Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Miracle sur la Rue de Vaugirard


Thursday, July 19, 2012 6:00 p.m. Best Western Trianon Rive Gauche, 1 Biz Rue de Vaugirard, Paris

The Best Western Trianon Rive Gauche has a larger lobby than many European hotels, but by American standards, it is Lilliputian. My husband and I stepped up a few stairs at the end of the area into a small room tucked away for special meetings. There was standing room only for the 69 students, faculty, and guests who had all arrived separately that day for the Spalding Master of Fine Arts brief residency in Paris. Most who gathered to meet and greet and go to dinner together at Le Train Bleu were fuzzy with jet lag from various international flights that had arrived earlier at DeGaulle.  Those had a reason to be less than cautious with their belongings; I had no such excuse. My family (husband, daughter, and grandson) and I had been frolicking in Paris for the previous eight days. My husband and daughter would leave Paris the next morning and I would stay on for Spalding’s Creative Nonfiction workshop for the next ten days. My grandson, Nicholas, would stay, too, to make a ten-day round of his favorite boutiques to include Diesel, Le Coq Sportif, and Colette as well as every art museum he could squeeze in. 

Spalding tour leader Katy Yocom welcomed everyone and made some announcements including the logistics of going to dinner that night at Le Train Bleu. I wondered if our tour guides Alexandra and Guilliame knew what the heck they were up against in trying to herd 69 folks through two metro stations, lines 4 and 14. As we exited the small room, I stopped at a round table, took my passport wallet from my decorative black cloth purse over my shoulder and chest, and carefully inserted my metro ticket and my museum passes into one of the credit card slots. I then put the wallet back inside the purse and got pushed along with our enthusiastic crowd. I was getting claustrophobic already and we weren’t even outside yet.

My effervescence and joy of meeting new writers that night, of saying hello to a few alumni I knew, of getting all the instructions for using the metro tickets, of classes that would begin the next day, followed by walking at the pace of the tour guides to keep up left me breathless, but smiling. This was a fast pace for someone who’d had a little over a year recovering from a shattered kneecap and who had turned 70 just three days earlier. Before I would put my head on the pillow very late that night, claustrophobia would be my last worry.

Nicholas and Michelle at the Polidor
Our hotel was in a great location on the left bank near the Odéon Theater, the Pantheon, and Luxembourg Gardens—the oldest part of Paris: just a few blocks away was the Polidor, a bistro frequented by Ernest Hemingway and those of his ilk. Our two cumbersome groups walked first to the Odéon Station to board what we termed the red line, #4.

The Polidor was used in filming “Midnight in Paris.” Pictures in the window were a real clue about tourists, but Nicholas and I tried it later anyway. We could walk from our hotel and that night we were joined by Michelle. A very dramatic and fun playwright, Michelle introduced herself as a New Yorker (or did I imagine that?) although she was living in Kansas. Screenwriter and faculty member, Sam Zalutsky, with his perfectly groomed and upturned mustache joined us a little later. I felt as though we might have been in a play or a movie. Although distinction among the bistro, the cafe, and the brasserie still eludes me, my beef bourguignon was delish, and could have fed at least three.

Boarding the train at Odéon went without incident since the train was not packed. As the train jolted forward, I staggered toward an available seat near Katy who was standing. She mimed for me to keep my little bag in sight. It had drifted to my left side in getting seated. Someone was seated to my left, but in the excitement, I couldn’t tell you whether it was a male or female. I clutched my bag to my belly with both hands. We had to change trains at Chatelet onto line 14 to reach our much-applauded destination at Le Gare Lyon. As the group jumped on, shoved and pushed into the mass already on board, I was only able to hold onto a pole nearest the door. Safe Spalding bodies pressed closely on all sides.

Our meal at Le Train Bleu required the wine glasses and silver flatware necessary to accompany the serving of this feast. There were at least four glasses at each place setting, two forks to the left, a dinner knife and a fish knife to the right, and a knife, fork, and spoon in the dessert slot. One of our written guides to Paris suggests that the best price to quality ratio in gourmet restaurants is the one with the most stars and the fewest forks. Another tip is that if there is an English translation on the menu, it’s probably too touristy. Truly, Le Train Bleu is probably best classified with the Polidor and Procope (where I had my 70th birthday meal) as simply historic although it seemed very gourmet to me.

When I saw the Entre (what we’d term “starter”) Tartare de sauman au citron vert lait de coco, salmon tartar with lemon coco milk—was that coconut? More precisely it said raw salmon. As it was. Shaped ever so beautifully by perhaps a pan the size of a normal muffin tin and topped with salade mesclun a l’huile d’olive. I ate the salad greens with olive oil but was brave enough to take only two bites of the raw salmon. And so it went throughout the extended meal. (No one rushes through a meal in Paris. No one.)  Then came the magret de canard rôti miel et gingembre. Roasted duck. Yuk. Even with honey and ginger. Next course: Brie de Meaux. I hate cheese from anywhere. Ah, dessert arrives: Vacherin Glace “Train Bleu.” This iced meringue filled with sorbets and whipped cream were almost as amazing as the art gracing the ceiling the train station.

