THE SONGBIRD SELLER ALONG THE QUAY *
Early each morning, on my way to the Bibliotèque, I would pass by her sitting besides a table stacked with small, wooden cages each holding a songbird brightly chirping away. Around her were rows of book vendors manning their opened, metal lockers full of used books. She sat there with her delicate hands in her lap and a worn, woolen wrap around her thin shoulders, softly singing an Italian aria in a pure, crystalline voice.
“Bonjour,” she greeted.
Had it been almost a year since I had arrived in the city to live in a cold-water garret overlooking the slate-gray rooftops? Too excited the first few weeks to get any work done, I spent the days taking in the usual tourist sites, walking the streets day and night, and sitting in cafés and on park benches. Money, or more precisely, the finite amount I had brought with me, motivated me to settle down to work. I began a strict routine of rising early every morning to a petit déjeuner of two croissants and a café au lait before walking to the Bibliothèque where I would arrive before the doors opened. I spent the whole morning working. Around one o’clock, I would walk to a nearby park where I would sit under a tree or on a bench to have a déjeuner consisting of a piece of cheese, a chunk of baguette, and an apple. After a long, cool drink at a public water fountain, I returned to read for two hours before getting back to work. I finished just before closing time when the librarians made their rounds announcing that the library would be closing shortly.
On my way back home, I would stop at a patisserie and pick up something cheap and filling. Back in my room, I would dine by candlelight, then read late into the night before going to bed where I slept the sleep of an honest laborer.
Each morning, I varied my route to the Bibliothèque in order to see and experience more of the city. On one particular morning, I found myself walking along a quay lined with booksellers. I stopped at one to browse at the English titles when I heard an Italian aria wafting on the morning air. I could have stood there and listened all morning, but I had work waiting for me. I returned the same way that evening and was delighted to see that she was still there.
“Bonsoir,” she said.
My notebook, a fountain pen, a bottle of ink, and a used copy of Baudelaire I had bought from one of the booksellers were all my worldly treasures I carried in my canvas rucksack. I felt like I was the one of the richest men alive.
The weeks raced by. My meager supply of Euros, like the grains of sand in an hourglass, was steadily running out as my notebook filled up with poems. The Monday morning of my last week before I had to return, a young man selling turquoise jewelry out of a black velvet display case was sitting in the spot where the bird seller had been. I walked up and down the quay, but she was nowhere to be seen. That morning, I did not get much work or reading done. I returned the same way that evening, but she wasn’t there. When I asked one of the booksellers if he had seen her, he just shrugged his shoulders. The last night, as I lay in bed, my rucksack packed for my flight out in the morning, I dreamed of the songbird seller standing on a stage in front of an audience singing an Italian aria while her songbirds flew up around her into the air.
* Sentence from Elizabeth Berg’s The Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand.
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