60: Americans in Paris

60: Americans in Paris

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America

Americans in Paris

I believe fundamentally in the kindness of the American people because I have been a beneficiary of it.

~Jose Antonio Vargas

“I always wanted to go to America,” the waiter said in his thick French accent.

My friends and I gawked at him as he rounded the table and gave us our plates of food. The seven of us, having just climbed the Arc de Triomphe and trekked the entire Champs-Élysées before noon, were ravenous, and the platters of grilled chicken and crisp pita bread looked warm, inviting, and filling. We clutched our knives and forks, ready to dig in and fill our stomachs before the tour of the Musée d’Orsay later that day.

However, we ignored the meals in front of us. The waiter’s sentence was brief, his words few, yet they froze us and made us glance at each other across the table before staring at him. He went about his business as if he hadn’t said anything out of the ordinary.

We were in Paris, the fourth stop on our three-week tour of Europe. We were a group of college girls who had never before left the United States. Most of us had probably never ventured farther south than Virginia or farther west than Ohio.

For us, visiting Europe was an escape. Here we were in Paris, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, where the lights sparkled at night and the sun in the morning reflected on the rippling Seine. Every man and woman on the street looked like a model, and every piece of chocolate behind glass cases in candy stores looked like a work of art. We were in the city that Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman would always have, the city that artists captured on canvas, and the city where so many romantic films ended before the credits rolled.

We were in Paris, and yet this man wanted nothing more than to come to America.

“New Jersey,” he said suddenly. “I would love to leave Paris and move to New Jersey.”

“You don’t want to move to New Jersey,” the girl across from me, Marissa, said. “I’m from New Jersey. Trust me.”

We all laughed, but now it was the waiter’s turn to stare at us. He had dark eyes, dark skin, and shiny dark hair. Although he spoke with a French accent, he looked Middle Eastern. Like America, Paris seemed to me to be a melting pot of all different races and cultures.

“I hear that New Jersey is very nice,” he said, not understanding Marissa’s American sarcasm. “I have friends in New Jersey.”

“But you live in Paris,” another girl, Jackie, said, emphasizing the city’s name as if the man didn’t know. “Why would you want to move to America?”

He shrugged. “Because people are kind there. People don’t care where you come from.” He turned away and studied the empty drinking glasses in his hands. He was shining them. The restaurant, in an alley off the Champs-Élysées, was nearly empty. No other customers were waiting for him, so he lingered.

“It’s not like that here in Paris,” he continued. He glanced at us from beneath his dark lashes.

We were silent. For us, it was so hard to understand. We had grown up in America, in our own melting pot of different languages and skin colors, of different religions and sexual orientations. Perhaps that made us spoiled in a way. Perhaps that even made us blind to the struggles that so many around the world still faced, blind to the fights so many were still having for their own acceptance. We were blind to just how lucky we were to have a country to go back to that welcomed us regardless of who we worshiped or loved or what color our skin was.

“People here treat me differently because I am Muslim,” he added. All at once, all the anger and frustration, the sadness and even fear, came pouring out of this young waiter. I thought of the anti-Islam riot that had filled the street outside my hotel with screams and smoking flares the day before.

He shook his head. “In America, none of that matters. People are kind,” he said again.

All of us at the table had grown up learning about the “American Dream.” We heard the term “Land of Opportunity.” In elementary school, we dressed up like our ancestors and cooked international foods from our families’ history. But for us, “American Dream” was just a phrase that politicians threw into speeches. Those days in school were days to dress up and eat food and get out of homework. None of our parents were immigrants, not even our grandparents. Our families came to America with early settlers following the Mayflower or on ships to Ellis Island. They embodied the American dream so that, many generations later, we could live it, free from fear or intolerance or hate.

And now here stood a man who embodied that same spirit our ancestors held. In only a few sentences, he showed us the kindness America harbored. He demonstrated for us the true power of the American Dream — how it transcended international boundaries and traveled across oceans. There we were in Paris, seeking to escape the seemingly mundane life back home, and here was a man working to achieve the life we had taken for granted for so long.

His head was low, and his shoulders slumped under the weight of sadness.

I have heard it said that we might never understand something until we walk in another’s shoes. Our young waiter didn’t merely take us for a walk in his shoes. His eyes were reflecting pools, with memories we couldn’t see or even imagine, playing out before them. In only a few minutes, one man in Paris opened our eyes to the beauty of America more than any politician could.

“We hope you come to America,” Marissa said. Her voice was heavy.

Without a word, he took his sparkling glasses, leaving us to our meal and our sudden silence. We all looked around the table, wishing we could help him.

When our lunch was finished, our waiter returned. He froze, his hand hovering over the table where our empty plates were left alongside a pile of euros.

“You left money,” he said.

We shook our heads and smiled. “That’s for you. A tip,” we all tried to explain at once. Tipping isn’t something that’s done in most of Europe.

“But . . .” His eyes flickered between all of us. “Why?” His mouth was parted ever so slightly in shock.

Marissa gave him a bright smile, perhaps hoping to be the first American to show him that kindness he dreamed of, but certainly not the last. “Because you were very kind to us.”

“Thank you,” he breathed.

I imagined him taking the money home and hiding it away in an envelope or a box, in a jar in his kitchen or in a safe on his shelf, where he was collecting every cent he could to come to America, like so many before him did and so many will for generations to come.

~Keri Lindenmuth

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