He came up to me I sat with my petit dejeuner outside Le Palais Royal Café – a few true steps to the Louvre. Well, “came up to me” may be too strong: he was just there, as if he’d always been there, and I had just now noticed him.
He must have been about twenty-eight years old and was dressed in a black turtleneck, slim black jeans, and pointed black shoes. A bright red beret was set askew atop his golden curls and his big blue eyes twinkled. (Please excuse the stereotype. It was just too irresistible. So, irresistible, in fact that there are actually two stereotypes there.)
“Pardon moi. Madame Renate, oui?”
It is very rare to hear my name spoken during my solo-travels, least of all by a young and handsome stranger, and the shock of it was such that an unbidden response escaped my lips before I remembered to be wary.
“Oui,” I said – croissant swallowed in a gulp – hoping no petit dejeuner was trapped in my teeth.
Considerately switching to English, the young man asked, “May I sit?”
Still a bit gobsmacked, I responded like the American I am, “Sure.”
He sat down next to me. “Do you mind?” he asked, pointing at the bread basket. “I too have been doing a bit of solo-travelling and je suis très faim.”
(Oh, right. We said he switched to English.)
“I am very hungry,” he said.
Eloquent as ever, I again responded, “Sure.”
He tore off a piece of baguette and, with my knife, slathered it with butter and confiture (fruit preserves) and popped it in his mouth.
With a smile, through baguette, he said, “I’ve been looking for you. I thought you might have changed your mind about the Louvre.”
My big brown eyes widened. Of course it could have been coincidence. Musee du Louvre was a mere block away. He could have guessed that was my destination. In reality, though, I had been vacillating about whether or not to go to the Louvre. It was my last day in Paris, it was late morning, and I figured the museum queue would be prohibitively long and did I really want to waste time in line when there were certainly myriad other places I could go?
“How did you…” I began.
“Well, of course I know, Renate. I may be a stranger to you, but you are certainly no stranger to me. The only difference today is that you can see me. I can always see you.”
“But why, what…” I stuttered.
“Well, it’s like this. I know you enjoy your solo-jaunts and I must say, I agree. It’s tremendous to have the freedom to go where you want and see what you want and to spend as much time as you like wherever you like. But, I also know that it can sometimes be quite lonely.”
“Yes,” I acknowledged.
“So!” He sat up straight and smiled and struck the table with the flat of his hand. “I’m here to accompany you to the Louvre!”
The wariness started to set in. “I don’t know. I have no idea who you are or what you want or how you know my name. Plus, how do you know I’m going to the Louvre? I may be going to the Cour d’Honneur, you know that strange Palais Royal Courtyard, to look at that magnificent sculpture of black and white stumps, er, I mean, truncated columns. No. This does not sound wise at all. Plus, if you are always watching me, then you must recall that time near the Musee d’Orsay when that young man…”
“…approached you, asked you to buy an umbrella, then when he saw that you were alone, offered to be your escort on your Paris adventure. Yes, I remember. You were quite right to refuse him.”
“Wait. Uh. That’s exactly what happened. How could you possibly…”
“Oh, and here’s something else. You are the only one who can see me so we might want to start walking as I’m pretty sure that’s the manager coming to send you away.”
As if awaking from a dream, I looked around and realized that wary looks were now cast in my direction and other patrons were trying their best to scoot as far as possible away from my immediate vicinity. “Oh, my,” again waxing poetic, I quickly paid l’addicion, and with red face, I scurried away, my golden-tressed and bereted companion keeping pace alongside me.
In a few minutes, we entered the Cour Carrée (Square Courtyard of the Louvre) and I could see that, indeed, the queue was discouragingly long.
The line curlicued from the Cour Carrée through to the Cour Napoléon around and into and, finally, underneath the famous steel-and-glass pyramid designed by I. M. Pei. It was a forbidding queue and I was disheartened to see it.
I walked up to the Louvre attendant near the end of the queue and asked how long the wait would be.
“Deux heures de ici (Two hours from here),” she replied.
