Sitting in Parc Monceau in Paris on a perfectly clear and sunny morning is idyllic in ever sense of the word. It marked the first and only day my wife and I enjoyed cloudless skies and a warm radiant sunshine. The beams danced on the surface of the park’s signature small pond and amped up the brightness of the various shades of green. It was Parisian through and through – the neighborhood’s backyard and for one morning we were a part of it. We arrived early and had already strolled through this beautiful park nestled in the 8th arrondissement. We had seen its miniature Egyptian pyramid, walked over the beautiful stone and brick bridge, and with great courage (and dire need) tackled the bathrooms in the Rotunda – bathrooms reminiscent of the grimy, roadside, gas station restrooms back home.
We stepped outside the park and to a local deli where I grabbed a ham and cheese sandwich and a chocolate macaroon while Jacki went with a fresh salad and a tart. Once back in the park we passed by several empty park benches and made our way to our newly anointed favorite spot. “Our” bench was waiting for us. It was a sun-soaked bench with flaking green paint and a perfect view of the little pond with its semi-circle colonnade of Corinthian columns made to look as if they had been there for centuries.
We opened up our tasty treats and enjoyed our Parisian picnic while soaking up our surroundings and watching the wide assortment of joggers, some ready for the Olympics, others ready for the ER. Between the intermittent flows of runners was a middle-aged man walking, easily missed if not for one thing that not only made him stand out but also made him a permanent part of our Paris experience. He was a short man, probably between 65 and 70-years old, with a receding hairline but with plenty of dark color in what hair he had. He wore a blue and gray windbreaker with his hands stuffed in the pocket and as he walked alone his expression seemed to say he was pleased with his state. We sat munching, still in our own starry-eyed, self-induced “I’m in love with Paris” utopian world, and we must have caught his attention. As he crossed in front of us his smile widened as he eyed us and our picnic lunch. And then with the most honest and genuine tone he said, “Bon Appétit”.
Caught off guard, I finally stammered, “Merci monsieur”.
And just like that he was gone. He never broke stride and he continued his walk in the park, a walk that I could tell he had made many times before. Since our trip I’ve thought about the kind man on numerous occasions. There was a comfort level in him that made me think he lived nearby and that Parc Monceau held a special place in his heart. Who was he? Was the park just an early part of his normal everyday routine? Was he a traditionalist? Did he see something in us – in our picnic – that reminded him of how the city once was? Was he a widower? Did my wife and I, clearly happy and enjoying each other, remind him of a special moment? Did we remind him of a time close to his heart where he and his wife shared a picnic in the same park and maybe on the same bench? Was he just a happy man who felt a special warmth whenever seeing people stop and enjoy and love. Who was he?
You know life is filled with regrets, some big and some small, and we all have those “do over” moments. This was a “do over” moment for me. I wish I would have said more than a simple “Merci monsieur”. Could I have struck up a conversation? Did he speak English? Would he understand what I was saying? Would it enhance the now vivid memory in my mind or strip it of every bit of the charm and allure?
Unlike the joggers, we never saw the little man make another pass by us but he certainly left an impression on us. Throughout our one week stay in Paris we had seen some of the world’s greatest sites. We had stood under Eiffel’s mighty tower. We had climbed the winding stairs to the top of the Arc de Triomphe. We had sat inside and admired the gothic beauty of Notre Dame. We had looked upon mighty masterpieces within the walls of the world’s greatest museums. And yet, right there, in the company of all of these tremendous sites and wonders was the memory of a little man with a big heart, simple smile, and two friendly words.