The airport was by no means quiet that morning, but the autoroute had a Sunday vibe on it. I had never before had a female taxi driver in Paris, and had never before come into the city by way of the Porte de la Chapelle. I know well the route that comes in through Bercy, with the Seine emerging almost out of nowhere on your left, and the stately tableau that presents itself as you cross the Pont d'Austerlitz -- 180° or so taking in Notre Dame, the gates of the Jardin des Plantes, the Gare d'Austerlitz.
But even so, I wasn't paying good attention, as I had spent the bulk of the ride entering into the directory of my new phone the numbers of my Paris peoples. Only once were we safely intra-muros, did I finally pop my head up.
It took me a minute to get my bearings. Of course, we were unmistakeably in Paris. The regularity of the buildings; the telltale monochrome palette, dashed with bits of red (that is, signs reading "Tabac;" "SFR;" "Paris Match"); the sooty sidewalk dotted with sherbet-green trash receptables; the square-shouldered bus lumbering a few car-lengths ahead. I strained to see a street-name but couldn't get a firm grip on one. There was a metro station, a few blocks later a Monoprix on the left. Wait: what street is that on the right, the one that looks like an overpass? It was as if I had caught a tiny whiff of something on a breeze. I sat forward in my seat, alert, scanning for another landmark. There should be a church, I thought, also on the right.
Indeed. There was that church. I had walked right past it, hardly six months prior. And just like that, the picture came into focus.
I had been on a random outing on a Sunday afternoon, hoping to learn something about la Goutte d'Or, a neighborhood that could be no further -- figuratively nor literally -- from Montparnasse. I remembered a small crowd of people, more or less my age, gathered on the sidewalk, chatting and laughing and smoking. From a certain distance, neither their light summer clothes, nor their posture, nor anything, really, betrayed their identities. We could have been in any one of a dozen analogous American neighborhoods -- the Mission District, the Lower East Side, Echo Park.
A petite, smiling dark-haired woman served coffee from a carafe. It was only up close that the scene became distinctly French: the language, the gestures, the pursed lips and little moues necessitated by complicated vowels; the plastic cups from which the coffee was sipped (which bear a startling and clinical resemblance to something one would use to rinse well at the dentist). As I passed, the woman raised the carafe and offered me a coffee; out of reflexive shyness I said no, thank you.
And so it was that my personal GPS -- the world's most wonderful piece of software, human memory, every bit of information loaded by hand, in real-time, infinitely cross-referenced -- kicked in. I knew instinctively that Madame and I were rolling south in her taxi, down rue Marx Dormoy about to cross over into the 10th arrondissement, and soon thereafter past the Gare du Nord.
An MRI of my head might have revealed something like this:
Coordinates established, I relaxed, sat back in my seat, and got on with my first day back in Paris.