Over the Moon

Last week I took myself to a French restaurant for dessert during my lunch break to celebrate my lunar birthday. I had only been there twice.

The first was for lunch with my boss over a year ago, and while I don’t remember what I ate, the warm madeleines she and I shared were divine.

The second was around this time last year. I went for dessert with the person I was dating at the time to celebrate my birthday. We ordered some kind of chocolate decadence to share, and it was so good that when we were done, he asked me, “Should we get a second one?” in a way that said, “We should get a second one.” So we did and got to experience it all over again.

It crossed my mind that going there this year might make me sad since we’re no longer together, but the dessert was tempting enough, and I’m one to want to make new experiences in old places. I went in, glanced at the little table where we had sat, and was glad to be seated in another spot, a cozy booth with a view of the room. People around me sat in pairs or groups, eating and chatting.

The server came around and asked “Sparkling or still?” Of course, it was the same server we had had almost one year ago. I responded, “Still,” hoping that it would be tap water (it was).

One thing had changed since last year—the menu. It’s just as well that the chocolate dessert was not there. I ordered the lemon tart, which had preserved lemon chunks and a shock of black and white sesame seeds. It was delectable.

I found I was able to sit there and look around the restaurant and remember being there before and wholly savor being there at that moment. Alternating between a bite of the tart lemon tart and the warm decaf coffee in a tasse whose handle was too tiny to fit a finger through, I wondered if they purposely chose those cups so you had to use both hands, thereby preventing you from eating with one hand and drinking with the other and effectively slowing down the process. In any case, it surely extended mine, as I had a taste of lemony goodness and then had to put down my fork to pick up the cup. I did this many, many times, and I was glad I had come.

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We Traveled to ’80s France

So, I played with a Minitel.

The Mintel, invented by the French in the 1980s, was a precursor to the internet as we know it. Shipped to you by the government, it was a little computer that hooked up to your phone line. You could chat with strangers, play games, search the phone directory, make online purchases…

It also became popular for steamy chatting, referred to as Minitel rose. Not long ago, the podcast Reply All interviewed a man who for a while posed as a girl and instant messaged with men as his job.

There were “racy” images online that were pixelated and hardly very enticing by today’s standards (it makes me think of the how at the Musée de l’Erotisme in Paris my friends and I saw an old black and white video of two women in bathing suits playing volleyball). Apparently there were poster advertisements in France that showed scantily clad women and directed people to the Minitel, whose images on the screen were a far cry from the quality of a photographic image.

Anyway, why was I, an American in the U.S. in 2018, hunched over a Minitel with a platter of charcuterie and cheese in the vicinity?

The author of a recently published book on the Minitel held an event in a hotel bar/café in New York. Three Minitels sat on a coffee table, available for public use. One appeared to be off, but the author explained to me that there was no backlight in the machine and therefore the screen was not visible in the dim light of the hotel lobby. He had asked hotel staff to bring a lamp, which they were now in search of. A young man sat in front of one of the other Minitels, whose chat feature appeared to be working, as my friend and I saw text appear on the third Minitel in front of us. She and I tried to type a response, but every time we hit “envoi” (“send”), the machine rebooted.

After the young man left momentarily, I moved to the working Minitel. With a lamp now shining on the previously dark Minitel, my friend and I were able to write to each other in the chatroom. What was funny is that users were displayed in numbered order of their arrival to the chatroom with what they had typed beneath their name, and the order didn’t change. Therefore, you might see a conversation that appeared thus:

  1. Michel:
    I’m fine.
  2. Jeanne:
    How are you?

If you were more than two people and looked away from the screen for a moment, when you returned it would not be obvious in what order you should read the conversation.

At one point, at the top of the screen appeared, “Les préservatifs préservent de tout, sauf de l’amour.” It seemed funny to see that all of a sudden since it was unrelated to what was on the screen, but the former co-founder and coder of the site Minitel rose 3615 SM who was present explained to me that it was a message from the French government. The Minitel was invented in the 80s, when AIDS was a huge issue, so they included public announcements to promote protection.

There were seven options on the home screen, which included chat, games, humeur, and annonces, but only the chatroom and games seemed to work.

The keyboard was interesting—it had all the letters and numbers and some punctuation options, but I couldn’t find an exclamation point.

