Mid-afternoon, mid-week. Dark and wet like many a December day in the City of Light. I descend into metro Colonel Fabien and try to shake off the cold.
When the train arrives, I spy through the window the one free seat. It will be mine. The man behind me has the same idea. He rushes past me as soon as the doors open, nearly sprinting to get to the seat. He plops down and puts on that blank city face: I don’t see you even though you’re right in front of me.
No matter. I gave up expecting chivalry a long time ago. Plus, you never really know what’s going on for people. Maybe he really did need that seat more. It may just be a trick to tell myself that, but it makes me feel better anyway.
I stand and think about whatever I think about on the train.
Then another seat becomes available, but it’s facing backward. I can’t sit backwards. (Well, I can, but I feel nauseous.)
I sit sideways on the seat so I’m not opposite the train’s movement.
We pull up to the next stop and a group of young elementary school children are lined up. Whole groups of kids pouring into the metro sometimes make me nervous, but as soon as this group enters, the other possibility presents itself: delight.
One advantage of miserable weather is the plethora of tiny tots in puffy coats, adorable mittens, cute little hats. The kids are bubbly and happy, but well-behaved. The girls right next to me (we’re at eye level, me sitting, them standing) are caught up in playing a little girl game, but they give me a smile when they glance my way and I smile back. I want to take a picture of the whole lot of them. This is grand! Another one of those small moments for which I’m grateful.
Then one of their guardians – Alexandre, I overhear – pulls the girls nearest me away.
“Don’t you see you’re crushing the dame!”
The three are lined up now, a beautiful white-black-Asian rainbow, looking as if they’re in front of a firing squad. Reprimands in French sound at a frequency that send shivers down the spine.
“Je ne suis pas content!” Alexandre says. “This calls for punishment. As soon as I see your mothers, I’m telling them what you did!”
I see in their little faces they have no idea what they’ve done. I don’t either!
Wait, Monsieur! I’m the dame?!
Alexandre is going on about how he’s told them to pay attention. “Apologize to the lady,” he says motioning at me. He thinks I was being prevented from sitting in the seat properly because they were there!
The other guardian, a woman, echoes something Alexandre says but then softens. “C’est pas grave,” she whispers at them.
I catch her eye and enthusiastically confirm. Yes, yes, it’s not serious! She smiles wanly at me.
We all get off at the next stop – the entire episode took place between only one metro stop to the next.
“I was already in that position. They didn’t do anything wrong,” I tell Alexandre as we pile out of the car.
At least that’s what I think I say. My French often fails me under pressure.
“They have to learn to pay attention and be polite,” he tells me in that same stern teacher tone.
I feebly try again. “But they weren’t crushing me.” They are polite! They are amazing!
It’s awkward. He’s trying to get a group of little kids safely off the train, but this is also the only moment to tell him he misread the situation. Save the children!
As the whole bustling group reassembles on the platform, I’m left not knowing if I made my point. Do I insist? Does it matter?
I climb the stairs back out into the cold, Paris rain, deriding myself. Down. Why couldn’t I say anything better? Why can I still not speak French well? Is it ok to contradict what a child’s caretaker is saying? How could I not?
I open my umbrella and wrap my coat tighter around me, trying to stay warm. I offer a silent wish that the incident will quickly be forgotten, that no mamans of those sweet kids will be told. And I also wish to be what I know I’m capable of, but only sometimes am: bold.