The white double-decker bateau mouche was filling up, its engine chugging out exhaust over Port de la Conférence.
Ten years ago, my then fiancée Marie assured me that the cruise made an ideal primer for her hometown. The view was as amazing as advertised.
But soon Paris devolved into another city of consulting gigs and meeting rooms. I came over more often after the divorce, using my vacation time and frequent flier miles to see our kids, but every visit inured me more to the city. It was human nature: spend enough time around the extraordinary and it became the everyday.
Over ten years I lost Paris. But today I had all to myself, and I, Will Nance, wanted it back.
The ticket booth guy had a ruddy face with a potato nose and gray-brown hair. I tried not to think about what might be hiding in his bushy mustache. "You take the boat, Monsieur?"
I nodded and laid out seven euro for the top deck.
He crimped his eyes. "Monsieur goes alone?"
"Afraid so," I said, buttoning up my sport coat. It was a bright but cool March afternoon; up top, the wind channeling down the Seine would bite.
The ticket booth guy stroked the tips of his mustache. "Then I suggest for Monsieur Club Première Vue. For only twenty-five euro you receive special private seating below deck. Guaranteed excellent view of Paris."
"Twenty-five? For a bateau ride?"
"For Monsieur, we say twenty euro. This is most exclusive seating. The chairs are cordovan leather, fully adjustable and heated should Monsieur require. What is thirteen euro more to a man of taste and means?"
I had that shot at snob appeal coming, what with me showing up for the bateau mouche in sport coat and slacks. My pride had well-defined boundaries: act like a tourist, yes; dress like one, no.
"I'll rough it out in the sunshine. I want to take some photos."
He paused to let a guide lead a tour bus group up the gangplank. When we were alone, he beckoned me closer. "Up on deck you are penned in like animals. The seating is plastic. We turn a hose on it if it has not rained for some days. This is not for Monsieur. With our Première Vue, you go up on deck, snap your photos, then–et voilà!–return below where it is warm and clean. And the chef, he studies years to create dining experiences. On tourist deck, they eat cattle food." He pretended to spit.
A palpable hit. My stomach, still sorting out European time, fed my brain constant hunger signals.
He pushed my seven-euro back at me. "I forget to mention, the package comes with one complimentary cocktail. Purchase now and I give you voucher for unlimited cocktails. There are good people in Club Première Vue, Monsieur. Beautiful people." He tacked on a smile with a twist. "Perhaps you make a new friend."
As a rule, I never turn down a free drink. Moreover, it was too late to see the best of Paris from up top. The tour group had staked out the deck rails, corralling new arrivals into where every photo would feature a lower stratum of pointing fingers and floppy hats.
I reached for my wallet. "And the view is good?"
The ticket booth guy shrugged as if insulted. "For Monsieur, I book a window seat."
Today the Seine roiled mossy-green from run-off. Up on top, the tourists fought the wind for their floppy hats, but down in Club Première Vue, I eased into a Martini rouge and a rotating bucket seat with a portside window out on Paris. Ambient house music pulsed while Italian men with silk scarves chatted up knockouts in black and animal print. I sat back a happy man as the boat pulled away from the quay.
Ahead, my first Paris landmark bloomed over the stone banks: the Beaux-Arts roof of the Grand Palais. A woman with a voice to bake a soufflé came over the speakers to explain the sights and their history. She was covering the architectural exuberance of Pont Alexandre III, all those winged horses and lions and nymphs, when a shadow passed across my window.
It was the ticket booth guy. He rested his hand on my shoulder and gestured to the man standing beside him, a dour fortysomething in kitchen whites. "Monsieur, it gives me much honor to introduce Charles LeRoux, our esteemed chef de cuisine. I have instructed Charles to prepare for Monsieur his finest sandwich."
"Foie gras," Charles declared. "Avec frisee et chevre."
"He pan sears the foie gras," the ticket booth guy said. "And to it he adds the raspberry jam. His work redefines l'art du sandwich."
Charles clicked his heels and snapped around for his galley.
I shook my head in happy disbelief. A bad sandwich in Paris ran as much as my upgrade, and apparently I scored a great one. I spun back to the window, where the treetops of the Tuileries captured the eternal promise of Paris as fresh green buds.
"You enjoy the premier package, Monsieur?"
I hadn't realized the ticket booth guy was still there, but there he was, grinning at me. He noticed the work I had put into my drink and clapped twice.
"It is a good package for the money," he said, settling into the neighboring bucket seat. He leaned into me to let vermouth number two arrive. He smelled like cigarettes and old cheese. "But not our best. For men such as Monsieur, we have further offerings…"
Maybe I was feeling the effects of the drink or his taking care of me with that sandwich, but, whatever the reason, I motioned for him to continue.
"Première Vue is excellent, of course, but I beg Monsieur to consider our Casino Dauphine. For twenty euro more, you receive all-day access to our private gaming facilities."
These tour boats were monsters on the narrow Seine, but no one mistook them for cruise ships. "Where did you find room for a casino?"
"Think, Monsieur, fifteen euro for all-day privileges to the finest gaming club in Paris. Baccarat, roulette, poker, sports book. None of those slot machines the peasants feed their coins. None of their craps. Maybe someday we put craps up on top deck. Never in Casino Dauphine."
In my experience, days spent in casinos meant leaving them a lot poorer. Today was my day to reclaim Paris, and from my window drifted the Pont des Arts and the golden arms of the Louvre.
"The casino, Monsieur?"
"I don't think so. But it does sound nice."
"Nice? The Dauphine makes Monte Carlo look like a tabac bar. Monsieur, do you see that woman over there?"
