I decided to visit my grandmother's cousin in Paris on a whim. This, I reasoned, was better than planning a visit. First, because had I arranged a meeting, I would probably have gotten too nervous and backed out. Second, I would have brought a translator, making the whole meeting entirely too formal. But while preparing to go the Louvre that morning, something told me to grab Claudine's address out of my bag, so I did.
In between Italian, Spanish and French 16th-18th Century Paintings and Greek and Roman Antiquities, I decided to look up her address on the map of Paris I had in my bag. I discovered that her apartment was in the same arrondissement that I was staying in. Not only that, but I had walked by her apartment while exploring the area two days before. I decided it was too coincidental, too serendipitous to pass up. So I took two Metro lines to her apartment building.
I had no plan whatsoever when I got there. The apartments in Paris don't have numbers, and I had no idea which apartment was hers, much less how to even get into the building. I thought maybe I would stand outside the building and wait for someone to go in or out and I would ask them, "Connaissez-vous Claudine?" But then I didn't know what I would do with the answer I got, or even if I would understand the answer. I stood outside for a good two minutes, staring up at the balconies with their perfect potted pansies and feeling a little like my on-a-whim adventure may have been a fruitless idea.
I then noticed her last name on the callbox. Now, this is lucky. I have yet to see another apartment building with last names written on the callbox. The people inside must be important enough and receive visitors on a regular basis in order to warrant a callbox, as not to continually run up and down the stairs to open the door.
I wrote myself a little script of what I wanted to say, and stood in front of the callbox thinking, "Okay, should I press the button? Would I regret it if I didn't? Is this the right button? I shouldn't press the button. I don't know who is behind this button. I should press this button. No, I shouldn't-oh, I guess I pressed the button!"
Silence. And then, "Oui?"
"Je m'appelle Nichole? Poinski? Je suis la petite-fille de Micheline? Poinski?"
"Ah, oui! Nichole! Second floor!"
The woman I met at the top of the stairs looked stunningly like my grandmother. She welcomed me into her beautiful apartment, inviting me to sit on the couch. We spoke stilted Franglish, working together to convey what the other meant. She started telling me how she met me when I was six years old, and I started to cry. She looked worried, like she had offended me, but I said, "Non, je suis désolée, je suis..." But I couldn't find the word I was looking for in either English or French. It was a combination of fulfillment, missing my family, Stendahl syndrome, happiness, and possibly caffeine withdrawal. It was then the language barrier didn't matter anymore. She said, "Emotive?" I nodded. She handed me a tissue and smiled.
We talked about the family in the States. She showed me pictures of her time in Morocco. I spoke to her daughter on the phone. She gave me a tour of her apartment. We talked about her late husband the professor. I gazed longingly at the bookshelves. She showed me her map of Paris, pre-Revolution, that took up an entire wall.
When I took my leave, she said, "Thank you so much for visiting me. Je suis très contente." I said, "Non, merci beaucoup, je suis très contente". Several merci beaucoup's, au revoir's, and cheek-to-cheek kisses were exchanged.
When I left, I was reeling. Something had told me to look her up, and it was lucky I did, because she was leaving for Bretagne the next day.
Upon reflection, the whole exchange doesn't seem like that big of a deal, but I cannot properly describe what I was feeling before and after meeting Claudine. All my life, I have been told of my grandmother's life in Paris, my distant relatives in Paris, my father's adventures in that one club with the band in Paris. But to be in Paris, this pseudo-mythical city where all of this stuff happened before I was born but that defined who I am as a person, was wild. I don't mean to border on maudlin, but it was like a dream come true. I've been dreaming of Paris, creating it in my head for years, and to experience the city for itself, with Parisians and friends who knew the city, was amazing.