Lost & Found

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Norton, Warm greetings from the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, Paris.... The woman at the hotel with whom you left M. S.’s wallet brought it to our shelter, and we returned it to him. On his behalf, thank you for your honesty and efforts to make a poor man happy.

-Giovanna Taoussi, Communications Officer.

A few years ago, my husband and I went to Paris to mark our tenth anniversary. We left our five-year-old son with a sitter and jetted off to the City of Light, I with the subconscious hope of somehow assessing our marriage, he with the expectation of actually celebrating it. And why not? Museums, fine food, fine wine. Paris.

What I saw as an arresting milestone in our logistically demanding, cross-Atlantic relationship, replete with obligations to ailing parents and other dependents, he saw as a city break. I saw an occasion to congratulate ourselves and to reflect; he saw a three-day respite from responsibility. Plus fine food, fine wine. Paris.

We’d barely had our first croissant before we were at odds. His conversation was rooted in the moment, mine in remembrance. By evening, we were hardly conversing. The next day we visited different wings of the Musée d’Orsay, only once crossing paths, at Cézanne’s still life, Apples and Oranges. Happy anniversary.

On the next night, after a particularly expensive, painfully silent meal, we were walking to a taxi stand when I spotted a brown leather wallet on the ground. It was a few yards from a homeless man sleeping in a bus shelter, but I didn’t connect the two until we were back at our B & B. Inside the wallet were tattered photos, some very old and in black and white, others in color featuring happy children at family picnics. Also in the wallet were a weekly appointment card for psychiatric care and a current identity card for a shelter run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Some other odds and ends included a well-worn personal letter in Spanish, a silver cross, and a lock of hair in a small plastic envelope.

In the morning, we tried ringing the phone number of the psychiatric facility, but it was Sunday and we got only a recording. Once dressed, we set out on foot to look for the shelter.

Paris is big, and our French poor. We got lost. We got lost in translations. We eventually ventured into a church in the general vicinity, hoping the priest would know the local St. Vincent de Paul. He did, and off we went again.

By now our communication with each other had taken on the grudging, utilitarian tone of cross-party negotiations. As we pounded the pavement, down charming alleys and up majestic boulevards, we began to comment on our surroundings, if only out of the necessity to follow directions. I still despised him, but I was glad when he suggested we pause on a bench overlooking the Seine to share a café au lait. Paris.

We found the shelter on a triangular corner of a city block in an ordinary neighborhood in the Fifth Arrondissement. It was closed. Across the street was a small four-star hotel. We went there and explained the situation to the desk clerk. We told her we were leaving in the morning and asked her to deliver the wallet to the shelter across the street, in the hope that it would reach its owner. Requesting our e-mail address, she was only too happy to help, and we headed off in the direction of the setting sun.

It wasn’t until we were seated on our return flight the next day that I began to find some meaning in our trip. We had spoken so little, both before and after the wallet incident. But despite our silence, we located our common ground. Neither of us had asked the other, Should we try to return the wallet? Neither of us had asked the other if we should stop trying to return it. We had both understood that we had to return it, and so we did. We may have lost an important weekend, but, in a way that I suspected would sustain us for a long time to come, we found ourselves.

The plane lifted off, looped around the Eiffel Tower, and set off in the direction of home. I reached out my hand and he took it. Paris.

Published in the 2008-01-18 issue: 

Sue Norton is lecturer of English at the Dublin Institute of Technology. Her work has appeared in periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic, and has been broadcast on Irish radio.

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