Madame Cotin leans over, her petite body dangerously close to falling off the tall barstool. She wants to pay for my drink, she tells me. Out of nowhere comes this kind offer. It would be her pleasure, she says. It would bring some happiness to her otherwise noir moment. This woman of 72 years, draped in lonely shades of grey, is seated next to me at the bar inside Cafe Mabillon. She is overcome with sadness today, she says. She is upset with her husband, who has once again delivered a large dose of disappointment. I understand all too well, I tell her. She tells me that on days like today, she feels alone in Paris. I understand that too.
Through broken English, bits of French, and morsels of Spanish, we communicate, and somehow we connect. Our conversation turns from dark thoughts to happy banter, and we speak of meeting again, so that we can instruct one another on our respective languages, and maybe for a moment or two, feel as though we have a new friend in Paris.
She throws back her glass of rosé, and with a seemingly lighter step, sets off on her way home, back to that impossible man she loves nonetheless. I watch her leave, then take in my familiar surroundings. Here at Café Mabillon, the feeling of "alone" of which we had spoken is quickly forgotten. I had first come to this spot in Le Quartier Latin two years ago, and I loved it as much then as I do today. The same staff are here, the same manager and his kooky love of American R&B. This is my Café Fiorello of the Upper West Side, my Cheers of TV fame. This is the bar where everyone does, or soon might, know my name. This sense of familiarity, of being known, of feeling so easily accepted, all this is well worth the metro ride across the River Seine.
But I was in the neighborhood anyway. With Nina Simone crooning from my iPod, earlier today I had braved the Free Sunday crowds and took in a visit of the Musee Rodin near the Left Bank. Much like The Thinker (Le Penseur) in Rodin's garden ponders his own life, I sit at this bar now, and ponder my Parisian existence. I observe the women at the Café, and watch them light cigarettes in between apertifs and coffees. (As only Parisian men can somehow look studly carrying a baguette under their arm, only Parisian women can look stunning with a cigarette at their lips.) I observe their natural, effortless beauty, and contemplate the possibility of eschewing my California ways, my obsession with healthful eating, my need for yoga and exercise. I consider channeling Elizabeth Gilbert and her no holds barred embrace of Italy's edible delights; whether eating, praying or loving, Liz Gilbert melted into her surroundings, losing herself in whatever culture she was in at the moment. I wonder what would happen if I did the same here in Paris - if I were to take up smoking, fill my insides with espresso, wine, then more espresso, spend my hours shopping and socializing rather than jogging, spend my money on beautiful clothing and lingerie rather than running shoes and yoga classes. I balance these thoughts against images of Rodin's version of the human body - the muscular, chiseled, powerful forms he sculpted for both his male and female subjects - the body type I too have always considered beautiful.
I soak in this culture that is so foreign, so sensual, so French, and I wonder, what might I become if I were to melt into this place? Would I become effortlessly beautiful? Or would I evolve into a woman as dark as la petite Madame Cotin? Or both? Would I become a person I no longer know of as me?
Not likely. But something to think about nonetheless.