I was completely dispirited and realized I could not have picked a worse time to visit. Still, I longed to see the Louvre again. I hadn’t been for a few years and the museum seemed to be calling me somehow.
“It won’t be two hours,” my friendly stranger whispered in my ear.
“No. It won’t even be one hour.” I looked at him in amazement and took my place in one of the longest queues of my life, still quite bewildered by this strange and kindly man.
While we waited, the sky alternated between muted and brilliant sun and great gray sinister clouds which teasingly threatened to spill on my defenseless skull. I inwardly kicked myself for opting to leave my umbrella behind that morning because I was certain I was about to be soaked again, just like yesterday.
“Don’t worry. It won’t rain until you’re safe and dry inside.”
Nonplussed, I looked at my companion, mouth agape. (“No, he can’t be reading my mind. Surely, not,” I thought. “But, then…”) Remembering myself, and remembering what he said about his invisibility to others, I consciously closed my mouth, nodded, and continued waiting in line.
We wound our way through to the Cour Napoléon. The queue moved right along.
While waiting, my strange stranger explained to me the complex history of the Louvre and described the symbolism in the architecture. I was enthralled.
He also told me about the people standing near.
“See that Japanese family right in front of you?” he asked at one point. “They really consist of five members, not four. The sullen young lady standing at least five feet from them, on her cell phone, is part of the crew, too. She’s the eldest daughter.”
I thought to myself, “She’s not very attractive, unfortunately, and her mood’s not helping matters. Dad is giving the cute younger daughter lots of affection. Everyone’s ignoring older sister. Teenagers. Sheesh. They can be so difficult…Well, maybe she wants it that way…”
My mysterious friend said, “Yes. Exactly. But, she will someday regret not enjoying her family today and she will actually one day lose out on a fantastic scholarship opportunity because she didn’t pay more attention in the museum.” My head rotated toward him in a flash and I was flabbergasted once again. He then added, “Oh, and do you see the little blue bears and ‘UCLA’ insignia on Dad’s polo shirt? He’s the head of the School of Medicine.”
(It is clear, in telling this story, that I will quickly exhaust all my terms for “extremely amazed.”)
True to his word, we arrived at the entrance to the Louvre and were through security within 45 minutes, start-to-finish.
I purchased my entrance ticket and audioguide at a kiosk (where there was no queue whatsoever) and picked up a map.
We stood in the underground museum lobby beneath the pyramid and I marvelled – as I always do – at the inventiveness and creativity of this ancient/modern masterpiece. My mysterious escort stood with me and seemed to understand that silence was all that was necessary at that moment.
I had warmed to the fact that this kindly…being…was my friend and was looking forward to his company as I toured the museum. But, he informed me as we stood there, that it was time for him to go.
“But, we just got here!” I complained, truly saddened at the thought of his departure.
“No. Our time together was more about the process of getting here than the actual destination.”
I groaned. “I’ve heard that somewhere before…”
He smiled. He said, “And, it was also about you, Renate. My visit was a reminder to you. Remember to never feel guilty about leaving your loved ones for a time to travel. You need to do this. You have to do this. Continue learning, continue exploring, continue marvelling at the world – at God’s brilliance and man’s – and know that your love of travel is not an accident. Here. Let’s figure out this audioguide so you can get started.”
(The audioguide at the Louvre is now quite high-tech: powered by Nintendo 3DS. There was a mighty learning curve, indeed. But, once figured-out, the marvels of this grandest and greatest of museums were literally at my fingertips.)
With a strong and affectionate hug, my new friend – this special stranger, who is perhaps much, much more than a friend – left me standing in the middle of the lobby of the Louvre.
And as I stood there, looking after him, in continued wonderment, I thought, “I didn’t even thank you for the incredible, miraculous gift of your visit today.”
From the exit, he turned and smiled, and I could read his lips. “You’re welcome,” he said and was gone.
And, just then, the skies opened up above me and, against the glass panes of the Pyramid, the rain rushed down in torrents.
And, I stayed safe and dry.
(The preceding story, based on true events, is inspired by the Daily Post Writing Prompt: “Greetings, Stranger“)