“You have stunning hands.” I glanced upward from my book and my verre de rosé to see my admirer. He was an eighty-something year old Algerian man sitting at the table beside me. He swallowed an oyster he had just doused in lemon and licked the salt from the shell. The light in the brasserie was amber and danced between the chandelier and the ceiling, creating with its tempo a warm blur that, in my memory, effectively fades most details of the man save for two: he had a low but playful tone of voice and brown eyes that nestled into wrinkles deep as rivers. His sincerity was disarming.
“Merci beaucoup,” I said.
“Are you a pianist?”
“Used to be.”
“Ah, you are not French?” It was equal parts question and realization after detecting my accent.
“No, I’m American, but I live in France.”
“Ah! Une belle Américaine, quel plaisir! What do you do in France?”
“I teach English to young students.”
“What is it like?” So I told him. I shared with him stories of being accosted with kisses each day by the kids when I arrived at school; about filling my free time with market shopping and reading cheap French paperbacks and strolling through quiet, cobblestoned streets; about walking home in the rain giddy and stumbling in my heels.
With each phrase I uttered, he grew more familiar to me. He was an active listener, engaged in my words and inserting his own anecdotes and staccato bursts of excitement. His hands cupped and squeezed the hazy garlic air between us as he spoke and he laughed in that wild way with head tilted back, daring our fellow diners to have more fun.
It must have been an hour or two of easy exchanges before I peered at my watch and realized I was late to meet a friend. He reached out to take my hands and I let him. He cradled my fingers in his palms and said, “Before you go, I need to tell you something.” I waited as he gathered his breath. “You are young,” he said. “If you don’t like where you’re going or what you’re doing, change your direction.”
I walked out the door into the chilled and bustling Parisian night, repeating his last sage offering in my head: life is simple if we let it be.