The Minitels kept malfunctioning, which was all part of the experience, in my opinion. The organizers of the event were a bit dismayed and would come around and try to fix them, but my friend and I thought it was hilarious. This is why I invite her to weird happenings like this—she is a good sport.

What amazed me is that the Minitel was only officially shut down in 2012. The telephone provider France Télécom no longer wanted to support it. My question was, who was still using the Minitel in 2012?

The coder told me that up till then, there were farmers who checked prices on it and elderly people who used it.

Hunched over the Minitel and typing “Ce truc est marrant,” I thought, my life is weird and wonderful.

The next day, a French friend who is in his mid-40s told me during a phone chat that even he had never used one. He was a kid when his parents had a Minitel at their house. It tickled me to tell him I had spent the previous evening tinkering with this French throwback.

DSC02901Three Minitels, at least one of which belongs to the author, who owns fifteen

DSC02902
The guys around me who chose the user names had some kind of sense of humor

DSC02903Minitel memorabilia

This is Normal Life as a Woman

I’ve been thinking about:

– that time I was walking with two friends down the street and a man walking by poked me in the breast. I was wearing a zippered hoodie and jeans.

– that time a stranger grabbed my butt in a club and by the time I turned around, he was gone. I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and jeans.

– that time the guy I was dating tried to pressure me into doing things I didn’t want to and then made me feel bad that he couldn’t sleep because I hadn’t given in. This is after I said I didn’t want to go over to his place and he insisted we would just sleep.

– that time a male classmate in grammar school made a thrusting gesture behind me with a broom.

– that time a stranger told me to smile.

– all those times I repeatedly dismissed advances from the same guy in a light-hearted manner so as not to hurt his feelings.

– that time I said I wanted to take it slow and he said that was fine and then didn’t respect it.

– that time he kept putting his hand on my knee even though I moved my leg away. And chose a table that literally put me in a corner. And played with my earring even though I leaned away from him. And then was confused about why I didn’t want a second date. And how I said I didn’t feel a connection because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

These are all things I’ve told my female friends. Scratch that—most of them are things I’ve told my friends. Others I haven’t, because they happened so long ago or they’re embarrassing or I didn’t think to—they things happen to us too often over the years to make a “big deal” about it every time.

When we tell each other these stories, we know they’re true. We have no reason to make them up. They’re part of our everyday lives.

And have any of the people committing the acts suffered any consequences? No.

These experiences, I’ve only recently realized, seem unbelievable to some people.

Why didn’t she just say no, some people ask.

My response is, I did. And, there are many times I wasn’t given the chance to say no. And, no isn’t taken seriously by some men.

She was drunk, some people say. She was wearing revealing clothing, some people say. My response is, I have been sober and worn modest clothing, and these things still happened to me.

I am thankful, of course, for friends and family who have heard and believed and shared these stories. More recently, as these conversations have come up more often with men I know, I am thankful for those who are equally horrified that other men do these things that they would not think of doing.

I recently had a conversation with an acquaintance who, without even a word from me defending Dr. Ford, launched into a defense of Kavanaugh and how many people have testified to what a great guy he is. He touched my shoulder and asked if I would report him thirty-eight years from now, as if I didn’t know the difference between an acquaintance tapping my shoulder and someone trying to rip my clothes off. Later, after my heart stopped pounding and my anger died down, I realized that this acquaintance was defending himself. Neither of us knows Ford or Kavanaugh. Neither of us was there. Why do we get so riled up about it?

Because we know ourselves. We know our values. We know how we perceive our experiences. This guy has offered to take me home. Has had the potential to make me feel uncomfortable with suggestive remarks if I weren’t so self-possessed around him and therefore comfortable brushing him off. I always laugh it off with him and chalk it up to him being an incorrigible flirt, which is true. But the truth? I can laugh and joke and talk with him, but I would never take him up on an offer to go out or be given a ride, whereas I wouldn’t hesitate with other men I know. This is based on instinct, not on anything he has done wrong—surely he and many other people would say he has done nothing wrong. And he hasn’t with me. But I sensed a long time ago to set boundaries with him because he wouldn’t respect them otherwise. And now, after this conversation, I know why I felt that way. The way he kept urging me to make my arguments about Ford vs. Kavanaugh after we had already discussed it a bit and I repeatedly said I didn’t want to talk about it anymore showed that a clear and direct “no” is not enough for him. He wanted to keep talking about it and he wanted to prove his point.

