Spring 1966. A hotel on Ile Saint-Louis, the small tranquil island in the Seine near the center of Paris, far from the traffic rushing along the wide boulevards on both the right and left banks of the river.
These first days here seem unreal to me. Each morning I shave and wash as best I can at the porcelain sink in my room before getting dressed. After leaving my key at the desk I walk into the pâtisserie across the street.
Bonjour Monsieur, the young woman behind the counter says in her melodic voice.
Bonjour Mademoiselle, I reply. Deux croissants avec beurre, s’il vous plait.
I raise two fingers of my right hand in case she has trouble understanding my rudimentary French.
Trois croissants? she asks again today as she did yesterday and the day before.
No, deux! I repeat loudly and as clearly as I can still holding up two fingers.
I don’t know why she has such a perplexed expression on her face. It will take me a while to notice that, unlike Americans, the French are very logical people who begin counting with their thumb, which explains why shopkeepers assume the next two fingers raised signify a total of three. I have a lot to learn yet. In the meantime I pay for my purchase, eager to continue on my way.
Au revoir Monsieur, the woman says as I turn to leave.
Au revoir Mademoiselle, I reply over my shoulder before stepping back out into the street, still not accustomed to the elaborate verbal pleasantries expected here.
Once I’m outside I take the first bite of the warm flaky pastry as I head toward the nearest Metro station. I walk slowly along the narrow iron footbridge at the end of rue Saint Louis en l’Ile and cross over to the larger island where Notre Dame stands. The landscaping on the side of the cathedral is a rich dark green in contrast to the gray stone of this magnificent edifice.
I finish my second croissant before starting down the stairs of the Cité Metro station. The attendant punches a hole in my second-class ticket at the entrance of the subway platform. A few minutes later a train noisily enters the vaulted tile station and I make sure to board one of the second-class cars. I reach out to unlatch the door, which springs open, allowing me to enter.
The woman who sits facing me on the train carefully scrutinizes my appearance, taking into account the style, quality of material, and workmanship of the short sleeve sport shirt and the light blue bellbottom jeans I’m wearing. From this silent evaluation she’ll come to a conclusion about me in her head.
I look away, pretending not to notice her, unused to the way people stare openly at one another here. Of course, I’m looking at all the people around me too, especially any attractive men, fascinated by the similarities and differences. But I try not to let on that I’m focusing on individuals unless I’m cruising a man I want to meet. Though even then I’m reticent about staring directly in public.
A Dubonnet ad painted on the tunnel wall catches my eye as the train pulls into another station. I get off at Saint-Placide. The man exiting ahead of me holds open the door to the street. I thank him and pause long enough for the woman behind me to reach the open door before continuing, appreciating the thoughtfulness of this simple courtesy.