Liberté. Egalité. Fraternité.
It was July, it was hot, and I was slicked with sweat as I hustled up the escalator to the taxi rank at Charles de Gaulle airport.
“Taxi, Madame?” asked the guy with a clipboard managing the row of waiting cars. “Oui,” I said in my execrable French. “Je vais au Paris.”
“You will go with Mamma,” he said in English, at which the rest of the drivers took up the chant, “Mamma! Customer!”
Mamma turned out to be a statuesque African woman driving a black town car and wearing a knee-length gold lamé dress.
“Great outfit!” I blurted out as I scrambled into the back seat, following up with a halting translation, “Um, j’aime votre robe.”
I am not sure if Mamma really didn’t speak any English, most Parisian taxi drivers seem to, or if she just wanted to give my high school French a workout, but French we spoke on that 45 minute ride into the city. Pressed for time, I rose to new heights as I remembered the word for meeting, rendezvous, and even managed to communicate that we needed to stop by my hotel to drop off my luggage before going to my appointment with a guide at the Paris Sewer Museum.
She asked me what I was doing in Paris and I told her I was a journalist working on some travel stories. “You’re writing about the sewers?” she said, wrinkling her nose. “Yes. They’re very interesting, A triumph of — damn, what was the word for engineering? — of Paris work,” I finished lamely.
“Do you like being a journalist?” she asked.
“Yes, but I’m a freelancer and I don’t make much money,” I over shared. (The French for freelance, by the way is “free-lance.”)
“Culture is more important than money,” she replied firmly.
She told me she had been a radio reporter in her native Ivory Coast but now drove a taxi to support her family of six in Paris. From what I could gather she had come to Paris, like most immigrants, seeking a better life and for the most part had found it. Still, she had regrets. “Driving a taxi brings in money, but I would rather be working in the world of ideas,” she said.
We got to the hotel and she turned off the meter without saying a word and waited, no charge, for me to leap out and deposit my bag at the front desk.
We drove in silence the short distance to the sewer museum where I got out and paid, thanking her profusely with words and tip.
As she pulled away from the curb, Mamma rolled down her window to call out a benediction.
“La culture, Madame! Toujours la culture,” she cried.
Despite the heat, my stay in Paris was magical. I saw the sights, rode the metro, ate all the food and walked the boulevards. I caught sight of myself in windows grinning the grin of the infatuated and I cared not one bit. “Here you are in Paris you sad, middle-aged has-been,” I exulted silently, “This is so freaking cool.”
I thought about the last time I saw Paris as I read about the attacks this week. I watched the video of soccer fans singing La Marseillaise as they evacuated the stadium, and I cried. I saw the hashtag #porteouverte pop up on Twitter as Parisians opened their homes to stranded strangers, and I cried. I read that taxi drivers had stayed on the streets, offering free rides home, and I thought of Mamma.
Darkness gathers, but I believe in the City of Light.
Toujours la culture.