Before I go channel my anger in a productive manner, I am reminding myself of:

– that male friend who told me about how at a bar a male acquaintance of his wouldn’t leave a female acquaintance of theirs alone, and how he took that guy aside and told him not to go near her again.

– the man I once dated who, at his place, asked me if I wanted it to go any further.

– the male friends whom I have slept in the same room with and made me feel comfortable and safe.

– the man who told me he can’t believe some of the creeps his female colleagues have to deal with when online dating. How speaking with them has opened up his eyes to the differences in men and women’s experiences.

– the male bosses I’ve had who have always treated me with respect.

– the males in my family who have set a good example.

– the man who took my ‘no’ graciously and maturely.

– the man who, months after reacting poorly to my ‘no,’ apologized to me for treating me unfairly.

I don’t know any woman who wants to take out her anger on good men. Good men don’t have to worry. Good men are what give me a bit of faith.

What I want is for my word to be respected and taken seriously. For my body to not be viewed as something to be poked at or taken lightly.

I’m not going to speak for Ford or my female friends or family. They have their own stories, and I’ve heard and witnessed many of them. But I guarantee that in speaking for myself, my experiences resonate with them. This is our reality.

Dealing

Inevitably, life is not always peachy. I think the key is finding coping strategies that work for us. I’m not sure it’s something I ever learned in school.

I have a few go-tos, in no particular order:
– volunteering
– friends
– my gratitude journal
– nature

A story about volunteering: When I was in Paris, there was period where I hated my job. I wasn’t the only one—the company had such high turnover that after a year you could be the senior person in your department. We were understaffed and overworked with no overtime pay and underappreciated by management At the time, I volunteered at an outdoor soup kitchen one evening a week. At the end of the workday, I felt tired and just felt like going home, but one thing I am is consistent, so I would eat my packed dinner at my desk and take the metro to the soup kitchen without fail. Once there, I moved into fast-paced prepping and serving mode—there were a lot of people and they were hungry. Then, clean-up and shooting the breeze with some bénéficiares. I always felt energized from volunteering, plucked out of my own world of problems and placed in a totally different world, where a fight might break out (not that we wanted that) and where I honed an ability to scoop cooked fish out of a tray without splashing the sauce. Now, in the States, I still volunteer, and each time reminds me that there are tons of people around me living different realities from my own. It’s different knowing and seeing.

A story about friends: Often, I’ll talk with friends when I’m going through a tough time, but I remember one particular weekend almost a year ago that I simply lay on two friends’ couch for an afternoon while they went about doing their things in their apartment. Before that, we had sat around their kitchen table for what must have been a few hours chatting. I think I didn’t say that much, but they’re the types of friends that I feel comfortable not talking a lot if I don’t feel like it. I was so grateful to be in the company of people with whom I could just be.

Speaking of gratitude: It must have been at least five or so years ago that my friend and mentor Donna told me that she kept a gratitude journal. I noted it somewhere in my mind but didn’t have an impulse to start the practice. Two and a half years ago, my good college friend gave me a beautiful Petit Prince Moleskine planner for Christmas. While a planner is essential for me, my requirements are rather specific. This planner, medium-sized and hardback, was good quality but too heavy for me to carry around. I thought about what I could do with it—it couldn’t be used as a regular notebook, and it was so nice, and obviously my friend chose it specifically for me given its lovely quote in French on the cover. And that’s how I started writing in a gratitude journal.

About nature: I remember reading in Anne Frank’s diary years ago that she looked to nature to feel better. If she, who lived in such a difficult time, found solace in nature, then I thought it must be a good idea. Ten years ago, my family was going through a hard time, and I remember walking to the park and just lying on a bench or a swing and looking up at the sky. It didn’t erase the problems, but it helped me get through them.

This isn’t comprehensive, but knocking out a few more: There’s family, if you want to count them as a separate category from friends. And music: a few months ago during a highly stressful week, I was sick but dragged myself to a Jessie Ware concert in Brooklyn, where I was indeed transported to a wonderful place and danced and sang in liberation And exercise: I once dated someone who when not at his full-time job, ran like a fiend. In the park multiple times a week, marathons on weekends, alone, with groups. He had experienced a family tragedy not long before and gone through a low period himself. Running lifted him.

