This is one of those stories that, if written in a novel or as a scene in a movie, would be dismissed as contrived. Unbelievable. And yet, it happened just as I describe. And all the circumstances, the timing, the spontaneity suggest more than mere coincidence. For me, it was the most profound experience of my entire ten-day trip to France.
Thursday, July 21st was my last day in Paris. In three days, I’d only seen the Eiffel Tower from afar, so I decided to pay her a visit. Recent flooding on the Seine had closed part of the subway system, resulting in a long, circuitous metro ride from where I was staying on Isle St. Louis to the tower. I had to change lines in the middle and close to an hour had passed when I finally reached my stop.
All of Paris is on heightened alert. The terrorist attack in Nice happened on July 14, my second day in France, while I was in the far north, near the English Channel. At the airport, the train stations, and on the streets, heavily armed soldiers and police patrol in packs of three. Vigilant. Hand-held automatic weapons at the ready.
Nowhere in Paris are the extra precautions more apparent than at the Eiffel Tower. The entire perimeter at the base is fenced off, and to enter one must go through a rigorous security check. Every time I’ve visited in the past, I’ve wandered about freely, walked into the base, and gazed straight up. This time I chose to stay outside the fenced area. Still gazing up, but nowhere as close as before. The Eiffel Tower is still magnificent. Even more striking and awe-inspiring in reality than in pictures.
I took shots from every possible angle, then, spontaneously, decided to check out the river cruises called Bateaux Parisiens. I walked down the steps to the banks of the Seine and there was no wait for tickets. It was 7:15 pm and the next boat was departing at 7:30. I paid my 15 Euros and joined a zig-zagging line like those at amusement parks and airports.
Ahead of me were six Arab women in hijabs and full-length abayas. Their faces were uncovered. The four oldest wore all black. One of the youngest was covered in taupe, the other wore navy. Standing in line, I had the chance to study them.
One in particular seemed to be in charge of the rest. I guessed she was about my age, but it was hard to tell because all her hair was covered. She had a round face, dark eyes behind large, black framed glasses, and her complexion was light olive. With only her face visible, it occurred to me she had the look of a nun.
She was looking at me and smiling. She had a beautiful smile that lit up her face. When she saw me looking back, she made a slight waving hand gesture. I smiled and nodded. Still smiling she turned to the other women and spoke to them, nodding toward me. The others all smiled and looked as if they recognized me. As if they knew me. Had I known them in Saudi? They kept looking at me and I wondered what they saw. An American tourist? A woman alone?
One younger one was pretty in a plain, round-faced way. No make-up. The youngest was striking with fine, beautiful features. Her dark eyes were thinly lined in a “cat-eye” look, beneath them, like I’ve never seen.
When we boarded the boat I watched where the women went, hoping they would sit up top where I wanted to be. They did, all lined up on a bench. Looking out toward the banks. Taking pictures with their iPhones. I sat close by, on the next bench down, and surreptitiously tried to take pictures of them.
The boat ride was a lovely hour. The weather had cooled from the brutal heat on Monday and Tuesday, and there was a pleasant breeze off the water of the Seine. There were many children on board and every time we passed under a bridge a roar went up, like we were in a tunnel.
French music played along with commentary on the bridges and buildings we passed. Parts of the river bank were covered with sand, blue umbrellas, and lounge chairs replicating a beach. People waved at us from bridges and the shores, and we waved back. It all felt light and joyous. We had beautiful close-up views of the Eiffel Tower as we ended our tour.
Once docked, we began disembarking. There were two sets of stairs on the roof leading down to the interior of the boat—one fore and one aft. The five women moved toward the front stairs, as I lined up behind others who started down the back. I was downstairs and halfway through the cabin as the group of women reached the bottom of their steps.
Suddenly, I was facing the woman with the glasses. She stopped walking and smiled at me. I smiled back. Still smiling, she nodded and raised her left hand, holding it palm toward me in a motionless wave. I did the same. At that, she reached out her right hand to me and I took it. She squeezed my hand firmly, leaned close, looked me directly in the eyes, and said, “Thank you.”
I was stunned, speechless. She quickly let go of my hand, turned, and the six women walked away. I was left fighting tears, pushing back a sob. Overwhelmed with emotions I still cannot completely articulate.
I can still see every detail of this woman’s face. I can feel her hand in mine—large, soft, strong. I hear her voice and feel the powerful emotions of the moment. I will never forget her and I will forever feel connected.
People I’ve told have theories. Maybe she knew me in Saudi. Maybe she was thanking me for making eye-contact and smiling, not looking away in fear, hatred, or mistrust. Upon hearing the story, my intuitive spiritual adviser immediately said, “She’s read your book and she recognized you from your picture. She thanked you because you wrote her story.”
I know there was a sense of recognition from the moment we first made eye-contact. Maybe we just recognized each other on a different level, as two women from totally different worlds who are somehow very much the same.
All I know for certain is that I received a gift when she thanked me—and for what, I will never know.