My first trip overseas I decided to waste on Paris. Waste, knowing full well that on a seven-day, six-night excursion, I would not even scratch the surface of the surface. Of course, it was not wasted. For Paris, even the surface of the surface is worth it. I went back again and again.
The first time for most things is when mistakes are made, and not just mistakes tied to the event, but mistakes easily avoided as they do not relate to anything new. Travel, being unfamiliar ground to me, was loaded with pitfalls even for very short trips. For example, away games were a distraction to me when I was on my high school wrestling team. My second wrestling bout was an away match forty minutes from my school, not so far geographically, but a journey across cultural lines. When our bus pulled into the cross-town school, all I could do was stare at the strange building, the other-worldly gym with foreign-looking orange and black banners, and the poorly-lit locker room. My opponent, my age, from a different culture, in a different shade of skin, was a most gracious and serious opponent. Strong and athletic, but smooth and soft under my martial grip, he mostly exchanged equal holds with me, neither of us making much progress through the first period. By the second, I knew his moves and I also knew he was more skilled than I was, and that it was only a matter of time before I would be pinned, probably in the third period if not by the end of the second. I should have fought harder, but in an already strange situation, I had the irresistible impulse to see if I knew his next move, if I had him figured out. I just had to know, so I waited. I was right. I was also pinned. The coach was not happy, but he would have been livid if he knew where my focus had been. Foreignness was a distraction that opened the door to an impulse that turned me off the path of my original intention.
Paris—the city of light, the city of food, the city of beauty—was a distraction. On my first visit, I was ripe for an impulse, but on my guard, too. Not knowing the language tamped down my adventurousness, and there were too many things to do— les Champs-Élysées, le Musée Picasso, le Louvre. Trouble was the last thing on my mind. I was too busy.
I was busy, yes, and in a hurry, too. The metro solved most of my travel problems. Bright, crowded, and humming with moving trains, it was like a city in itself. With the simplicity and ease I had in getting around, I did not wonder that the metro was so well used, with people everywhere. I should have paid more attention when, almost magically, I found myself quite alone walking down a long, brightly lit corridor. It was silent, too, but I didn’t notice how lonely and quiet it was. My mind was on my next destination.
As I turned right, I saw, at the end of a long walkway, a man standing with a white cane, holding a small white Styrofoam cup. Oh, he’s blind. I can give him some money, I thought. That will be easy and a good way to give back to this wonderful city.
I started to dig in my pocket for a heavy ten-franc coin as each step brought me closer. Then I wondered what I would say, and then how I would say it. Here you are, sir, I thought to say. But how? “Voici, Monsieur.” Here what? “Voici, Monsieur, un coin.” Is it un coin or une coin? Le coin?
I came closer still. I thought maybe I would just play it safe and pass by. He’s fine. He is shabby-looking but probably dresses that way for effect. I bet he has more in the bank than I do. My mind raced. No, I thought, I will just go on my way. I won’t need to figure out if coin is masculine or feminine. I won’t have to butcher Monsieur— one of the easiest words in French, one of the first words you learn— with my fat, maladroit, American tongue. No, I’ll just get to where I am going, no need to embarrass myself.
Only feet from him, the impulse hit. I thought, I’ll just give him the coin, and I dropped it into his cup with a clank as my coin hit the coins already there.
Of course, in the silent walkway and with my comfortable, soft-soled walking shoes, this blind man had no idea anyone was there. The disjointed monologue going on in my head was so deafening to me, it made me lose track of the silence and the fact that the man was blind. When the coin clanked into his cup, his shoulders went up and he let out a cry, followed by a stream of words in French that I needed no dictionary to translate.
About the Author
Matthew Menary lives in St. Louis County, Missouri, where he works as a cashier in a grocery store. He has lived in France, Hawaii, Missouri, California, and Japan due to a curious combination of being a homebody with a serious case of fernweh, a homesickness for the unexplored. He has one essay published in the anthology, I Thought My Father Was God.