And oh, reading: a longtime love that I’m glad my parents nurtured. Reading stories of human experiences makes me realize that my experiences are exactly that. It’s amazing how novels across cultures and times resonate with my own thoughts, emotions, and situations.

Dealing with the dips: it’s a life skill in constant development.

Pas de panique

In the past month:

– I was on the subway on the way to work, and when I got on, it smelled like smoke. I only had four stops to go, and at every stop I wondered if something was wrong. At the third station, with only one station to my destination, we finally stopped for longer than usual. I stepped out of the train, and upon standing further back, I saw that it was smoking out the top. None of the other cars were. Eventually, a subway employee announced that the train wouldn’t be running further and that all passengers should get off and take another train. There was no urgency to the announcement. I checked the local news and the subway web site later but didn’t find anything of note.

– I was walking outside after work, and I suddenly heard a ‘boom’ and halfway down the block, then saw a big burst of flames. I stopped where I was, unsure what had happened, if anyone was hurt, and if I should go around the other block in order to get to the subway. I observed the people who were across the street from the fire was in order to observe whether they were moving away or continuing on their way. At first, people had stopped, but then I saw that they were continuing on, which told me that they didn’t deem that there was danger. So I crossed over to that side, and as I passed where the flames had been, I saw a work truck. The small explosion must have happened on that truck, but what was odd is that the workers didn’t seem panicked. I don’t know whether they had quickly extinguished the fire or if something else had happened. Anyone walking by at that moment wouldn’t have known that there had been a tall fire five minutes earlier. A few minutes later, from down in the subway station, I heard a siren and wondered if it was coming to check on the situation, but it could have been heading elsewhere.

– During my morning commute, my bus broke down on the highway. The driver was able to slowly drive it over to a middle strip of grass. He radioed out to his fellow buses, and within ten minutes another bus pulled up to accept the passengers it could, i.e. the first nine in the front seats of the bus, which included me. I’m sure the rest were picked up by other express buses soon after. It was amazing how little the incident affected our commute.

It’s weird how much goes on around us and how quickly we can move on if we’re lucky.

An American Baby Shower

Earlier this year, while it was still winter, I went to a close friend’s baby shower. It was her and her husband’s first baby, and my first time attending a baby shower.

The weekend included:

  • A hawk killing one of their chickens… while my pregnant friend was trying to chase it away… and the eight of us at her party sat around the table inside, chatting without a care in the world. Some friends we are, I know.
  • Detailed discussion about how to pump and store breastmilk and assemble reusable diapers
  • A list of due date guesses- one woman declared that the winner would get to name the second child
  • Love- it’s lovely to see someone surrounded by people who love them
  • Lots of food
  • Dog cuddles
  • Post-shower, a cold but refreshing walk with just my friend and her other friend who like me, wasn’t local and was staying overnight

It did not include:

  • A game where we smelled different kinds of chocolate in diapers and guessed what kind they were
  • A game where we tasted baby food, including meat-flavored ones, and guessed what flavors they were
  • Tossing a baby bouquet to predict who would be next to have a baby

The first two are real games that my friend witnessed at other baby showers and that initially made her not want to have one. It was her husband who ultimately convinced her to take her sister and friends up on their offers to throw one (though she ended up doing the hosting and organizing, really). The third does not exist, as far as I know, but please give me credit if you incorporate it in the next baby shower you attend.

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Staying Sweet

Today I was thinking about how easy it could be to become cynical. I think I tend towards a positive outlook here, but that doesn’t mean I see the world as rosy. I see that people around me are in pain, and I think about it. People have experienced struggles and somehow continue.

In the past few days I heard and saw on the subway:

– 3 young gay guys, maybe teenagers, talking about their past drug use and how they started. Two of them said that their boyfriends at the time, who were seven to nine years older than them, introduced them to cocaine. The three friends agreed that they might have been offered drugs, but it was their choice to take it, and they could have said no. One of them referenced the “Shame on you, shame on me” quote, saying that the first time, shame on the other person, but the second, third, fourth, and fifth times, shame on you. I was struck by how young they were and yet how they had been through things and come out the other side already. Kind of heartening. I also thought about how great it was that they could talk about their experiences with each other and reflect on them. They may have had bad influences, but they are good influences on each other.

