Paris, France May 16, 2008
I am back across the pond in France for three weeks. On the way over I completed reading Bernard-Henri Lévy’s “American Vertigo”. Written in 2004 during the presidential election campaign, Lévy retraces and enlarges upon Tocqueville’s ”Democracy in America” which many of you were, if like me, required to read in high school. American Vertigo is a good read if you are interested in what a French intellectual thinks of the American experiment.
Paris was originally founded on two islands in the Seine. The Isle St. Louis is the smaller island and primarily residential, where today, if you hurry, one million dollars will buy you a 250sf apartment without a kitchen. The larger island is called Isle de la Cité where many governmental buildings, old prisons and wonderful cathedrals are located, most notably Notre Dame. A friend recently lost her father unexpectedly. I told her that I would light a memorial candle in Notre Dame for him. I was on my way with another friend crossing the Pont Neuf (literally New Bridge) named such in the 16th century when it was built. Somehow the name “New” has endured for five hundred years. The only thing the French rename are streets and that is done for purpose of confusing tourists and keeping mapmakers gainfully employed. Rename a five hundred year old bridge something other than New? Pourquoi?
As we were crossing the Pont Neuf, we were accosted by three young student looking people with bilingual signs (English/French) offering Free Hugs. My friend was approached first by a young woman whom she summarily brushed off with some French slang that I didn’t understand but if she had said that to me, I would have caught the first plane out. I was approached by another of the three. My potential free hug was an extraordinarily handsome young African man with outstretched arms, hugh grin and the longest dreadlocked hair I had ever seen tied together in the back of his head with a piece of 3/4″ rope! Cheap Chinese sandals, blue jeans torn off irregularly just below the knees sporting a dirty T-shirt inscribed with some romantic French slogan. My hand instinctively located my wallet but then I thought, wait! Pickpockets dress much better than that! So what the heck, why not? After all the Euro is 1.60 and nothing else is free in Paris! We embraced, he squeezed a little and I squeezed back pulling us both off balance. Fortunately he was very strong and he adroitly regained our equilibrium preventing us from dread-locking the Pont Neuf. We laughed out loud and he asked me in French what the meaning was of my baseball cap. My cap is grey embroidered with the words “18% Grey”. For the non photographers in the audience this is the target value your light meter in your (every) camera is searching for when it attempts to make a correct exposure. My cap is 50% black and 50% white (middle gray). Eighteen percent refers to the light reflectance value. So now I have to try and explain this in French!!?? As I struggled to find some French, the young woman, previously brushed off by my friend, came over smiling and asked me in English where I was from. Eighty-three percent of the time that I open my mouth to practice what little French I have, I am answered in English. This time it was a rescue by a young woman from New York! She translated for me the meaning of my cap into perfect French.
Normally, I am very dismissive and skeptical of these Woo-wooville-touchy-feely-random-acts of kindness but as we walked onward towards Notre Dame, I was surprised at how much lighter my steps for this solemn duty were as a result of a hug from a stranger that I shall probably never see again.