It’s cold and wet and evening and November and as I sit in the back of Shakespeare and Company in the warm tiny alcove of the poetry section, its thin wrought-iron gates swung open and seeming to invite just one person at a time into its little space, while a stranger above my head plays a tune on the upstairs piano that’s slow and pretty and thoughtful with lots of bubbly trills and surely something Baroque I figure, and the warmth of all the old wood and paper around makes the rain and cold seem forever away and I’ve again tripped backwards into momentary perfection and I play the game once more foolishly where I dream of holding onto it, though I have as much chance of that as I do of putting one of the bubbly trills from above into my pocket and taking it home with me, I finger the binding of the nearest small book which is a collection of Yeats and I pull it onto my lap and leaf through unfamiliar verses.
By now I’ve kept the alcove to myself for some time and others with body language signal their interest in it and my curiosity won’t subside so I climb the narrow worn stairs, the stairs that are the kind of secret that isn’t a secret to anyone anymore, and I move slowly without creaking the floor to the room with the piano and the player’s back is turned to me but I pretend anyway that I’m just looking for books. Two others had the same idea and they’re already sat one on either end of the piano and I already envy them for the time they’ve spent so far as I take my place on a makeshift bench made of a long wooden box with a worn mattress on top of it, still behind the pianist, and I type what I see and feel and as I rediscover this small room which is just as warm as all the others I’m filled up with piano sounds and the sight of the exposed wooden beams overhead that are dry and pale and warped and cracked and soaking up just as much of it all as any of us are.
I decide that I not only should have been coming to this room more often since arriving to Paris but that I should have been spending my entire life in it, if such a thought dare be thought aloud, and in the cloud of fugal harmonies and pale wood and the half-broken pointed archway cradling a stack of dusty books in the corner I’m already sad that it will have to end eventually. There’s a chess set scattered on the table in front of me and not all the pieces match and I still don’t know which composer I’m listening to and during the pauses between each piece I contemplate asking the pianist but I never do because I refuse to be the one who breaks the mood with something as frivolous as a human voice and it’s a marvel as I look around again at the city’s power to hold onto authenticity in spite of itself; here in the most touristy neighborhood in the best-known bookstore and just across the river from Notre Dame I’ve managed to find such a natural and unhindered tranquility in the middle of all of it and it’s just me and three voiceless strangers respecting silent pauses and oddly I’m as connected to them right now as I’ve maybe ever been to anybody. I’m expecting text messages and I see that my phone doesn’t get service in this room and I should probably go downstairs to let it catch up to rest of the outside world but there’s the cold and the wet and it’s November and there’s no piano outside and again I refuse to break the spell.
The pianist eventually stops for good and gathers all his sheet music and picks up his bag and I can’t stay quiet any longer and I need to know which composer that was so I say to him merci and c’était beau and super and I realize he’s even less comfortable with French than I am so I ask in English who wrote the music. Francois Couperin he shows me, and I thank him again and say goodbye and he moves to leave and I start to gather my things also to head downstairs but then he reappears and seems eager to share a bit more. He takes a seat beside me and says he’s from Greece but has always loved French Baroque music and he normally plays the harpsichord instead of the piano and has played it all his life. He is friendly and thin and tall with black greased hair and a rosy complexion and he explains how a harpsichord player is ’naked’ because you have no sustain pedals like a piano and he seems proud of this and is therefore, I figure, probably a fine player of the instrument. He elaborates on the workings of the harpsichord and I tell him I played guitar for many years and he says “so you must know what I’m talking about” and I’m not sure I do but it doesn’t really matter. He asks me for a cigarette but I don’t smoke and neither does the guy who just took his place at the piano to play an Impromptu by Schubert so the friendly thin Greek bids me a good evening and leaves and I soon make my way downstairs and goodbye to the poetry alcove and I’m outside again.
I walk north and hurry to finish my notes before I forget what happened and by now I’m walking across an unusually unlit Notre Dame because of an outdoor installation that will soon help celebrate her 850th birthday so it’s me and my walking and my typing and my notes and a dark cathedral against a dark sky and it’s still cold and wet and it’s still November, but as I see it I just dropped one of my little coins into the fountain of history and added another meaningful instant to a string of meaningful instants that none of the pedestrians care about as they now pass me on this damp bench on the Pont d’Arcole, and my fingers are too cold for much more typing so with my own tiny imperceptible crescendo I consider the moment to be officially passed and the illuminated statues of the great men of France cemented to the Hotel de Ville who look down on it all seem to concur.
I try not to conclude it all with a clichéd Paris you’ve done it again but I have to, because it has. And I walk away with my new story and my own little piece of Shakespeare and Company and I feel just a bit closer to its mythos and I feel allowed to now call it a spot of mine and I feel I deserve to come back as if the store and I are lifelong friends, which maybe I will and maybe we are.