– An adult man telling a woman who was a bit older than him that his first memory of his dad was his dad throwing his mom on the kitchen floor. As their conversation continued, the woman told him about how her brother was committed to the state. I just thought, geez, everyone has something! We just don’t talk about it with everyone.

– Heavily armed police with black helmets in the station, and not far from them, a young Asian man singing and playing peaceful songs on his guitar with a handwritten sign in front of him that read, “Music is my passion.” He is there often, and I find his presence encouraging for multiple reasons—he is a young person pursuing his dream; he is an Asian person performing in public, a public that is not exposed to enough Asian artists; and his music is nice. As for the police, there are usually police in this main subway and bus station, but not outfitted in such gear. I wondered if it had to do with…

– A white powder scare in the bus station the other day. I arrived at the station in the morning, and a large area leading to the main exit was blocked off with yellow caution tape and four military men standing in a line. (Military personnel are usually present, but they always stand on the side.) I later learned that an unknown substance found in the station was the reason for the investigation. The powder was a cleaning agent, non-hazardous.

This is life. This is a normal day.

“J’ai tant d’admiration pour ceux qui se relèvent. …la plupart des hommes et des femmes que je croisais dans la rue me semblaient admirables… je ne les connaissais pas mais je devinais en eux des blessures, une fatigue, des failles qui me bouleversaient. Leur capacité de résistance m’épatait… »
– Olivier Adam, Le cœur régulier

This morning I was thinking about how in spite of all this, I am glad I am not cynical. I hope it never happens. You get older, you get hurt, you see how awful people can act. It will happen again and again. Yet I believe most people are good and are trying their best. They’re also utterly surprising in the best way.

Italian with Français

This winter I had lunch with a new French friend (my dad met her during a plane ride last fall) and her husband at Il Cantinori during Restaurant Week, a period that, contrary to its name, takes place over two weeks. Oodles of pricey restaurants offer prix fixe menus, making it more affordable for those who wouldn’t usually dine there. Restaurants of all cuisines offer several choices of appetizer, entrée, and dessert. (After several years of eating in France, I still sometimes confuse what an ‘entrée’ is.)

She and her husband had been to New York many times on vacation, but this was their first time living in this region, and they were about a month into their three-month stay.

Highlights of our lunch:

– Telling them that Carrie Bradshaw had her 30th birthday dinner there. You feel for her in that scene. She sits at a large table, and one by one her friends call the restaurant (there were no cell phones) and say they’re running late or ran into some problem preventing them from getting there, but they cheerily wish her a happy birthday.

– Watching the Italian waiter’s face when my friend asked what a cannoli was (and she is of Italian descent). Are they less common in France? Do I only know them because there were so many Italian Americans where I grew up?

– She and her husband lamenting that they couldn’t watch Jimmy Kimmel live like the rest of Americans because they don’t have a TV. I explained that it’s taped in the afternoon, so no one but the studio audience is watching it live, and also that many Americans, at least in the city, don’t have TVs and so watch it online anyway. They were surprised. Also, did you know Kimmel is popular in France? Several French people have mentioned him to me; I would have thought Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Fallon would be the most well-known American talk show hosts abroad.

– She said a lot of people react when they hear they have foreign accents, or don’t understand what she and husband are saying, which I found weird since everyone has an accent here. Plus, her English is really good. I thought all of us in New York were used to hearing accents all the time. However, she also said the people were friendly and interested in where they came from.

– In her experience, people are very nice—a stranger took initiative to help them when they were confused on the bus in New Jersey, for example.

– She and their daughter visited Santa Claus in December (he lives in Finland, apparently). She asked if I had received gifts, and when I said yes, she leaned over and said she knew that because she had reminded him to deliver them to me.

When I spend time with newcomers in my region, it feels like I’m still traveling.

Frenchies in New York

My first year in Paris, I had a group of American girl friends. We had dinner at each other’s apartments every Tuesday and shared ups and downs and a ton of fun in the city. Amazingly, years later, we keep in touch online and see each other when we can, sometimes in our respective cities and sometimes in a different country altogether. I was one friend’s conference spouse in Liège, Belgium and we made a side trip to Aachen, Germany after. Another girl saw the other during a long stopover in New York. Three got together in Greece. Once, four of us managed to reunite for a weekday lunch in New York.

