Four weeks ago, as I was walking towards the Tuileries Garden, I fell in step and into conversation with a retired French schoolteacher. It actually started with him asking me if I was Japanese and when I said I was from the Philippines, he exclaimed that he had been.
Christian — that was his name — had traveled quite a lot in his youth. In fact, he said, that was why he chose teaching as a profession: the long vacations meant he could travel to more countries, for a greater period of time. In the Philippines, he told me, he was able to visit Manila and Baguio, and Boracay long before the hordes “discovered” it. I asked him what his favorite country or city was; he answered it was impossible to say. “It’s not this place or that place that I love,” he said. “It’s the whole thing. Traveling.”
Our conversation was in English, of course, as despite my best intentions, my French still hadn’t progressed beyond courtesies and a prepared apology for not being able to speak the language. Christian, on the other hand, had been an English teacher. I told him I regretted not being conversant in French, to which he replied, “Oh, Gaya, it doesn’t matter. Don’t waste your time. You know English, you can explore the world. You don’t have enough time to learn the language of every country you visit.” (A surprising sentiment, that was, given, erm, certain French reputations, but one I’d actually heard before, from two French men in Marseille…who both knew Tagalog. Expect the unexpected, indeed, when you travel the world.)
Christian had kept records of his own travels. By the time he retired, he had filled dozens of notebooks with thoughts about the world he’d seen with his own eyes. Unfortunately, a shipping accident caused many of the notebooks to be lost or damaged; only a few now remained. I could tell this saddened him but not overly so. He still had his memories, after all, and that was more important.
Nowadays, Christian lives in the suburbs of Paris with a friend — a frenemy, he said in a tone both tart and fond — whom he met on a stint teaching English abroad. His wife is gone; his daughter has her own family. He travels much less frequently now but he does, at least twice a week, make the journey from his home to central Paris, armed with hard staling baguettes, to feed the birds and ducks at the basins of the Tuileries. Afterwards, he drops by the library and reads the papers. He takes notes to help him remember what he’s learned, constantly challenging his mind to keep dementia at bay.
I wondered, at some point, if he was lonely — if he found his life now a far cry from the wandering days of his past — but if he was, he seemed to have made his peace with it.
I wondered too, at some point, if I would end up like him, and decided it wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.
“If I lived around here,” I told him as he handed me pieces of bread to toss to his eager beneficiaries, “I’d come every day and feed the birds too.”
Afterwards, he asked me if I had any plans for lunch because he wanted to treat me to McDonald’s. I was then quite hungry and, spotting a cafe among the bare trees of the Tuileries, I proposed I buy him lunch there instead. He said, dismissively, they probably only had French food. I murmured it might be nice to eat French food in France but he seemed (or pretended?) not to have heard.
Okay then: McDonald’s.
Over lunch, he said that in many of the places he’d visited, there were no McDonald’s branches because the people there couldn’t afford it. I told him that it used to be — and probably still is, for many — a status symbol in the Philippines to be able to eat at McDonald’s. However, I added, we had a homegrown fast food chain that we loved even more, so much so that there were branches of it in countries that had a significant Filipino population.
The thought delighted him. “What’s it called?” He asked and proceeded to write down “Jollibee” in one of the folded sheets of paper he was carrying. “I’ll look it up,” he said with satisfaction.
We went our separate ways near Notre Dame — me to revisit the park behind the church to paint a happier layer over an old grief, Christian to the library to resume a well-worn path. Before we parted, he told me it had been an absolute joy to spend the past few hours with me. In all sincerity though — inspired beyond words by his life, his outlook, his generosity and quiet dignity — I assured him the pleasure was mine.