It’s Saturday, enfin, the end of a bad week. I have a mild but well-deserved white wine hangover. Paris snoozes in the throes of pre-August abandon.
I don’t have a plan, as such, but I have a book and a picnic rug and the first hint of hunger rumbling in my belly.
I buy some tomatoes, an unapologetically large peach. Some fresh bread, cheese, a bottle of lemonade.
I wander into the covered market, blinking in the low light. I’ll buy some jambon serrano, I think.
‘Bonjour Madame,’ I begin, ‘just two slices of ham, please.’ I refrain from my usual, defensive, it’s-just-for-me speech.
She slices the ham, holding the first one up to the light, so I can approve the thickness.
‘You have a lovely accent, where are you from?’
I smile, she isn’t to know that this is a conversation I both love and despise; and conduct every other day. ‘Sydney,’ I explain, ‘But I’ve been in Paris for five years now.’
‘Well you can’t tell!’ A man wheeling vegetables to his neighbouring stand chimes in.
I wait, unclear if he’s referring to my pale skin, poor accent, or something else entirely.
‘I mean, because you’re still so charming! Parisians aren’t charming.’
I smile politely as my market stall lady dismisses him with a wave of her hand.
‘I was supposed to go to Australia, you know,’ she says, holding the package of ham close to her chest. ‘He was Italian, I met him on vacation. 15 years we wrote to each other. 15 years! Tu te rends compte?’
‘But you didn’t go?’ I ask.
‘No, the month the trip was planned I lost all of my family in an accident. Aeroplane. Horrible. All of them, all at once.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ I say, uselessly.
‘But he just thought I didn’t want to come.’ She shrugs. ‘He’s married now. Could have been me.’
She isn’t to know that this has been the theme of my week, being forced to imagine those sister lives, the ghost lives, the ones we came so very close to living but through choice or circumstance instead, saluted from the shore.*
‘You know what I like best about Australians?’ I blink, as the vegetable-seller’s voice brings us back to the present. ‘They’re just my size,’ he says, snaking an arm around my neck.
‘Eh, ben, when you’re a garden gnome, you’re a garden gnome, hein!’ she tells him, snorting as he saunters off, mock-offended.
I smile at my new friend as I hand over the money and she releases the ham from her possession, but not before grasping my hand, and making me promise to come back soon.
I will, I say. I will.
*To paraphrase the great Cheryl Strayed