63: The Café de l’Espérance

63: The Café de l’Espérance

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

The Café de l’Espérance

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

~Helen Keller

I stood in my raincoat with my two suitcases in front of a locked courtyard gate in the 9th Arrondissement. The airport taxi vanished, leaving me alone on the deserted street. The code I had been given before I left Los Angeles didn’t unlock the big double doors of the eighteenth-century apartment building. In a moment of panic, I wondered what I was doing. Was I completely crazy after a year of widowhood?

Just then a woman wearing a bright silk scarf over her dark winter coat opened the courtyard door. “Bonjour! Alors, entrez!” she said pleasantly before setting off down the street toward the pealing bells of the church of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette.

I propped open the heavy green door with one bag, hauled the rest of my gear over the threshold, and entered the courtyard, feeling a bit like Alice entering Wonderland.

When I got off the minuscule cage elevator on the third floor, Madame de Chardon waited in her open doorway. Madame, small-boned and elegant, with a pink artificial flower pinned to her chignon, surveyed my abundant American belongings now filling up the small entry hall of her apartment.

“Bienvenue, Madame Magnus,” she said. “Je suis enchantée de faire votre connaissance.”

We shook hands firmly up and down exactly twice in the prescribed French way.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” she asked in French as she opened the curtained glass parlor doors. While she clanged pots in the kitchen, I perched on the drab flowered sofa and studied the portraits hanging from picture rails and the porcelain boxes balanced on lace doilies on Directoire marble tables. Madame brought in tea and packaged cookies on a tarnished silver tray.

To me the apartment was very French, and therefore charming. It was over two hundred years old with high ceilings and marble fireplaces in each room. Exposed pipes and conduits ran every which way, clotheslines draped with laundry ran under the ceilings, and dusty curtains hid God-knew-what in every niche and corner. I didn’t care that a thin layer of grime covered everything. I was in Paris.

Madame indicated that I should not make myself at home in the rest of the apartment. I noticed the telephone in the dining room had a padlock on it, not that I had anyone to call.

The stale cookies had left a dusty taste in my mouth, so I went across the street to sit over a crème on the sidewalk of the Café de l’Espérance, now open and filling up with after-Mass and instead-of-Mass habitués. My ears ached from listening to them all speak French. I stirred my coffee and looked around with amazement. Here I was, at forty-three, suddenly on my own in Paris, transported as if by magic. There was no place on earth I would rather be, nothing else I would rather be doing. It had been three years since I had had a moment like this. Los Angeles was far away, and so was the despair and depression I had lived with for so long.

A year ago, at Christmas, Jack had been in a cancer clinic in Tijuana, the hospital of last resort. The Mexican doctors took him off morphine so that the organic herbal treatments they prescribed would be more effective. He suffered the agonies of withdrawal — sweats, hallucinations of snakes coming out of the walls, enormous pain. Even so, throughout his torment he had been uncomplaining and optimistic and brave.

My first Christmas as a widow I didn’t feel like celebrating or doing anything. As soon as I would come home from work, I would go straight to bed. Adam and Jason, my sons, were still at home, and they didn’t much feel like celebrating either. My medication for depression only caused my insides trouble and changed the taste of food, so that I had completely lost my appetite for food too. My appetite for living had left me long ago.

I tried to make a New Year’s resolution, but I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do in my life, let alone in the coming year. I knew that each day was a mountain to climb. I had no wishes, or desires or hope, apart from freeing myself from the loneliness and pain.

Finally on New Year’s Day as I lay in bed, too down to get up, I realized there was something I wanted: to learn French. My love affair with France and all things French had begun with my first ballet lessons as a child. I had been thrilled to travel to France with Jack several times and to communicate there, however ineptly.

Then I had utilized my three years of high school French. Maybe now was the time to do something serious about learning the language. Jack’s premature death made me more conscious than ever of not waiting for “someday.”

Linda and Steve, my Francophile neighbors next door, lent me a stack of brochures from language schools in France. I picked one in Paris. On January 2nd I phoned my travel agent, and then I requested time off from my job at the city library. Before I left for Paris, against the advice of my doctor, who was perhaps afraid I might drown myself in the Seine, I threw away the antidepressants that made food taste like rusty airplane parts. If I was going to France, I was going to taste the food and drink. The kids were glad that at last I wanted to do something besides cry in bed.

And now two weeks later, here I was, alone in this city of my dreams, getting ready to start school the next day. Sometimes magic can be performed with only a wish and a credit card.

After my coffee, I crossed the street again, and this time when I punched in the code the gate opened.

The next morning, euphoric to have someplace in Paris that expected me, I joined the Monday-morning throng hurrying down the steps of the Place Saint-Georges Métro station. The Parisians riding the train to Concorde in elegant suits looked vastly different from the T-shirt and jogging-clad public transport commuters of Los Angeles. I wore jeans and boots and a black leather jacket like the student I had suddenly become.

French school was the right prescription for what ailed me. No one knew me or my problems. All I had to worry about was my homework. I could be happy for a little while just being me, whoever that was. I hoped that in two weeks my French would be, if not perfect, more Parisian, more French!

Suddenly I had an appetite. For the first time in years, there were pleasurable things to do, learn, see, feel, taste. As I stepped on the train, I felt myself crave.

~Cherie Magnus

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