This week a friend from the group forwarded us an email thread from over four years ago. I didn’t understand half the references we made in them (I would say you had to be there, but I was…), and there was some embarrassing stuff that reminded me why I should save some stories for oral telling and my diary. The excerpt below, however, is appropriate for sharing with you. I wrote it after spending a summer day with a friend and her boyfriend and their three friends, all Frenchies.

Today I hung out with French people visiting NY, and here were their observations:
No one smokes.
There are a lot of ads for storage space.
It is shocking that at a bar the server takes one person’s credit card to open a tab and doesn’t give it back till the end.
It is surprising that they could wear shorts to go to a fancy rooftop bar. (Most of the people at the bar were dressed up, but my friends were in shorts.)
It is freakin’ humid.
The subway stations are HOT.
They were surprised at how many people were wearing warm clothing like jeans and boots when it’s so warm today. (This really amused me, because this is what we always say about the French.)
The Nespresso boutique doesn’t have George Clooney’s face.

Two other things that happened that day:

My friend and I agreed to meet on Broadway in Soho. On the phone, I described to her where I was and couldn’t understand why she didn’t see the same stores. Turns out she didn’t realize that the little ‘W’ on the Broadway street sign she was looking at meant that she was on West Broadway, a different, but nearby street. And yes, it is confusing.

The six of us went to a rooftop bar, the first they had ever been to. We sat down and looked at the view of the city. One of the guys said he would go up to the bar to ask if we should order there or if we would be served at our table. He came back, a baffled look on his face. “According to the sign, you have to be a group of 21 to be served,” he said. That’s strange, I thought, until I started laughing. “Must be 21 to be served means you have to be at least 21 years old,” I explained. Understandably, this meaning wouldn’t necessarily occur to someone who is from a country where the drinking age is 18.

Taking Off the Rose-Colored Glasses

I arrived in Paris on a weekday afternoon. This time I was here on vacation, my first trip back after having moved my life and luggage out of the City of Lights.

Excuse me while I râle:

I was sorely disappointed by almost no one offering to help me with the suitcase I was clearly struggling with up and down the many metro staircases. So many able jeunes français passed me by. Only one man helped me, at the end of my trajet. And no, I did not have the closed off, unapproachable face we sometimes make on public transportation. I was sending out the open-faced, help me vibes of someone who hadn’t realized how difficult lugging around a suitcase and full hand carry would be.

It made me think: Should I have been surprised or not? I didn’t remember this from my previous years in Paris. On the other hand, I lived on the train line that went straight to the airport, so I only had to go down one escalator and never needed help. Second question: Were people in the NY subway any more helpful? Is that why I expected aid? Well, not necessarily—at home I offer to help people with big suitcases or strollers, but that is because I notice that often no one else around is making a move to offer assistance. And what is true is that we don’t notice whether people have a tendency to help if we don’t need it. It’s when we need it that we realize whether people offer it.

When I told friends who live in Paris about my experience in the metro, one said, What do you expect, that’s the way Parisians are! Another was more surprised and said that people offer to help her. I don’t know. To people who have called Parisians rude or cold, I have always insisted that they are not so bad. I still stand by my statement that there are some really nice, warm people there, but my defense of the general population will be less staunch next time. I was tempted to give them a second chance, but after my experience the first day, I unhesitatingly booked a SuperShuttle to the airport for my departure day from Paris.

On the people who volunteer to help:

That same day, after getting through the metro; rendering speechless the young man at Orange with my ability to speak French after he had gone on his spiel in English about their “holiday” phone plan (while his colleague who could tell I spoke French chuckled the whole time and finally burst out laughing when I responded in French); meeting the friend I was going to stay with outside his building and catching up in his apartment—after all that—I headed out into the early evening to the soup kitchen I used to volunteer at every week.

I had told one of the volunteers there that I was planning on coming, but I still surprised her by sneaking up on her and exclaiming, “Hello!” in English. She made all the fuss we make when seeing a friend after a long time, then asked about my trip over. I started telling her about it in French, to which she responded with a big smile that my accent “New Jersey” had come back since my time away. Gee, thanks! She is one of the warmest people of the group and a wonderful presence for both the volunteers and the people who come to eat, so I knew her ribbing was good-natured even though I think she was serious about my American accent being more pronounced than before (though I can’t explain that?? I still speak French daily in my current life!).