I asked for les toilettes and was sent on a long walk through what appeared to be a luxurious dining car with small tables on either side. When I returned and picked up my small black bag for lipstick from the chair where I’d left it, it felt too light. All smiles ceased. My passport wallet was missing.

Tommy had not left the table nor had Chere, my seatmate to the left. Tommy and I searched around our chairs on the floor. Fellow Spalding diners joined in the speculation and search. It was time to leave, and still no wallet. And the fear of what besides my passport was in that wallet began to grow: my driver’s license, two credit cards—one to use, one as backup—an ATM card, my medical cards, some Euros, about seventy dollars, and $1,000.00 in American Express traveler’s checks. We were relieved to share Chere’s taxi rather than taking the metro back to the hotel.

What I felt is hard to describe. First, stupid. Tommy repeatedly warns me to wear the money belt with my passport around my neck or at my waist. And bumfuzzled. When had I last had the wallet out? I never felt anyone touch my bag, and Tommy and Chere were right there while it was on my chair at the table. How was it possible for a pickpocket to steal it? If someone on the train had taken it, I would have noticed how light it was before. 

Back at the hotel I asked the receptionist whether anyone had found my wallet there. Non. I told him the story and asked him to call the metro stations to see if it had been turned in. Oui, Madame. I listened as he chattered away in French. Alexandra and Guilliame both thought this phone call was a waste of time. “Nobody has ever had a lost wallet found and returned,” one said with the other one agreeing. They tried to assure me: “It’s a good thing it happened at the first of your stay and not at the end.” “It happens all the time.” “It has happened to both of us.”  

I heard nothing reassuring. Teresa and Nicholas wanted to go back to the metro stations but our tour guides convinced them it would do no good. Teresa started praying to St. Anthony, the saint of lost items. Tommy was angry at me. I was angrier at myself than he was. All four of us were up several hours canceling credit cards and travelers checks. And, by the way, don’t expect American Express to come running to your aid via bicycle or any other mode of transportation the way their ads depict it.  

The next morning Tommy and Teresa had to be downstairs for their taxi to the airport at seven. I would have to go to the police station, as our guides had said we would have to do (along with a roomful of other tourists who’d been pickpocketed, they said) which might take most of the day and then we’d have to go to the American Embassy on Monday and request a new passport. I did have copies of all our passports, which, they said, would make it easier. And they would go with me. That was somewhat assuring.
Next morning after only about two hours of sleep, Tommy and Teresa crammed their luggage into the tiny elevator to go down for the airport taxi. Nicholas and I slowly walked down the two flights of stairs behind them. As soon as I stepped into the lobby, the receptionist from the previous night called out, “Madame, is this yours?” He held out my burgundy wallet with the word Passport embossed on the leather. Perhaps I was still asleep. Perhaps I was dreaming. He was holding my wallet. No sooner than my heart rate pumped up to a dangerous level, than despair set in. It’s probably empty. I rush to the desk. I open the wallet. My passport. All pages intact. My credit cards and ATM are out of their usual slots and simply stuck back in. The driver’s license is there. The health cards. I was laughing and crying. The receptionist said he’d had a call at 5:00 a.m. from the metro station. The cleaning crew had found it. Someone brought it to the hotel.

“It’s a miracle of St. Anthony,” said Teresa. And I agreed, even though I’m not Catholic.

And then I opened the money enclosure. No Euros. No dollars. No matter. But, hark, the wad of traveler’s checks is intact. Apparently these are worthless, even to a thief. Or so I thought. When I finally counted them to return to my bank back home, one of ten was missing. One from the middle of the stack—another puzzle that has yet to be solved. 

All four of the Thompson family were crying and laughing as Tommy and Teresa left in the taxi. Nicholas hugged me and said, “Don’t worry, Gran. Your ‘little boss’ is here with you.” That epithet was given to him when he was ten. The four of us were traveling in Italy where Tommy was “Boss.” The physical resemblance between the two was striking. A friendly Italian waiter tweeked Nicholas’s cheek and called him, “Little Boss.”

As soon as Alexandra heard about the recovered wallet, she shook her head and repeated what she’d affirmed the night before, “I’ve never heard of this happening.” I think she was ready to believe in St. Anthony, too.

I repeated the story all day to anyone who would listen, the story of my miracle on rue de Vaugirard. Like the Ancient Mariner, I’m still telling it.