"Excuse me, is that seat taken?"
The husky female voice was speaking in English. The monotonous vibrations of the train barreling along its tracks had lulled me into a dozing state, but hearing someone talk in my own language definitely got my attention. I opened my eyes and turned my head towards the compartment door.
The speaker was a young and rather tall woman, with long brown hair that fell freely onto her back. She peered into the compartment with squinted eyes and a frustrated expression. In the aisle behind her, people were standing to smoke cigarettes, blowing the smoke out of the cracked side windows of the train. The smoking ban on the railways in France had gone into effect last year, but I knew from experience that it was harder to separate a Frenchman from his pack of Gauloises than it was to pry the rosary from the hands of an Italian grandmother. I had been on the Brussels-Paris train more than a dozen times in the last two years, and I had never seen anyone enforce the smoking ban with any degree of dedication.
There were four fellow travelers in the six-seat compartment, and all of them looked at the young woman with various expressions of incomprehension. The only free seat was at the window to my left—the window seats were not very popular in the cold months because the slots for the heater were right underneath, and it was uncomfortably warm in that spot when they cranked the heat—and I sat up and nodded towards the vacant seat.
"No, it's free," I said, and the young woman let out an audible sigh of relief.
"You speak English," she said. "Thank God."
She stepped into the compartment and pulled the sliding door closed behind her, shutting out the cigarette smoke that was wafting in from the aisle. Then she picked up the bag she had been dragging, a little roller tote that looked about as beat-up as my own travel bag, and gingerly stepped over the legs of the people seated by the door.
"I took four years of French in school, and most of the people I talk to look at me as if I'm speaking Swahili or something."
"Of course," I laughed. "If your pronunciation and diction isn't spot-on, they'll just pretend they can't understand you. Half of these guys in here probably speak English, but they'll never admit it to you unless they decide to hit on you."
I raised myself from my seat and helped her hoist the travel bag into the overhead luggage compartment.
"Thanks. I've been looking for a place to sit for the last twenty minutes, since we left the station."
"It's the Friday evening train," I said. "That one's usually packed to the roof."
"American?" she asked, and I nodded. She took off her coat, placed it on the hook I pointed out, and then reached behind her neck to straighten out the cascade of brown hair falling onto her back. Then she dropped into the seat with a sigh.
"Sean," I introduced myself. "I'm from Boston."
"I'm Sam," she said. "From Vancouver." She took my hand, and her grip was surprisingly firm. "Very glad to meet you, and that's not just a polite phrase right now."
"Bad day, huh?" I smiled.
"You have no idea. I missed my connecting flight in Montreal, and then the airline lost my luggage. Permanently, it seems. All I have with me is what's in the carry-on. I've been in the same clothes for forty-eight hours now. If it wasn't for the fact that I always carry deodorant in my purse, I'd have this compartment cleared out by now on account of B.O."
"Ouch. That's a bad day, alright."
"Yeah, well, day's not over yet. With my luck, we'll get to Paris, and I'll get mugged at the first street corner or something."
She stretched out in her seat, neatly fitting her legs into the space between the heater and the legs of the person sitting in the opposite seat.
"Paris is not that dangerous," I said. "Just don't walk around Gare du Nord at six in the morning waving bundles of cash."
"I don't even know where I'm going, to tell you the truth. I'm visiting my brother. He's working at one of the posh hotels, but I have no clue how to get there."
"What's it called?"
I let out a low whistle.
"That's posh, alright. It's a five-star place."
"Have you ever stayed there?"
"Hell, no," I laughed. That place is not for mere mortals. I can't afford their cheapest room, not on my government salary. Your brother must be doing alright if he works there. It's one of the top hotels in the world."
"Do you know how to get there from the train station?"
"Yeah. It's on Avenue Montaigne, I think. You just take the Metro. I don't remember the exact stop, but all I have to do is look at a Metro map for a second."
"Will you show me when we get there? I'll buy you breakfast if you do."
"Sure," I said. "I'd do it for free, but I won't turn down a breakfast."
She smiled and leaned her head back against the padded headrest.
"Thank you. That takes a load off my mind."
"No problem. You may change your mind, though. Just wait until you see how much they charge for a croissant and a glass of orange juice in Paris."
