It seemed a perfectly reasonable mission—to find a bottle of champagne in Paris. How hard could it be? But circumstance conspired to make it more of a challenge than I could have imagined. For one thing, it was a last minute purchase, inspired by Fintan’s idea to buy a special gift for our host-to-be a couple of hours train journey south. We decided that he would keep watch over the luggage in a cafe at Montparnasse, while I marched out into the streets on the hunt for the nearest bottle of high quality bubbly.
Fifteen minutes later, I was beginning to despair, having passed an inordinate number of pavement cafes, and a fair number of chemists, and trying to calculate my return march to the station in lieu of our train. I sought the assistance of a man walking a poodle using my best schoolgirl French.
“Pardonez-moi. Savez-vous ou je peux acheter du champagne?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, in his schoolboy English. “Perhaps down there?” pointing further up the street, seemingly into infinity.
A few hundred yards further on, I passed a small market and nipped in to find quite an impressive stock of wine and the choice of five or six champagnes. The man at the till beamed at me through a well-trimmed beard. He was about 35, quite short as I recall, with an attentive open face.
“Puis-je vous aider?”
I didn’t understand but assumed that he had just asked me what I wanted.
“Champagne!” I blurted in a dreadfully exaggerated quasi-French accent.
We both laughed.
I acted out that I was in a hurry, making train wheels with my arms, which caused more hilarity, and a mimicking of my train impression. Our increasingly slapstick interaction quickly co-opted the attention of the four other customers. The shopkeeper pulled up a small ladder and grabbed a few bottles from the shelf. While I was deciding between the Moet and Chandon and the Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label, he threw a forefinger at the sky, said something loudly in French which I pretended to understand, and hastily retreated to the backroom, emerging a few seconds later triumphantly holding up a bright orange ice jacket. That sealed the deal.
He began to ring me up, and while this part of the exchange was entirely normal, there was clearly (and to everyone else in the shop as well) undoubtedly ‘something else’ going on. “Êtes-vous célibataire?”
I wasn’t sure if he was asking if I was celibate or a celebrity, but both questions seemed rather odd. One of the customers, an elderly lady with a headscarf the colour of an aged vintage, leaned in to dispel my confusion.
“He’s asking if you’re single.”
“Oh, right! Oui. Je suis célibataire,” I replied, while puzzling over the etymological assumptions involved in the conflation of celibacy and flying solo. He looked determined to pursue something.
I motioned that once again I hadn’t understood.
“Joyeaux?” he offered.
The question gave me pause. For some reason it seemed important to tell the unadulterated truth to a shopkeeper in Paris who I had never met and would never meet again.
“Je suis….” what was the right word to describe the condition of the heart—that état du coeur—that my single life now offered me? “Je suis….” if his eyes had been flowers they would have stretched their stems a little in my direction. His gaze demanded something from me to hold, perhaps because of this endearing readiness to enter into this thing so completely without context, history or familiarity, and all of a sudden I found I had lost my nerve.
“Excusez-moi. Je ne parle pas Français.”
He wasn’t having any of it.
“Vous parlez Français,” he insisted. You are speaking French.
And then I knew had the word, like a sail knows it has the wind.
“Je suis tranquille.”
“Je suis célibataire,” he replied, “et je ne suis pas tranquille.”
The palm of my left hand somehow found its way to the place above his heart, where I pressed in softly.
“Votre tranquillité. Il est ici.”
That bitter-sweet flush of feeling that glistens the eyes—an empathy endowed with the knowledge of its own inevitable transience. What the Japanese scholar, Motoori Norinaga, termed mono no aware. I remember the murmur from the line of customers behind. The warmth of his hand pressed against mine. But I don’t remember the link between that moment and the one where our lips met. A lifetime of possible futures, a time-lapse reel of joy and heartbreak, met in that kiss. The headscarf woman muttered something romantic-sounding in French though she may just of well been saying “I wish these idiots would hurry up and let me buy my potatoes” for all I cared. Someone else cheered. A thousand champagne corks popped around the city.
I hurried back to Montparnasse where Fintan was waiting, trying to hide his impatience. “Did you get the champagne?”
I showed him the bottle with the snazzy orange ice jacket. He nodded his approval.
“Excellent choice,” he said. “Was it hard to find?”
“No, not really,” I replied. “Not in the larger scheme of things.”