Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Most Beautiful Gift in the World

It's still December 30, 2000 in my mind's eye and I have just left Chez Jim in Montparnasse. It's back to the Alesia Metro station and a return trip to Strasbourg-St. Denis. As the train passed by the St. Germain des Pres stop, I was attracted to the words I unexpectedly saw projected on the ceiling of the station's tunnel. Could it really be an art installation? OOO la la! Only in Paris! I vowed to return soon and investigate.

At Strasbourg-St. Denis I made the "up the stairs, down the hall, down the stairs" transfer trek again. The train came quickly and I arrived at my destination, Bonne Nouvelle, almost immediately. I mounted the steps to the street and, looking around, trying to get my bearings, I turned and made my way in the now heavy rain toward the boulevard de l'Echiquiers, near les Grands Boulevards.

My friend Jef Tombeur had invited me to stop by his apartment before my big date. Since it was my first trip to Paris, he had courageously volunteered to be my tour guide for a little visit to Montmartre. Unfortunately for Jef, I no longer felt much enthusiasm for such a diversion. I was thoroughly wet, chilled to the bone, AND my feet hurt. Not to mention the fact that I hadn't had a thing to eat all day. Understand now, this is probably, oh--4:00 pm or so. And Paris, being so far north, gets dark really early in winter, like around 5 pm. All I really wanted to do was sit and rest my feet in Jef's apartment, get warm, and then go back to my hotel before freshening up to meet Denis at 8. What can I say? I was cranky. But Jef, determined enough for both of us, was geared up for his task. After I finally thawed out, we ventured back to the metro, caught the train, and exited at the Abbesses stop at the foot of Montmartre.

Once on the street, I could see we were in an exciting part of the city, crowded with people and many African markets and shops. We passed a boutique with a window full of beautiful large strands of amber and other African jewelry, as the men inside motioned for us to come in. I was so tempted. But it was getting late and so we trudged on to the funicular and the short journey to Sacre Coeur. Disembarking, we found ourselves in near darkness, but the beauty of the fully lit Sacre Coeur was still evident. A short distance away was the well-known cabaret, Au Lapin Agile. It was really dark now and Jef led me slowly along a tall iron fence, away from the church. I felt tired and hungry and kind of discouraged and then, suddenly, he said, "Look!" and pointed down the hill. I could see, for the first time, that universal symbol of Paris and love, la tour Eiffel, its lights twinkling brightly in the distance. And hanging just above it, to the right, was a beautiful crescent moon, accented by an especially bright star--Venus. It was so unexpected and so incredibly moving that I found myself in tears. It was dark so Jef couldn't see them and soon we made our way back to the street, where we ended up at a small creperie for a snack and some vin rouge. There was a little old man playing the piano and leading the crowd in French chansons. The warmth of the food, the wine flowing through my veins, the charm of the music--at last, I felt revived.

It wasn't Christmas anymore, and to my great regret, I never told him so, but Jef had given me the most beautiful gift in the world.