She hadn't eaten since the meal on the plane from Montreal, so I rifled through my own travel bag and produced a bag of pretzel bites and a can of Diet Pepsi.
"Ooh, Snyder's," she said when she saw the bag. "Mustard and onion. I love those. Did you bring them all the way from Boston?"
"No," I laughed. "I work for the Army, up in Brussels. We have our own supermarket, called a PX. They have all the good stuff from home."
"You're in the military?"
I nodded, and offered her the open bag. She reached into it with barely restrained gusto.
"So what do you do there? Or is it one of those secret things?"
"I'm a linguist. I work for the U.S. Liaison at NATO headquarters."
"Sounds important," she said around a mouthful of pretzel bites.
"Not really. I translate stuff, and serve as interpreter for the guys with all the colorful ribbons on their jackets. I get to follow colonels and generals around all day and play voice box for them."
"Aren't you supposed to keep this stuff hush-hush?" she asked with a smile. "I mean, you probably deal with all this top secret stuff all day. You should probably tell me you're just a filing clerk or something."
"Yeah. Okay, I'll be straight with you. I'm just the guy pushing a broom around. Custodial engineer, they call me."
"That's better," she said, and we both smiled.
"So what do you do, Sam from Vancouver? I mean, other than going to Paris on a lark to visit your brother."
"I work in catering," she said. "My mom owns a catering business, and we serve food to the film productions in Vancouver. Oh, and I go to college, but I'm taking a break right now. Senior year burnout," she said with a shrug.
"So you're what, twenty-one?"
"Twenty-two," she replied. "I took a year off between high school and college, too. How about you?"
"Thirty-two," I said.
"You don't look thirty-two," she said, appraising my face. Her eyes looked blue in the dim overhead lighting.
"I spend most of my day in an air-conditioned building, and I do no manual labor," I said. "I'm well-preserved, I guess."
"You're in killer shape for someone who doesn't work hard," she said, eyeing my frame.
"I have a bunch of Marine running buddies. We do five miles every morning, in any weather."
"So what are you doing in Paris? Sounds like you've been there before."
"Oh, yeah. Dozens of times. I used to come here to hang out with a friend of mine. He was a Marine guard at the American embassy in Paris. His tour was up a few months ago, but I've kind of come to like the city, so I go down there every time I have a few days of leave."
"It's my first time," she said, and then shook her head in irritation. "Like that's not obvious, right? It's my first time in Europe, actually."
"You'll like Paris. It's not the tourist season right now, but that's good. You'll get to see the real Paris, not the summer version for tourists."
"Well, I don't think I have a hope of blending in with the locals," she smiled. "I might as well put a big sign on my ass that says, 'Tourist—Please Take Advantage of Me.'"
We chatted for a while longer, and then decided to get some sleep before our arrival. It was after midnight, and our train would arrive in Paris just after six in the morning, so there wasn't much opportunity to catch up on sleep.
Sam didn't last very long after closing her eyes and leaning back in her seat. I was still mostly awake when her breathing became slower and more regular, and I glanced over to see that she was asleep. I closed my eyes for a few minutes to doze off, and when I opened them again to look over at her, she was fast asleep.
I studied her profile, and the shape of her body underneath the knitted sweater she wore, and reaffirmed my initial assessment that she was rather cute. Her lips had a natural little pout to them. There was a very faint sprinkling of freckles on her cheeks and the bridge of her nose, and I suspected that the slightly reddish sheen of her hair was natural. Her breasts pushed out the fabric of her sweater in a moderately assertive fashion—she wasn't voluptuous, but not flat, either, which was right in line with my own preferences. Overall, she was rather shapely, with enough curves to keep her frame from being lanky. She was taller than average, five nine at least, but nothing about her seemed out of proportion. She was very attractive in the cute-girl-next-door sort of way.
Sometime during the night, the heat from the vents must have become uncomfortable enough for her to notice even in her sleep. I woke from my own slumber at some point to find that she had shifted in her seat until she was moved as far away from the window as possible, which meant that she leaned right up against me. Her arms were crossed in front of her chest, and her head was resting lightly on my shoulder. I turned my own head slightly to catch a whiff of her hair, which smelled vaguely of conditioner. The light pressure of her head against my shoulder was pleasant, and I closed my eyes again and drifted off to sleep once more.