I followed his gaze starboard to a raven-haired Provençal stunner, daydreaming alone out on the passing Institut de France. "She's gorgeous."
"She is a crone," he said. "A crone next to the women at the Dauphine."
I sighed. "I didn't come here for women, thanks."
"Just Paris." I said it slow, hoping he'd take the hint.
He didn't. "Even so, Monsieur will win much by evening. Perhaps later, Monsieur treats a new companion to a night of romance. Just a quick look, yes? What is the harm?"
I consider myself patient, but by this point I deserved some peace to enjoy what I had come–and paid–to see. My city was out there, shining in the sun, and instead of reclaiming it, I had to listen to this salesman. "I'm good up here. Really."
"A few minutes in Casino Dauphine and Monsieur will change his mind. In Dauphine at this very moment are Hollywood celebrities. I withhold their names for reasons Monsieur must understand. There are members of the Barcelona football club and our Minister of State with two Saudi princes. And Dauphine offers Paris from our famed translucent hull. It is like gaming right atop the Seine. Of course, Monsieur still has his seat here should he choose, but, in my many years, no one has ever tired of Casino Dauphine. It is the best of everything, Monsieur's all day for only ten euro more."
The river ran fast today, like in the old novels where the Seine swept people away. I was ready to test that out with the ticket booth guy, but fortunately for both of us Charles appeared carrying a silver tray. He removed the domed lid with a dramatic flourish, revealing my sandwich along with olives, a salad, and an arrangement of violets.
"I'll just have my lunch," I said, spreading out my napkin. "I'm set for the rest of the cruise. Thanks for everything."
I turned away, assuming food and my brush-off earned me a respite. I was wrong. Reflected in the plexiglass, the ticket booth guy watched me pick at my salad and take in Parc du Vert-Galant on the prow edge of Île de la Cité. The bateau hugged La Rive Gauche and plowed the choppy river toward Pont Neuf, the sultry narrator discussing the bridge's bastions and old Medieval Paris, but all I could focus on was the ticket booth guy wheezing through his nose. In self-defense, I pretended fascination at Notre Dame's buttressed spine until he stood, straightened his coat, and left.
Lunch – Charles was indeed a sandwich genius – and vermouth restored my mood by Île Saint-Louis. I switched to red wine and sent one over to the daydreaming woman. Me, Paris, a free drink coupon – why not? She raised her glass to me with an enigmatic smile, a moment made storybook by Paris behind her in the boat's slow turn. We were on the inbound leg, tracking La Rive Droite, with the first views of the faraway Eiffel Tower.
Not that I paid much attention. I was too busy wondering about my mystery woman at her window. I invented names for her: Anastasia, Geneviève, Sophie. She would be something like an ecotourism writer, and, with her build, a former athlete, perhaps a track and field or archery champion. Possibly French intelligence.
The ticket booth guy blocked my view of the Belle Époque cafes off Quai de Conti, tearing me from my reverie to hand me a badge on a red lanyard. "For Monsieur, I arrange one hour free pass for the Dauphine."
"Unbelievable," I said. "You just can't leave me alone, can you? How much do they cut you in on these shakedowns? It has to be good. Maybe I'm in the wrong line of work."
The ticket booth guy snuffled air through his mustache. Damned if he didn't look wounded. "But I want only our best for Monsieur. You do not like the Dauphine, there is no problem. You come back here, I bring complimentary dessert as our apology."
"No more. All I want is Paris. Can you do that for me?"
His face undulated to match the Seine. "It is sad that you travel alone, Monsieur. So sad."
It was sad, and I needed to shake off this guy if I wanted a shot at fixing it. One of the scarfed Italians had started in on my mystery woman. She stole a look at me, with a half-turn away. I stood to make my move while I still had the Eiffel Tower turn and plenty of La Rive Gauche material.
The ticket booth guy grabbed my arm. "I am sad too, Monsieur. I sit in my booth and sell tickets for everyone else to laugh and drink. Everyone sees Paris so beautiful and alive. Never me. I breathe boat fumes and curse this life. But today I see Monsieur alone, like me. I say to myself, such a man should never be alone."
"Please. Stop talking."
He shook his head in sorrow. "Monsieur does not see. I am in love with you."
"Are you even gay?"
"I am alone, Monsieur. Can you not see how I treat you well with the best seating and unlimited cocktails? With the gourmet sandwich? Nothing compared to what I will do if you but say you can love me too. Surely Monsieur does not want to be alone."
I had plenty of gay friends, a lesbian cousin, and I participated in a gay wedding, no hang-up whatsoever. But I was decidedly straight. Yet alone. Looking deep into the ticket booth guy's fervent eyes, even with his prodigious nose and the cigarettes on his breath, no small part of me thought: What the hell?
Which was when he blew the sale. He kissed me full-on in the shadow of Musée d'Orsay while electronica music burbled and Italian guys and mystery women looked on. There wasn't enough vermouth in Paris to wash that moment away.
Camille and I laugh about how we met, though I never mention her being called a crone. I had her as a former athlete right: cross-country skiing, Nagano 1998 and Salt Lake City 2002. Her job? Photojournalist. French intelligence? She won't either confirm or deny.
I moved to Paris after we got engaged. The bateau became our thing, but I never caught so much as a glimpse of the ticket booth guy again. Last I saw of him, he pushed aside the tourists up top to throw himself into the Seine. A couple of gendarmes helped him out of the water.
All I told my ex-wife Marie was that I finally took another bateau ride. She laughed and rolled her eyes. "God," she said. "Did they give you the upsell?"