By Doni Belau & Lily Heise
There’s no denying it. This year has been tough, especially for everyone who loves travel. Millions of people are eagerly awaiting the return of international travel and Paris is high on the list of first destinations. Fortunately prospects are looking better for 2021. To tide you over until you can come in person, you can travel to Paris virtually through the new book of Paris-based writer April Lily Heise, There’s Only One Paris” Tales for our Times.
This collection of fun and vivid short stories are in fact journeys around Paris during the pandemic, visiting each arrondissement featuring a variety of characters who have been forced to adapt to the new normal. From seeking romance to pursuing one’s dream career, instead of focusing on the negative sides of the pandemic, this collection of stories shows how a pandemic can actually give a new lease on life or even broaden one’s perspectives. Like it has done for centuries, Paris itself inspires and gives hope. There is light at the end of the tunnel, especially thanks to the City of Light!
The project originated as participatory short stories based on favorite places in Paris and things to do shared by the readers of Lily Heise’s blog, Je T’Aime, Me Neither. Readers are treated below to an exclusive excerpt of the new book, specifically chosen with you in mind. This particular story takes place in the charming Left Bank neighborhood of Saint-Germain and features an aspiring writer, marooned in Paris during the pandemic. It addresses the age-old issue of a woman being bothered by a man at a cafe….sound familiar to anyone?
The Café on Place Saint-Sulpice
“C’est libre, Monsieur?” Lauren asked politely. It looked like the table was free, however, the belongings of the patron at the next table seemed to be spread across the entire row.
“Ah, oui, oui,” the man replied flustered as he was suddenly pulled from his daydreaming; gazing out at the square. He looked down over his sprawling collection of sturdy reusable grocery bags and clumsily slid the ones occupying the chair of the ‘free’ table over onto the one next to him. He looked up at her and smiled.
“Merci,” she said, returning his smile. As she set her own tote bag down in the newly liberated one and sat down in the chair next to it, Lauren couldn’t help but wonder what was in all of his crumpled bags. They seemed a bit heavy, perhaps they contained the same thing that was in hers?
Lauren’s eyes scanned her table and then the ones around it. No menus. Just as she was about to flag down the waiter she noticed the QR code taped to her tabletop. Ah, yes. She still hadn’t gotten used to this new way of accessing menus, brought in to reduce virus germs from being passed around on print menus. She took out her cell phone and held it over the code.
“Ah! Ça ce fait comme ça!” That’s how it’s done!” her café neighbor exclaimed. “I’m hopeless when it comes to technology.”
Lauren forced a thin smile in reply. She didn’t really feel like chatting. Plus, she couldn’t tell whether this older gentleman, with a balding head crowned by tufts of wild Albert Einstein-esque white hair, was crazy or just a bit eccentric. It seemed like ever since arriving in Paris, she’d become a weirdo magnet! Walking down the street, standing in line at the boulangerie, sitting in the park, waiting to get her visa at the Préfecture… no matter where she was, an oddball would pop out of the woodwork. She quickly looked down at her phone to peruse the café’s virtual menu, hoping also to dodge a possible conversation with her apparent café acquaintance.
“I always get the same thing here, so I don’t really need to check the menu,” he went on, gesturing down at his half finished glass of white wine. “The Sancerre. It’s impeccable. Never disappoints. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of this golden nectar of the gods gently tickling your throat… and with the glorious backdrop of this sublimely serene square. Divine. One could even go as far as qualifying it as heavenly!” He finished his eulogy by lifting up his glass and toasting to the square.
It was true, beautiful Place Saint-Sulpice was worthy of a poetic toast. The spacious square nestled within the Saint-Germain district was overlooked by most tourists, however, it was much loved by the residents of le Rive Gauche, the Left Bank of Paris. Dominating its easternmost end was the square’s namesake: l’Église Saint-Sulpice. The Neo-Classical church was the second largest in Paris. It was slightly smaller than Notre-Dame, but technically it had taken longer to build as its construction was paused several times due to lack of funding, revolutions and other reasons. It was finally finished in 1870, however, shortly thereafter the Franco-Prussian War, Napoléon III’s failed attempt to prevent the various German Kingdoms to unite as one country, broke out. Paris was under siege for four months and some enemy mortar shells hit and damaged one of the church’s two already mismatched towers.
In the center of the rectangular space in front of the church was the graceful fountain of ‘Les Quarts Points Cardinaux.’ Its name was something of a play on words in French. The four sides of the fountain roughly face the four cardinal points—north, east, west and south—and, each proudly displayed the statues of a prominent 17th-century French bishop, who are, still to this day, generally mistaken for cardinals.
Cardinals, bishops, Lauren wasn’t too bothered about their classification. She prayed to all four religious men to please stop sending weirdos her way. This was obviously divine punishment for not attending mass for many years, well, actually decades.
“Avez-vous choisi? Have you decided?” Luckily the waiter arrived to take her order and, in the process, quieted the overly chatty, overly friendly stranger.
“I’ll have…” It was a more complicated choice than it seemed. She’d actually been contemplating the Sancerre, that is, before the unusual stranger gave his unsolicited, albeit exuberant, recommendation. It was a lose-lose situation. He was bound to give his opinion whether she followed his suggestion or whether she went for another type of wine. “… je prends un kir. I’ll have a kir.”
Maybe ordering something entirely different, in this case the popular French apéritif made of white Burgundy Aligoté wine with a splash of cassis liqueur, might throw a wrench in her neighbor’s conversational plans. Indeed, her order did catch him off guard, providing Lauren with just enough time to slyly retreat back into the safety of her own bubble. Avoiding his gaze, she went about removing the numerous books from her bag. She set them down on the table and pondered which one she was going to read over her kir.
“Hemingway! Joyce! Fizzzzgerald!” he exclaimed in what Lauren now noted was well-spoken but slightly accented French. “All extraordinary writers, but no! So old now! So passé! So timid! Where is Ginsberg, Burroughs or Kerouac?”
Oh brother! Lauren bemoaned silently. She now totally and utterly regretted coming to the café. Nevertheless, she was sick and tired of being holed up in the tiny apartment where she’d spent way too much time this year. Well, almost a year. Little could Lauren have imagined what this year in Paris would have in store when she arrived last November.
Discover what happens to Lauren by getting a copy of There’s Only One Paris. It is available online on your national Amazon, in person at the Red Wheelbarrow Bookshop in Paris or ask your local bookshop to order it in. Happy reading!