I woke up when the train slowed down for the outer arrondissements of Paris. The horizon beyond the high rises of the northern suburbs was already light, and the streets were just now coming to life with the first commuters of the morning.
Sam was still asleep, but my stretching seemed to have triggered her own wake-up process, because her eyes opened only a few minutes later. She blinked a few times, looked up at me, and then stretched, arching her back with a little groan.
"Are we there yet?"
"Just about," I said, and pointed out of the window. "That's Paris already out there."
She squinted into the receding darkness outside, where rows and rows of identical-looking high rises stretching up into the morning sky.
"Doesn't look like much," she said.
"That's the crummy part of town," I said. "The outer suburbs. High crime, lots of immigrants, high unemployment, that sort of thing. The nice part of Paris is all the stuff in the middle."
"How much longer until we get there?"
"Twenty minutes, give or take."
"Wow," she said. "Big city."
"They don't come much bigger than this."
The train pulled into Gare du Nord right on time, and we put on our coats and gathered our belongings.
"Alright," Sam announced when we stepped out of the train onto the platform. "This looks more like I had imagined Paris."
The train station was the main terminus for long-distance trains into Paris, and it was about the size of a stadium. It had hundred-foot ceilings, and there were birds zooming around underneath the arched canopy of the arrival hall. Sam stepped close to one of the massive green iron support pillars that stood every thirty feet or so, and stroked it with the palm of her hand.
"Very cool," she said.
"I read somewhere that those were made in a Scottish foundry. Only place back then with foundries big enough to cast a pillar of that size."
"See?" She smiled and turned her head up towards the ceiling high above, eyes closed. "That's why I wanted to come here. Everything's just soaked with history."
"Yeah, I know. Kind of gives you a different perspective on longevity. Back home, three hundred years is ancient—over here, it's just broken in."
She smiled at me.
"That's why I don't date anyone my age. The younger guys just don't care about stuff like that."
"We're not brought up with a sense that history is important," I said. "That's probably why we as a society keep making the same dumb mistakes over and over again."
We followed the platform into the main part of the station. The place was busy with commuters already, despite the fact that it was barely after six in the morning.
"I would be so fucking lost here by myself," she said, eyeing the signs and advertising billboards dotting the place everywhere. "Everything's so totally foreign. I mean, I've never even been on a train before until last night."
"Is that why you came through Brussels instead of flying straight into Paris?"
"That's part of it," she said. "The ticket to Brussels was two hundred dollars cheaper, and I thought it would be fun to take a train for once. Don't I just sound like a complete country bumpkin?"
I just laughed in response, and she smiled at me.
"Alright, where can we get some breakfast in this town?"
The regular eateries around the train station were not open yet, so we had to content ourselves with the food available in the arrival hall. Sam bought a pair of croissants from a bakery stand, smiling in satisfaction when the vendor seemed to understand her request of "deux de croissants, s'il vous plait" perfectly.
On our way to the Metro, we passed a bistro that was in the process of opening, and Sam studied the chalkboard that served as the outdoor price list.
"Six Euros for a pastry and a glass of juice? That's what, eight bucks?"
"Sounds about right," I said.
"Whoa. Must be some kind of pastry."
"Probably from the same big bakery as the croissant you had back there," I said, nodding back into the direction of the train station.
The Metro was busy as always. Sam stayed close to me, observing the multitudes of commuters in the station, while I studied one of the route maps on the wall.
"There we go. We take this one for three stops, change over to that one, and go another two stops. Piece of cake."
"Are you coming over there with me?"
"Sure. Can't risk you getting lost in the Eighth Arrondissement, or ending up wandering the Metro system for three days."
"Thank you so much. You're a sweetheart," she said, patting my arm.
The smell of burning rubber heralded the arrival of the next train, and I ushered Sam down the platform and into one of the Metro cars. She bent over to collapse the handle of her roller tote so she could pick it up, and I got a good look at her derriere, which filled out the seat of her jeans in a most appealing fashion.
"This is not so bad," she announced when the train had started moving, and we had both secured a standing spot near the door. She swerved slightly when the train took a turn in the dark tunnel beyond the station, and she reached up for one of the hand loops that were hanging from the overhead bars.
"Gets you everywhere you need to go in Paris," I said. "Just get a block of tickets next time you need to take the Metro. One's good for a continuous two-hour trip, no matter how many times you change trains."
