Monday, December 10, 2007

"Excusez-moi, madame..."

This has now happened to me three times in the past year. I'm striding down the sidewalk, high-heel boots clicking confidently as I bob and weave through the pedestrians, thinking about my next destination -- métro, bus stop, café, or wherever. Then, from nowhere, a sweet quavering voice calls out, "Excusez-moi, madame." I turn to see a diminutive dame d'un certain age, wool coat buttoned against the cold, silk scarf neatly knotted, gripping the knob of her cane as she inches in baby steps toward the curb. "Est-ce que je pourrais vous demander de me rendre un service et de m'accompagner à traverser la rue?" she asks.

Oh my. It's a proverbial little old lady who wants help crossing the street, but Paris-style.

I positively melt. MELT! I'm not quite sure why. First off, I'm honored that from a quick glance she has deemed me trustworthy enough to ferry her across a treacherous passage. The curbs, you know, and the cobblestones are so uneven and the traffic so aggressive. I'm also pleased that she addresses me in French. And finally, of course, I do sincerely like to help, and this has never happened to me in the States.

I offer my elbow, and we begin five minutes of exchanging pleasantries. "Oui, oui," I nod, "it's not so easy crossing the streets these days. Oui, je comprends, non non, madame, cela ne me dérange pas du tout -- it's my pleasure." We wait for the walk light to change, as she clutches the crook of my arm, and we cross slowly while she looks up at me, chatting in genteel appreciation. As we reach the safety of the next curb, she offers her most winning smile and heartfelt “merci”. Then our mutual "au revoir et bonne journée,” and we part company. I pick up the pace and continue on my route, this time with a bit more of a spring in my step.

Each time this scenario happens, I get a lump in my throat. Why? Perhaps because I have an 84-year-old mother. Perhaps because I recognize my own future, and I hope that some day thirty-plus years from now I'll be tottering down the streets of Paris, coat buttoned against the winter winds, approaching a curb and eyeing the passersby to find a younger woman whom I can approach and ask, "Excusez moi, madame, est-ce que je pourrais vous demander de me rendre un service?"

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