It is Fête de la Fédération in France, or more commonly know as Bastille Day here. It is much like our Fourth of July. It reminded me of one of my favorite short stories from a few years ago.
It was a grey and gloomy Paris morning where occasional rain drops did not seem to chase the patrons off the sidewalks and into the many cafés that were sprinkled liberally around the area. This particularly grimy part of town was liberally spray painted with “street art.” Teams of youths and an occasional solo artist spent many evenings decorating the buildings, fences and a few trucks with their personal designs. When we arrived at the nearby train station the afternoon before, we noticed the last few miles before the station contained a nonstop view of this French city artistry. Back home we would call this graffiti, nothing more.
We approached a corner cafe with no thought of sitting outside. My travel companions did not want to “take our breakfast in the streets.” I would have preferred to be outside where I could watch Paris stroll by, but was left with the view from whatever window we could sit near. My friends never actually took breakfast. It did not fit their normal routine and they were not about to change for Paris or Strasbourg or any town in between. One ordered Coke while the other attempted to order “jus d’orange” in his best sounding fake French accent.
“Café américain and croissant,” I ordered without any attempt to sound French. I figured the waiter knew we were Americans before we sat down. They always seem to know. He smiled and wandered off to fix our drinks. My tired friends stared off aimlessly as if sugared drinks would be required to bring them back to life. I studied the room as we waited for our order. Two men were standing at the counter enjoying espresso and talking loudly, as if that was the thing to do at 8 hours 30 minutes on the morning clock. Paris life does not begin too early, unless you are a baker.
As our drinks were being set down in front of us, I spied a grey little man in a tattered grey coat walking slowly past the window to my left. He was elderly, I presumed by his grey hair and grey stubble. His open coat revealed a grey or dirty white shirt and several keys which hung on long strings from around his neck. He carried a baguette in one hand while using the other hand to pull a cart with a small case attached to it. I imagined the dirty, beat-up looking case carried his most valued possessions, whatever they may be. Before too long, he disappeared from view. My friends had not noticed him at all.
Our bill had come to fifteen euros. Even at a good exchange rate, this would seem a high price to pay back home. As it was a Paris cafe, I figured we were paying for the view of dirty streets and the indifferent service of our handsome waiter. I really did not mind, however. I was just glad to be anywhere we could take the pace of life as we pleased. In that regard, we could blend in well for a week.
We left the cafe and were on our way to begin the tour of famous Paris landmarks, monuments and churches. There is an ample supply of all three in the French capital. A few days in the city of lights would not be enough to see them all, but one always hopes to return to Paris. It will not matter how many times you go, there is always the belief deep down that you will return.
We moved up to the corner and waited to cross the boulevard lined with trash from the day before. Although the city cleaned the streets often, it did not seem to matter as the locals tossed their trash anywhere along their path. Perhaps they expected trash to be collected by city workers every day. It is not for lack of trash receptacles that they throw garbage to the ground, as containers are everywhere. I guess those must be for the tourists.
Down the center of the street was a parkway with a paved center and grassy areas along the sides. We took the pathway which was lined with park benches. As we moved toward the sign that said “Metropolitain” at the far end of the parkway, I noticed the little grey man just a short distance ahead of us. He was standing in front of one of the benches and had the baguette firmly in hand. As he tore a piece of the bread and put it in his mouth, pigeons flocked to him as if he was their leader and they were his faithful followers. As a reward for coming to his side, he tore off a chunk of the baguette, then ripped it into small pieces and tossed them all around him. At this site even more pigeons came to visit and soon the old man stood in a sea of birds, alternately eating some of the baguette and tossing some. His subjects cooed their approval in a tone that I always found annoying.
As we wandered past the grey patch of ground where the old man stood, many of the birds took flight in order to clear the way before us. We could not be slowed down on our trip to the stairway that would lead us into the ground and to one of the many subway trains of Paris. I thought it was a shame all the birds were leaving the old-timer so I turned around to take a look after we had walked on by. Since the old man had more baguette in hand, the black and white and grey pigeons all returned to continue the feast. This would be the most attention the man would receive that day. As a matter of fact, it was the most attention the man received most days. As long as he returned each morning baguette in hand, his somewhat loyal avian subjects would appear to greet him. This would bring him his daily moment of joy.