Flowers from a different stand, the next day
It's not hard to find a perfect memory of Paris. Eating macarons on the Champs de Mars while the sun sets and the lights of the Eiffel Tower twinkle on. Rowing a boat on the Grand Canal, Versailles in the background (not Paris proper of course, but on the list of any tourist to the City of Lights). Wandering through the alleys of an (affordable!) flea market when all of a sudden an unseen accordion player launches into an Edith Piaf number. All of these things and more happened during our first 36 hours in Paris.
What's not so much fun to remember are the moments of confusion, fear, and embarrassment.
"Arrêt!" my sister yelled to the man as he grabbed her wrists. "Non! Stop!"
He was yelling at us in a stream of angry French, finally snatching the bouquet of white ranunculus out of her arms and marching back to the street corner.
My sister was no stranger to street harassment, having lived in Paris for three months and in New York City prior, and my wife and I had had our practice rebuffing strange men the night before, rejecting the multiple offers of crappy Eiffel Tower keychains aggressively proffered during our picnic dinner by the Seine. But even Phoebe's practiced French missed the gist of this man's ire.
I had plucked the bouquet of blooms from the flower stand outside the Francoprix—seeing no one to pay, I assumed they were sold by the store, and brought the envelope of flowers inside and added them to our pile of groceries at the check-out. As we left the market and began strolling back towards our apartment, the florist spotted us seemingly absconding with his product. What my sister and I had heard as "You're mine"—a sloppy pick-up line which we thusly ignored—had actually been "They're mine." As in, the flowers. As in, we were robbing him.
We followed the man back to the Francoprix, where he announced to the store that we were thieves, and our mistake began to dawn on us. The cashier got involved, and the store security guard, who (luckily) immediately read the situation in the horror and mortification on our faces.
The heated exchange continued as we tried (successfully, I hope) to convey the completely accidental nature of our crime, and how sorry we were for the misunderstanding. Eventually the security guard managed to calm the florist down, telling him (I'm paraphrasing) to lighten up. We offered to pay the 9€ for the blooms of course, but left empty-handed, leaving a stream of apologies in stilted French in our wake, tails between our legs.
I'll admit it—I'm a sensitive person. I try always to be polite and considerate, especially when traveling in a country foreign to me. I take things personally, beat myself up days after faux pas occur, and am generally anxious.
My sister, my wife, and I retreated back to our rental apartment, ashamed and embarrassed, resigning ourselves to ordering delivery for dinner. And then, one thing after another prevented that plan from coming to fruition. We couldn't find anything gluten-free, and as 9 pm neared, "hanger" got the best of us. Desperate, though still out-of-sorts from our botched flower purchase, we changed and walked down to Canal St. Martin.
The three of us got a table in a crowded bistro; I ordered a glass of chardonnay and the duck. We waited for our meals, the night darkening as cigarette smoke drifted in from the terrace. None of us felt like eating out.
As so often happens, our moods changed once the food arrived. The wine was good, but the duck far better, the pink strips of breast leaning gently on a perfect cylinder of purèed potatoes ("pommes de terre," or directly translated, "apples of the earth"), drizzled with the sweetest balsamic I've ever tasted.
My eyes fell closed with each bite, and as my plate emptied, the restaurant became more charming. The lack of lighting, romantic. The smoke and loud conversation from the terrace, jovial. The boundaries between our three plates, nonexistent.
By the time my sister and I cracked our spoons over the burnt sugar of a shared crème brûlèe, I'd forgiven myself for the flower incident, for our mistake, our accidental crime. We had done what we could—communicated our shame and apology to the florist to the best of our abilities. I was back in love with Paris, no longer feeling guilty for having erred against her.
Travel has again and again provided opportunities for me to learn about balance—the good and the bad. Chances to pick myself up, apologize, and move on. At the end of the day, after all, "c'est si bon." This city is so good.