I did the ‘bise’ with the other volunteers, who greeted me in slightly wide-eyed recognition. I didn’t chat with them that much, save for a woman with whom I had kept in touch after moving to the States. I had always enjoyed the work itself; after the repas came the socializing.

I made a beeline to claim what used to be my usual post—the table with hot food. Donning one pair of latex gloves and sticking a pair in my back pocket for later, stacking plastic bowls, breaking open the packet of spoons, deciding with the volunteer next to me who would serve the protein and/or vegetable and who would serve the grain. Gladly letting her choose the bulgur because she wanted to avoid the smell and splash of fish sauce because it meant I didn’t have to say bulgur (there ain’t no persnickety French ‘r’s in poisson). Saying “Bonsoir” and smiling hundreds of times. Once in a while, telling someone who tried to cut the line that “Il faut faire la file d’attente.” Responding in English to the occasional immigrant who didn’t speak French. Directing people to where they could find soup and coffee. It felt like home.

After serving the food and picking up trash, there was always a lull before the nearby boulangerie’s unsold bread, pastries, and sandwiches were picked up and distributed. This was the time that I loved shooting the breeze with the people who came to eat. A main reason I had come was actually to see how one of the bénéficiares was doing. I sidled up next to a volunteer who was still serving cereal and asked her, “Where is he??” As I scanned the area and felt dismayed over missing him, she pointed him out. He had just arrived. Of course. I forgot that he usually showed up late, after the main meal had been served. It seemed like he came more to chat than to get food.

I greeted him, and we had an enthusiastic reunion. “How is California?” he exclaimed. I laughed. “Wrong coast.” No offense taken. In the beginning of our friendship, it had taken him weeks to remember my name, though he associated me with Mickey Mouse. He also asked me multiple weeks in a row if I was Chinese and then asked me if I knew anything about qi (he sure did). There were key identifiers that somehow took a long time to imprint on his brain, so I was tickled but not shocked that he had missed by a long shot where in the United States I had moved to. And yet, on this night, he asked, “Où est ton pantalon rose?” I was surprised. I had completely forgotten that I used to wear my pink pants a lot to the soup kitchen during a period of time.

What I did remember was that for the first weeks that I knew him, I assumed that he was from a foreign country because of his accent when speaking French. I was taken aback when I finally asked him where he from and he responded “Toulouse.” I guess I had never heard a toulousain accent before. And I remember periodically moving a few inches away from him while we talked because he was taller than me and my neck was strained from looking up at him, and not understanding why he kept moving closer, until one day I realized that his eyesight was very poor.

I remember never questioning why some days, his hair was disheveled and his clothes were scrappy, and then once or twice he came wearing a suit and his hair neatly tied back.

I clearly remember opening up about my own stresses while I was looking for a job and seeing him really thinking about how to help and suggesting ideas. For the first months we had known each other, I had let him do most of the talking because I figured that was what I was there for. To be a listening ear, not even about his problems, just about whatever he wanted to talk about—tai chi, how food is cooked, cultures, what was going on in the city, anything. He is a very smart person and often knew things that were new to me.

It was only when I started talking more about what was going on in my own life that I realized how good it felt to talk to someone who really cared and who would ruminate over how I might solve a problem I had. Where I didn’t feel like we had to move on from the topic because it was a downer, but that he was completely engaged in the conversation and came up with ideas specific to my situation.

I remember the last night I had volunteered there before moving back to the States. I spent longer than usual chatting with him after the other volunteers had moved on to the nearby bar we frequented every week. Then we parted and I was completely touched again as I arrived at the bar and the volunteer organizer presented the tarte aux pommes he had been waiting to take out, along with a thank you card for me.

You can see why I have a soft spot for the residents of Paris, who are human, after all.

Another person who greeted me warmly for my return was the long-haired, gentle Peruvian man who regularly came to eat. On my last day volunteering a couple of years ago, we somehow struck up a conversation for the first time after having seen each other for about a year. I told him that I was actually leaving France soon, and surprised by the timing, he said he was glad that he had talked to me then, that he had wanted to say hi for a while but somehow was timide to approach me (as someone who in some situations can be timide myself, I have never understood that someone might see me as in any way intimidating).

I’m not sure there is anything better in life than being embraced by good people. You can see why I fought back my travel fatigue to go dish up some fish and conversation.