When the clock struck twelve on New Year’s Eve I kissed:
a. An Italian woman
b. Five French men
c. My husband
d. My mother
e. All of the above
The answer is “e”, all of the above.
We went to Paris over Christmas, a long-planned trip to celebrate my son’s graduation from college and my mother’s 83 years. On the plane, I met two ladies from Baltimore who invited us to their rented apartment for New Year’s Eve. We didn’t exactly forget about them, but the ensuing week was filled with chasing down all the sites of Paris and, suddenly, it was time go home.
On New Year’s Eve, we dined in a tiny restaurant where we sat close enough to a family from Ohio to know that their son wasn’t a big fan of escargot and their daughter was angling for an unaffordable Parisian wedding gown. My family and I talked about all the nice things we’d seen, the lines we waited in. Ours had been a good trip but I wasn’t sure it was memorable.
Ambling back to the hotel, fully intending to pack and get a good night’s sleep, we advertently stumbled upon the Rue du Mond – the street where the Baltimore ladies were staying. To call it a street, though, was generous. This was an alley and it was shadowy, cold and foreboding. High rock walls lined each side, above us towered darkened apartments. Still, we ventured in, rang what we assumed was a bell in an ancient green gate. When no one came, high-tailed it out of there, convincing ourselves adventure was not on the agenda.
But it was.
A note was waiting at our hotel. Baltimore had tracked us down! We called the number they left and, a few minutes later, armed with a security code and a warning that we would have to hunt for lights in the old courtyard, we traipsed back to the alley. Behind the green gate were three flights of stairs that had been worn into waves of uneven stone over generations. They felt treacherous and we went slowly. Finally, we found ourselves in a 16th-century apartment in the company not only of the two women from Baltimore but their Italian friends.
My husband ducked under doorways meant for men who stood at least a foot shorter than he. One of the Italian ladies spoke German. She and my mother were off, chattering in a language I don’t understand. I exchanged stories with the ladies from the plane. We drank wine and champagne and, at ten minutes to midnight, in a flurry of winter coats, we dashed for the Pantheon where we would be able to see the lights on the Eiffel Tower as midnight struck.
We were too late. A great roar resounded throughout Paris as people greeted the New Year. One of the Italian ladies grabbed my husband for a kiss. The other was bussing my mother’s cheeks. We passed one another along – friends for that night – wishing each one well. Arm-in-arm we made it to the square just as a group of drunkenly joyous and extraordinarily handsome young men burst out of a bar. The kissing started all over again. My mother giggled and raised her cheeks, my husband slapped them on the back as if they were his sons. We babbled good wishes in poor English and even worse French.
And then it was done. The night was over. The champagne was gone. We were all headed home, but now it was with memories. They wouldn’t be of churches and museums, palaces and restaurants but of New Year’s Eve and the unexpected.
I spoke to two women on an airplane, called a number in a note, walked through a green gate in an ancient wall, drank champagne on a Paris street, returned an Italian woman’s kiss on the cheeks, held my husband’s hand while I watched the lights of the Eiffel Tower, saw my mother turn back into the girl she once was as a handsome young man took her in his arms and wished her a Happy New Year with a kiss.
In the dark Paris night, in the course of only a few hours, I was reminded that stories are memorable only when filled with the unexpected, with choices, with characters who are larger than life. Good stories do not set us aside as spectators but draw us into the action. A good author, weaves into their story all the elements of the moment: the feel of the air, the sounds of the night, the touch of another person. Those are the things that etch a story into memory, a heart, a mind.
I will think of Paris when I find myself at a loss for words. I will make my characters speak, allow them an adventure, let them open the green gate to see what lies behind it.