One of my favorite places in Paris – and France for that matter – is this cute little bilingual bookshop called Shakespeare & Co, near St-Michel’s borough. Its wooden shelves smell like an old friend generations of readers have already rested on the shoulders of.
In Shakespeare & Co’s creaking stairs, visitors have left thousands of texts, words and advice. Among them, this list from a writer, that says: ‘never begin a book by talking about the weather’.
When I first saw that, I laughed. And then I thought that no one ever said that it was forbidden to begin an article with a common but so true ‘it was a rainy evening’.
It was a rainy evening, almost 7 p.m. I just came home after a four-hours-long car ride from Camargue where I had spent my vacations with my family. I was about to spend my last evening in Lyon, my parents’ town, before going back to my own place in Reims. I was supposed to go to one of my high-school best friend’s for the night; we’d planned a random girly evening: home-made pizzas, gossip about her scientific and my political schools, typically the kind of things that could be disrupted by me arriving half-an-hour late in Lyon because of stuffed roads, and her arriving one hour and a half late because of her train.
She hadn’t arrived yet, so we decided that I would be the one going to buy food for the pizzas. I went to this supermarket next to my parents’, enjoying this return to the streets I used to see every day while I still lived there. As always, I took my time to buy everything I needed, wandering from one corner of the supermarket to the other; fighting with my umbrella that refused to close, queuing, and finally getting ready to go back into the cold and wet outside.
And then I heard this employee talking in a courageous but broken English, about a ‘telephone with Internet’. He was standing in front of two blond young women who were trying to understand (definitely not Brits. Maybe from Northern Europe I would say) and struggling with their heavy, numerous bags full of food.
I headed up to them, asked if I could help as I had a phone with an Internet access. The employee told me the two women were looking for a taxi to go back home as they couldn’t use Uber. Then he left. I just stood in front of the two girls who looked desperate.
They told me they were from Moscow, Russia. One of them was called Ekaterina. She went back to their provisions and the other girl stayed with me while I was calling a French taxi company. For five minutes I tried with no luck; eventually someone answered, asking me to wait for a moment; boring music again; and the operator eventually told me that no drivers were available – all busy or on holidays, she didn’t know, well the only information I had to know was that I couldn’t hope for anything but compassion. I went to Uber website, struggling with my two new Russian friends to enter their name, phone number, tricky password, to discover afterwards that the website exceptionally didn’t work.
I was apologizing to one of the girls- ‘I’m so sorry this is the first image you have from France’, ‘It’s not like that most of the time, France usually does not suck at this kind of things’ – , as if I was personally to blame for this sub-natural Taxi Gate, for the rain outside, for the employee who didn’t know the address of his shop, for their hotel that was too far away, when they imperiously took a macarons’ box from their bags and gave it to me – ‘Gift for you!’. They then proceeded to speak in Russian for a few minutes, with lots of sounds that were unfamiliar to me and I couldn’t help but notice the tremendous delicateness in the way they pronounced these words I couldn’t understand, as if their language was a treasure.
And I was there, so moved by this attention. First I tried to politely refuse, swearing I had done nothing but my duty – ‘I wish someone could do that for me too if I ever go to Moscow, it’s normal’ -, before capitulating and taking the first gift I ever received from Russia – destiny was ironical, bearing in mind it was a specialty from the town I was born in.
A few minutes later, and I was still thinking about possible solutions – underground ? just walking ? Asking my dad to drive them to their hotel? why the fuck was it raining? Why the hell weren’t the taxis just being taxis for once? Why was I swearing in a moment like this one? – when they told me they could take the bus and asked me how to go to their place. They had bus tickets. I had Lyon’s fabulous website to know what bus they had to take. And I knew barely where to take it.
I will never forget the expression of gratefulness that appeared on their tired, exhausted but still smiling faces when I told them I could walk them there. So we went out of the supermarket; they were holding their heavy bags, heads protected from the rain by colored scarves; I was keeping my closed umbrella in my hand; that seemed so obvious, at this very moment, that it was better for me to get wet than to be protected while they weren’t.
So we walked, through the swimming-pool like streets. I had mentally crossed my fingers hoping this was the right bus stop. While we were walking, Ekaterina’s friend told me that they were coming to Lyon for a four-day-long holiday. It wasn’t their first time here, they had already come five years ago and loved it. That day, they have been to Fourvière cathedral that she pleasantly called Notre-Dame before remembering that one was in Paris and to Les Halles market – ‘very tasty’, ‘very French’, I responded and she laughed. She told me that they didn’t speak any French but her husband did.
I left them at the bus stop, intensely relieved when I saw that it was exactly the one we were looking for. I explained them how to get to their hotel and proposed to give them my phone number if they had any problem in Lyon. I was about to leave when Ekaterina spontaneously gave her hand for me to apparently hold it – no shaking, holding; cute to see this cultural difference. We smiled to each other, I wished them good luck and turned the heels back before calling my parents not to worry – yes, this little adventure lasted more than half an hour but I wasn’t dead, just helping lost Russians.
On the walk back to my parent’s, I was thinking about my school, whose students come from more than one hundred countries but apparently not Russia; about my family who two days ago, helped a young couple whose car was stuck in a Camarguese muddy trench and stayed one hour with them, only French people in France to help while the other drivers that stopped to offer their support were Swiss and German. I wasn’t with them at the time, busy with studying in our hotel, and it was my greatest regret no to have been there to help as well.
That’s nice how one’s days can become extra-ordinary when one just let things happen. Since the year started, I’ve had tea at 3 a.m. with a Pole, a Finn and a Chilean-American; I have cooked and eaten pasta with people from more than ten nationalities around the table; I have been given macarons, my hometown speciality, by two lost Russian women, and so much more. If the drive from Camargue had lasted a little shorter, if my friend’s train hadn’t been late, if I hadn’t remembered at the last moment that I had to buy her chorizo, none of this would have happened.
When I headed off to my friend’s that evening, I was still thinking about the two Russian girls, Ekaterina and her friend, whose name shall forever remain a mystery. I hope they will find a lost tourist in Moscow one day, that they will help them and get blinis in return. And maybe this tourist will help again, and again and again, until someone helps me find my way under a rainy sky on the other side of the world, and I’ll try to gift them with ginger beer and they’ll tell me that it’s not a problem and that they only wanted me to do the same for someone one day, and I’ll smile and think again about November 4th, 2017, and tell them: ‘You have no idea’.