"Looks like I found the right tour guide," she smiled. "It's like you live here or something."
"Just hard-earned experience," I said. "Took me a day or so to figure the system out, but now I'm used to it. Beats the T back home by a mile, that's for sure."
"That was easy enough," Sam proclaimed when we exited the train at our destination, swimming along with the crowd on the underground platform on the way to the exits. "I could do this Metro thing all day."
Avenue Montaigne was two blocks from the Metro station, and we walked the rest of the way. It was a spring morning, not warm enough to go without a jacket, but not cold enough to make the walk uncomfortable. This was the Eighth Arrondissement, the most expensive and prestigious section of Paris, and the sidewalks were wide and tidy.
The Plaza Athenee was impossible to miss. It took up a huge swath of real estate on Avenue Montaigne, and everything about it looked pompously expensive. They had doormen, clad in hotel livery, and even this early in the morning, there was a fleet of taxis and limousines parked in front of the place.
"This is it, huh?" Sam shielded her eyes from the morning sun and appraised the building as we walked up to it, dragging our respective bags.
"Yeah. Looks high-dollar, doesn't it?"
"It's a bit much," she said. "But what do I know about expensive hotels? The most I've ever paid was two hundred fifty a night for a room at the Sheraton in Times Square when the ball dropped for the millennium."
"Two-fifty a night might get you something tiny by the elevators in this joint."
We reached the front door awning, and Sam let go of her rolling travel bag to straighten out the collar of her coat."
"Well, here we are," I said. "Safely delivered."
"Thank you so much. Hey, maybe we'll bump into each other in Paris, huh?"
"Could be," I said. "If you need any help, just call me over at my hotel. I'm usually over at the Printania. Just call the front desk and ask for Sean. I'm on good terms with the guy behind the desk."
"Will do," she said. Then she leaned into me and kissed me on the lips. Our lips made contact just long enough for it to be more than a casual good-bye, yet less than an irreversible declaration of interest.
"Thanks again for everything," she smiled. "And if I don't see you again, have a good time in Paris."
"You do the same," I said, and watched as she strode through the doors held open by the long-frocked doorman. She turned around briefly once she was inside, and gave me a smile and a little wave. I returned her wave with a wink.
The Printania was nothing like the Plaza Athenee. It was a little budget hotel, with small rooms and bathrooms the size of broom closets, but it was affordable and close to a Metro station. I had picked the place on a whim on my first Paris visit. The daytime clerk behind the counter was a tall and haggard-looking fellow named Thierry, and we had struck up somewhat of a friendship over the last year or two. He often went to get groceries for the hotel after his shift, and I had made it a habit to come along with him on his shopping runs. His English was far better than my French, but I picked up a little more on every visit, despite the fact that Thierry and his countrymen talked in rapid-fire French that was a lot more difficult to follow than the calm voice on my "Conversational French" tapes.
"Eh, Boston," Thierry said from behind his counter when I walked in a half hour after dropping Sam off at the Plaza Athenee.
"Hey, Thierry. How's business?"
"Ah." He waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. "Your countrymen, they are, how do you say? Les barbares?"
"Barbarians," I said. "What is it this time? Someone ask for the nearest McDonald's again?"
"No, they say the drinking fountain in the bathroom, she is too low? I tell the maid to show them how to use the bidet, and they are upset with me."
"Americans aren't comfortable talking about bathroom stuff," I said, chuckling at the mental image of some tourist trying to drink out of a bidet. "Especially when you tell them that they've had their mouths right where other people cleaned their derriere."
"Are you on vacation again, mon ami?"
"Just for the weekend. You know the drill--gotta be back by Monday morning."
"You want room number five again?"
"Sure," I said, and caught the key Thierry casually tossed in my direction. "I trust you had someone get rid of the bedbugs."
"Mais non. I just charge you extra for pets this time."
I had a little routine for my Paris weekends. Back when my friend Martin was still stationed at the embassy, we'd go out and hit a bunch of bars together. Now that I was on my own, I had the freedom to set a more leisurely pace, and see all the cultural stuff that hadn't appealed to Martin. He was a good drinking buddy and a fun guy to be around, but he wasn't the type to go see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. The Metro made it easy to explore the city, and getting around on foot was not difficult either, so I spent most of my weekends out walking around and getting a feel for the place.
