It is Paris; it is drizzling. We are at Place de la Madeleine in front of a Parthenon-style church built by a Napoleon who couldn’t decide whether to brag about his victories or act humble before God. As I try to squeeze the columns into an Instagram frame, I understand why it took 85 years to finish construction.
I lower my phone to see a woman right beside me. She is small, maybe 50. Her knit top and tight jeans reveal that round, beautiful European body style that reminds me of an Italian girlfriend, who I love, and of Botticelli, who I also love. She has wavy brown hair about chin length in a harsh, henna’d color.
I like her immediately and wonder why, while we were taking a photo of the Church of la Madeleine, she stooped below us, scooping something lost… or found… off the ground.
She comes very close now and opens the palm of her hand, revealing a large gold wedding band.
It must be a man’s ring, I think.
“C’est de la bonne chance,” I say, and she slips it on one of her pudgy fingers. Then another, then it’s caught on the first knuckle of all her fingers. The ring does not fit.
She turns to me and smiles.
“Bonne chance a vous!” as she tries to slip it on my hand.
I accept the ring, which is so large that it glides easily onto my thumb. She smiles and takes my face in her hands, offering a kiss on each cheek. A real smooch, not an air kiss like so many.
“Euros pour café?,” she pleads, her brown eyes trying to melt mine.
Turning to me, then my husband, and back again at each of us, she reads our stunned hesitation. She lunges forward and shakes his hand vigorously, very vigorously, then stands on tip toes to take his face in her hands for two well planted kisses.
She pauses, waiting expectantly.
We look at each other; like people who have been married so long, we shake our heads simultaneously and turn to walk away.
“Aaahhhhoooooooh,” she cries, babbling in French … it’s not for me, for the children, just a coffee, please, one small coffee and a bite, I bring you luck…
City of Love
I realize she is a Roma, one of the wandering gypsies thought to be the scourge of Paris (and most of Europe) and that she has probably also shaken the hand of someone else’s husband and slipped a wedding ring off his finger and then, realizing it did not fit her, decided to see what she can get for it.
Now I remember that my husband had taken off his wedding ring, untouched for 27 years 298 days, that very morning, complaining that the flight to France had made his hands swell and that it was very uncomfortable.
I look at my hands, and am now wearing wedding rings for the two of us.
I reach into my wallet and find 10 euros and give it to her. She is very pleased.
As she walks away I slip off my new ring and see it is marked 24k inside. It does not fit my husband’s hand and anyway, he brushes it away. He is very angry — at her, or at me, or at being made a fool of.
Me? I am overwhelmed by the chance encounter. We are, after all, in the city of love.
What Else is New in Paris, City of Art
Paris is more somber than ever, healing from searing terrorism incidents with armed military at stations and major intersections that can’t be missed. Europe’s immigrant crisis has not disappeared; a Chinese tour guide at the Louvre stops me to suggest I remove my cell from my back pocket, because pickpockets are so rampant in the museum. (Please share that with your kids.)
It is still, however, Paris. The museums are more magnificent than ever, and we fall in love with three that deserve your attention, especially if it’s a second or third visit for your family.
Musee les Art Decoratifs, located in a private mansion near to the Louvre, is a smaller and more manageable dose of fine art. The broad collection of decorative arts includes 6,000 items in the permanent collection that span the years from the Middle Ages to the present, and beautiful period rooms. With an emphasis on design, temporary exhibits have ranged from the delightful history of the Barbie doll to the current blockbuster show honoring the 50th anniversary of couturier, House of Dior.
Fondation Louis Vuitton is a startling addition to the tranquil Bois de Boulogne. A moored sailing yacht, or maybe a modernistic cloud or a cluster of icebergs, it was designed by Frank Gehry to house the diverse collection accumulated by LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault, who committed to creating a new cultural institution in a less visited part of the city. Temporary exhibits are as fascinating as the many interior and exterior levels of the space, which is sure to please children. Noteworthy café too.
Musee de la Musique was new to us, as part of a performing arts complex near Parc de la Villette known as the Cite de la Musique. You can’t miss the glistening metal of the Philharmonie created by French architect Jean Nouvel. Once inside the museum, there’s an elegant collection of more than 7,000 pieces, largely musical instruments, as well as a research center. We especially appreciate that concerts using antique or unusual instruments are regularly scheduled so that visitors can hear them played live. Go and listen to something new.
City of Light
Paris, just as beautiful as ever, is suddenly more affordable. Go now and the Paris tourism office has a “Showtime in Paris” promotion that includes two for one tickets to Moulin Rouge, the Philharmonie, Jazz Club Etoile, the Maison de la Radio plus the top cabaret, dance, theatre, circus and music shows. There’s always something on offer.
We stayed at Hotel Monsieur, about a 10 minute walk from the Palais Garnier. It is a stylish and well-priced hotel (US$ 130 with breakfast and WiFi, a tiny gym and steam room) that we very much enjoyed.
Next time, we will explore old world Paris on the Right Bank, in a new light, with the expectation of more unexpected encounters.
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