

That was true for me during my first visit to Paris recently. I looked forward to my vacation for months: four days of exploring "Hidden Paris" with a hiking group based in London and three days as a tourist traveling solo.

Rue Mouffetard, known for its cobblestone streets, small shops and restaurants, was a sensual paradise even for those who simply inhaled the flowers, cheese and pastry.

While some of my new British acquaintances were enjoying an espresso at an outdoor cafe, I decided to explore the neighborhood on my own.

Up ahead were open-air stalls with fresh fish and produce. A man in his late 50s or early 60s was dancing by himself on the pavement. Music emanated from one of the stalls.

As I passed, he swooped me into his arms without missing a beat. He had a sweet smile, an intriguing mustache, and he knew how to lead. A fox trot, I think -- no translation necessary. We danced soundlessly like old friends, and when the music stopped, he kissed me on both cheeks. The shopkeepers clapped. Welcome to Paris!

I was having an adventure, the kind you store in your mind and tell your grandchildren about.

The Parisians were a pleasant surprise. Rumor had it that as a group they were rude, especially to those who couldn't speak their language. My experience ran counter to that.

I listened to tapes from the library for six weeks before leaving to refresh long-forgotten high school and college French. That preparation helped me when I approached people for directions. But it did not explain their demeanor, which was invariably helpful.

During my last night in Paris, I went to the symphony, a program of Prokofiev, Bartok and Sibelius.

Julian Rachlin, a 25-year-old Lithuanian violinist, was making his debut with the Orchestre de Paris. Because of many curtain calls, it was late when the concert was over.

The Phillipe-du-Roule metro station was a 15-minute walk. Wanting reassurance that I was going the right way, I asked for directions from two elderly women who were also leaving the symphony. Without hesitating, they insisted on driving me there.

Such encounters warm my Irish-American blood and make me long to return to Paris. It isn't just the Rodin Museum or the Jardins du Luxembourg that beckon. It's the small pleasures of Paris that I will remember.

Susan Middaugh lives in Columbia.

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