As wrong as it seems, the mundane has a way of intruding on the most extraordinary of experiences, even a romantic vacation in Paris. But because it was a vacation in Paris, even the mundane brought romance with it.
Clothes get dirty, even in Paris, and she’d put it off long enough. She decided that this morning was the time. Laundry bag in one hand and phrase book in the other, she rode the slow, gilded cage of the elevator down to the lobby of the tiny hotel in the Marais. The lobby looked like something out of a 60s remantic comedy starring Cary Grant. The velvet couches were just a touch shabby, the Aubusson carpet a bit thread worn. At one end, a dapper-looking man worked behind the desk, which was made of a beautiful dark wood burnished by a lifetime of polish and use. Here and there, a nicely dressed Frenchman sat with a café au lait, reading his Le Monde. It was all so very French and so very elegant, especially when compared to the plastic Holiday Inn lobby back home in Des Moines. She couldn’t help but feel just a little foolish as she headed to the desk clutching her bag of dirty clothes.
“S'il vous plait, où est la laverie automatique la plus proche?” She asked the elderly desk clerk, in what she was sure was badly fractured French. It seemed like a long time since she’d learned her high school French. “Please, where is the nearest laundromat?”
Many people believe that Parisians, indeed all of the French, don’t like Americans, and can be expected to be rude to them. She had been delighted to discover that what the Parisians don’t like are rude Americans who behave as if the French are dumb if they don’t understand English. She’d come across the type since she’d arrived. When someone didn’t understand them, they’d repeat the same English words, only louder, as if that would help. And hidden just beneath their words, she could hear the tone that said, you stupid idiot! As she’d anticipated, a little courtesy went a long way. She’d also realized that no matter how tortured her French, just the fact that she tried, frequently grimacing at herself as she did, brought out the charm she’d always believed the French had.
Like every Parisian she had met on the trip, the desk clerk, Monsieur Fournier, was very helpful. He drew a little map to a laundromat on Rue Saint Antoine, was just a short walk away. Gratefully, she smiled at him and said, “Merci bien,” and then headed out to meet the young Parisian morning. It was so lovely. At this hour, the city seemed to be buffing itself up to get ready for the new day. Garbage trucks had passed by at the crack of early, gathering up the detritus of the day, and night, before. She’d heard them as she dressed, and from the sound, she’d pictured their loads to be filled with empty wine bottles. Now, as she walked, she saw shopkeepers hosing down the sidewalks in front of their businesses. Everything was glistening with a golden glow in the sunshine, awaiting the first customers. Most of them called out “Bonjour!” to her as she passed. It was all so romantic! She half expected to see Cary Grant approaching her on the sidewalk as she walked.
She rounded the corner onto Rue Saint Antoine and saw the laundromat across the street just ahead. Even the name was a little romantic. Across the top of the sparkling plate glass window, the word “Lavomatique” had been stenciled, along with a sketch of a Renoir-like 19th century laundress. But two doors before she reached the laundromat, a small shop called Le Petit Magasin caught her attention. She knew from that long-ago French class that a magasin was a store. The beautifully arranged window display under the forest-green-and-gold striped awning seemed to say, “Bienvenue! Come in – we have what you want!” But what drew her through the door and into the softly lit interior was the incredible aroma wafting out each time the door tinkled open. She realized she hadn’t eaten breakfast, and the smell of freshly baked croissants was impossible to resist. She went in and bought two of the flaky treats. She’d eat one while her clothes were washing, and have the other later if she got hungry. As she was paying for her purchase, she grabbed an international Herald Tribune to read while she ate.
Leaving the cozy shop, she continued on to the laundromat. She had no idea what to expect. Her only experience with laundromats had been in college, where the place was one of her least favorite memories of being at school. It was hot, steamy, dirty, and inevitably had several machines that didn’t work. You didn’t dare leave while your clothes were washing, because if they finished while you were gone, you were apt to return to find them piled on top of the machine (along with all the dust there) and someone else’s clothes whirling away in the washer. So you had to wait, and take a seat in one of the three or four hard plastic chairs provided, if you were lucky enough to find an empty one. Yuck. It was no wonder so many college students take their laundry home to Mom and Dad’s to wash!
She was pleasantly surprised when she entered the Lavomatique. It was bright and airy, and clean as a whistle. All the machines seemed to be in good working order, and there were several comfortable looking chairs with a table of magazines nearby. And lest she be concerned about figuring out how to use the machines, she could lay those worries to rest. Posted on the wall were large, multi-lingual signs, poster-sized step-by-step instructions with illustrations. Trés facile, as they said here.
She found an empty washer, loaded her clothes into the machine, and closed the door. The next step on the instructions said to add the detergent, so she went in search of a machine that might dispense some. She found one, with a very different design than any she had ever seen in the States. There was a chute that apparently dispensed the right amount of soap, and a cup next to it to hold under the chute to catch the soap. Well, that seemed simple enough. Hmmm… She couldn’t figure out how to start the whole process, though. The soap machine seemed to have no switches or buttons, no slot to put the money in, nothing to start it doing its thing. And, surprisingly, there was no sign on it telling her what to do.
She stood scratching her head for a moment, trying to figure it out. She was sure there was nothing in her phrase book for this situation, but she was going to have to ask someone for help as best she could. She spotted a man about three feet away, a rather good looking guy, in fact. Well, if you are going to embarrass yourself with your terrible French, she told herself, you might as well do it where the scenery is nice. As she turned to him, she saw that he was servicing what looked to be a change machine. Oh, good, she thought. He must work here, and I’ll need change for the washer anyway.
“Pardonnez moi, monsieur,” she began, and then asked, with a great deal of miming, how to get the soap out of the dispenser and into the cup. He looked up from his work (wow, those eyes!) and told her how to do it. He also used quite a few hand gestures, thank goodness, because she only understood a few of the words he used.
What she did understand him to say, however, was totally confusing. It seemed to her that he was telling her to put her money in the change machine, and then hurry over to the dispenser with the cup to catch the soap as it came down the chute. Huh? She was so surprised, she blurted out, “You mean, I put the money in this machine, and the soap comes out of that machine???”
Smiling broadly, eyes twinkling, and charm spilling all over the place, he replied in English with a wonderful Maurice Chevalier accent, “Oui. It’s magic!” And they both burst out laughing.
He helped her get her laundry going, and then took out a large thermos and offered her a cup of café au lait. She eagerly accepted, but only on the condition that he join her. After all, she had some delicious croissants to bring to the table.
They sat and enjoyed the impromptu feast. The Herald Tribune would have to wait. It was much more interesting to talk to this charming Frenchman. He told her that his father owned the laundromat. After finishing school, he had gone to New York to try to realize his dream of performing on Broadway. After ten years of endless auditions, a few walk-on roles, and way too many hours waiting tables in a Greenwich Village bistro, he’d returned to help his father, who wasn’t well, run the laundromat. She told him of her life back in Des Moines, and how much this trip to Paris meant to her. Talking to him was so easy; it was as if they’d known each other forever. They chatted until her laundry had finished washing and drying, and as she reluctantly gathered everything up to head back to the hotel, he asked her to have dinner with him that evening!
Coming to Paris had been her dream. She was enchanted by all the romantic movies she’d seen in which Paris was not only the movie’s locale, but played one of its starring roles. She had been so hungry to experience all that the City of Lights had to offer that she’d come as soon as she could save enough money for the trip. And she’d not been disappointed. She found the city to be a feast for all the senses, a buffet of endless delights.
Little did she realize that she’d find dessert in a French laundry.