Romance is fickle in the best of times. You light the candles. You pour the wine. You turn on slow jazz. And . . . the topic of your mother comes up. How did that happen? What went wrong? And why are you sleeping with the dog in the spare bedroom?
But there do seem to be places that are more romantic than others. Sacred spots. We all have them. It might be over a beautiful meal at Lucca, or walking around Gray’s Lake at dusk, or sitting rink-side with a sloshing beer at a Buccaneers game. Whatever works. Heck, on one of these chilly nights, walk up Walnut Street in East Village with the holiday lights on either side and the golden glow of the Capitol in the distance. There you go. Is there any spot more romantic in the world than right there at that moment?
Paris is such a sacred spot.
It begins and ends with the waiters. First, grab that empty table on Rue Cler. Outside, of course. Yes, you both sit on the same side of the table looking out. Why? How else are you going to see the women of Paris walk with such confidence and grace, in high heels, on the cobblestones. And of course you will never look as debonair as that white-haired elderly man drinking espresso in an elegant suit and dress hat. That’s all right. You are here to learn. So chill.
The waiters certainly are. No smiles. No greetings. Certainly, no introductions. They stand on the fringe and ignore you. It’s all right. Lower your shoulders. Take a breath. Count to 10. This is your table for the night. Now just raise a finger or arch an eyebrow to tell him you are ready. He will come eventually. You will order a bottle of wine. Good. Now don’t talk quite so loudly. There you go. And maybe an hour later, you will order a meal. And maybe an hour after that, you will order an after-dinner drink. And you will sit and talk quietly and watch. Now you’ve got the hang of it.
Listen, the Paris waiter has just plowed the field, planted the crop, and given you your only job — to harvest romance. Sure, the softly lit street with its’ narrow bustling sidewalk doesn’t hurt. The low murmur of people talking and laughing in an enticingly melodic foreign language doesn’t hurt. And the on-the-hour sparkling of the distant Eiffel Tower certainly doesn’t hurt. But the languor of the waiters, that’s the key. The waiter has given you the moment, romance is yours for the taking.
And tomorrow you will wander the streets. Going from quarter to quarter. Ah, here’s where Hemingway liked to eat. And over there is the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay, the Picasso Museum, the l’Orangerie, the Centre Pompidou. And there’s the bridge with the love locks.
And, look, Notre Dame Cathedral and Sainte Chapelle. And the Rodin garden. And the perfume stores. And there’s a macaron shop. And . . .
. . . 129 dead and counting. The unthinkable. Paris is violated. Sirens and bodies and screams and explosions and gun shots. All on a beautiful Paris evening. The armless Venus de Milo is weeping tears down her stoney face. Rodin’s Gates of Hell are opened at last. And back in Des Moines, Iowa? I want to vomit.
So, what remains? Is romance dead, killed by terrorists? Is the curiosity needed for romance to exist replaced by security cameras? Is whimsical yearning blown up by a suicide bomber? Do we sit at the cafe table staring out, not with joy and passion, but with a clear field of vision in case we need to draw our concealed weapons?
I don’t know.
But, in the aftermath, I can see the Paris waiter in my mind’s eye. White apron pulled tight at the waist. Vest and tie, impeccable. Standing on the fringes. Looking without looking. After the time that he thinks appropriate, he will approach. And he will answer with that French lilt.
“Monsieur, terrorism?” And he will smile only from the mouth, thin shoulders unmoved, white cloth draped over his left arm like the drape over a coffin. And then he will eloquently spit on the ground, as only a Parisian waiter could.
He will then look up, the consummate professional, and ask: “Monsieur would care for a red or white wine?”
Perhaps this is true.