I showered and changed, and then took off to head over to the Champs Elysees, which was a lot like Fifth Avenue in New York as far as the shopping was concerned. Of course, on my salary, I couldn't really afford the stores on either, so I spent the afternoon walking around, window-shopping, and generally enjoying the atmosphere of the place.
When I walked back into the Printania in the late afternoon, Thierry was still behind the desk. He looked up and waved me over when he saw me walking in, and I obliged.
"You have a message," he said, pronouncing the word in the French fashion. "There was a woman calling for you."
"Oh, yeah? What did she say?"
"She leave a number. Have you made a little American friend in Paris, perhaps?"
"If it's who I think it is, then no. She's Canadian."
"Not Québécois, then. Her accent, it is bad. Your French is better."
He handed me a sheet from his message pad, and I plucked it from his fingers.
"This friend of yours, she is pretty?" he asked, a faint smile on his lips.
"Yeah, she's cute."
"I make you a deal, mon ami. You bring her here tonight, and I give you the room free of charge."
"You French guys are all the same. Do you ever think about anything other than food and women?"
Thierry merely shrugged.
"It is the City of Love, no?"
I went up to my room and dialed the number on the message sheet, walking over to the open window with the old-fashioned black room phone in my hand.
"Hello?" a familiar voice answered.
"Hello there. Is this Sam?"
"Oh, hey there. I'm so glad it's you. I was worried someone would call for my brother, and I'd have to try and use my French."
"You're at your brother's place?"
"Yeah, he's got this tiny little apartment. It's all basically one room."
"Everything going okay?"
"Yeah, totally. Uhm, do you have anything going on right now? I mean, do you, like, want to get together maybe? My brother has to work all weekend on short notice, and he's got twelve-hour shifts until Sunday. I'm just kind of stuck here at his place, and I have no idea where to go."
"In need of a tour guide, are you?"
"Yeah," she laughed. "Think I could purchase your services again? I'll make it dinner this time. A real one."
"I think we can probably work something out. You want to meet up somewhere?"
"That'd be awesome."
She told me the name of her nearest Metro stop, and I tried to remember the location of it.
"I think I know where that is. You're on the number six line. I'm on the nine. You think you can make your way to the nearest station where those two meet?"
"I think I can figure it out," she said. "Do you have time, or am I butting into some awesome plans for the weekend?"
"Not really," I laughed. "I was just going to hang out around Sacre Coeur tonight anyway. That's where all the tourists hang out."
"So you don't mind playing tour guide again?"
"Not at all. I'll see you when you get there."
I beat her to the station, but not by much. I had just punched my ticket and stepped onto the platform when the next #6 train, and Sam was one of the first people out of the door near the front of the train. She stepped out of the car, looked around, and smiled when she saw me at the head of the platform near the exit. I waved at her, and she sauntered over to where I was standing. She had changed clothes at her brother's place; the comfortable travel jeans had been replaced by a much more tight and form-fitting version, and she had swapped the wool sweater for a dark turtleneck.
"Hey there," I said. "Looks like you got this Metro thing all figured out."
"I think some guy just tried to feel me up on the train," she said with a smirk, and I chuckled.
"Be glad you're not in Tokyo. A pretty gaijin girl like you, a lot of Japanese guys would cop a feel without even being subtle about it."
"Well, then," she said. "I guess you can't argue good taste, huh?"
"So where are you dragging me this evening?" she asked when we set out from the Metro station.
"Let's see. You want to get some dinner somewhere, or did you eat already?"
"I'm starving, actually. I tried to put together some lunch at my brother's place, but all he has in the cupboard is white bread and mustard."
"Dinner it is, then. Any preference?"
"Your pick," she said. "I'm buying, remember?"
"Oh, well, in that case I know this awesome three-star restaurant just off the Champs Elysees," I said.
"Oh, you're so bluffing. If you can't do expensive hotels on your salary, you've certainly not been hitting the three-star restaurants around here, mister."
"I've been to one or two, actually, just to see what the fuss is all about. Totally overrated, if you ask me—you drop a hundred and fifty bucks on a meal, and you have to look for your beef under the salad leaf. If I had to live off Nouvelle Cuisine, I'd starve."
"So what's for dinner? Is there anything between McDonald's and three-star eateries?"
"Yeah, there is. I'll show you."