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Progress...C'est La Vie

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"Students, it's time for what you've all been waiting for...." the teacher's voice boomed into our ears. "As all of you know, Ms. Salitone is hosting a missions trip overseas this Summer. Last week we had all eligible students sign up for it. Well, I have right here in my hand the list of students who will be going with Ms. Salitone next month."


I caught my breath. It seemed like breathing would make all of my hopes go to waste.


The teacher continued, "Here we go. Okay. So we have: Rebecca Shirley, Virginia Kent, Paul Oakridge, Kit Lee, Ben Wu, Jenn Montez, Violet Mendel, Alice Pielfieri, and Kelly Benson."


I gasped with delight. I could barely control the joy inside of me. Why, the chances had been so impossible. Never before had I gotten a chance like this in my life. My university was unlike many others, because unlike a lot of other schools there was a limit on how many people could go to the missions trip. For most universities, as long as you have the money you're fine. At my school, that was hardly the case.


Here I was, in my last year of college, losing hope because I would likely lose this chance like I had every other year before that. And yet I had, at the last minute, been able to catch hold of my dreams. I smiled.Maybe it wasn't the Southeast Asian missions trip I had wanted for so long, but it was something.


"Virginia, wanna switch seats with me?" Paul tapped on my soldier. I looked at the seat of rows behind me. My best friend Alice was sitting right next to Paul. "Sure thing" I nodded.


I sat down beside Alice. "I'm really excited. And I thought I would have to pay twice as much because I wouldn't be able to go with the school this year."


Alice grinned, "Well, I guess we're both lucky on this one." I contemplated what she said for a minute. Alice's dad was the Dean of the college I went to. Of course Alice didn't have to worry about the trip. As long as they had parents with significant jobs at the university, it was guaranteed that students would be able to go on any trip they wanted.


I felt a bit bitter at this. Alice was popular. Had been since before I had even met her. She had lived in our town her whole life, while I had only moved there in the 5th grade. Ever since I had moved from my old home I never got used to living anywhere else. Even recently when walking to my house from the library, a path I've taken hundreds of times before, I will think to myself, "this is scaring me. It's just not like Mapleville." She had never had any trouble finding friends. Not so for me, that was for sure.


On top of that, Alice was a hard worker. Not that I wasn't, but it just gave me less reason to dislike her. I don't dislike her, but I kind of feel a bit sour when people compliment her and don't bother about me.


And here we where, on a plane that would be leaving for France in ten minutes. And despite my excitement, I couldn't bare the annoyance I felt when yet again, Alice was drawn into a conversation with someone who could care less about me.



As far as I can remember, I've always wanted to visit France. I'm not one to usually stereotype. I don't want to put the French into a little box with the words "Eiffel Tower", "Quiche", and "Medieval Art" written all over it. I know all people are different. It's just like when Alice first met me and she thought I thought that Sesame Street was stupid. Sesame Street was no longer my favorite show. But as a naturally nostalgic person, I couldn't help but think of Big Bird and Cookie Monster in a tender, almost angelic light. Alice found me weird, and told me so. I had desperately wanted to be her friend, so I just explained to her that in Mapleville there really was a street full of sesame where little kids would frolic and play.


When I was a child, I had a score of things that I would like to fantasize about. I wanted to be Pocahantas. I wanted to be Shanti from Jungle Book. If I were a princess, I would have a bejeweled palace right smack in the middle of a forest of Cacti. I wanted to have a pink room like Eloise. But above all things, I wanted to be Madeleine.


Oh, Madeleine. The little red-haired girl who had romped her way right into my 3-year old heart. And she lived in Paris!


From 1st grade to 4th, all I could think about was France. I learned about escargot, chateaus, poodles, and cafes. I breathed Hugo and Matisse. I fancied myself a Parisian artist wearing a beret, with a paint-covered hand resting curiously benath my chin. I scared myself reading about the plight of Joan of Arc, spening many nights looking out of my bedroom window, thinking, "That's the same moon Joan herself looked at." French medieval armor hrilled me. I told myself that one day I would either be a tour guide or a poet who spent her days looking up at the Eiffel Tower while eating baguettes.


I had been heartbroken learning of the prospect that the City of Lights perhaps would be out of my reach forever, as my parents could only afford to take me to visit relatives, none of whom leaved in Paree. But today I would begin my life as a part-time missionary in the Land of Gaul. "C'est La Vie. Such is life." Whispered my inner-self.


I fell asleep. When I woke up I realized half of the flight was already over. I was pleased to find a flight attendant coming down the aisle with trays of food. I was famished.


I tucked into the buttered bread and steak with mushroom gravy. Not first class, but tasty. Alice was deep into conversation with someone. Yet again. I sighed mentally. "It would be nice if someone wanted to talk with me for a change," I thought.


Just as I had that thought someone tapped me on my shoulder. I looked behind me. A girl with honey blonde braids, pale eyes, and a bright smile was looking at me. "Oh, hi" she said in a thick French accent.


I nodded at her in acknowledgement. I grinned, but not fully. I had learned early in my middle school years that you really can't tell what anybody will think. The same went for smiles.


"I noticed you there. You've been sleeping for such a long time. I wanted to talk to you, but thought I might disturb you. My name is Simone D'anile." "Nice to meet you," said I, deciding that she seemed like a trustworthy person after all. "My name is Virginia Kent."


"Cool name. Are you going on a missions trip?"


"Yes."


"I overheard some of the other Canadians in this section talking about a missions trip. I'm not on a missions trip, but I happen to live a few blocks away from the church your trip is centered on. That too, I overheard from the, er, Americans."


I proceded to tell her that we were American, not Canadian. "Do you live in New York?" I asked her. "No, I just came to visit a cousin of mine. Ah, I almost forgot. My brother is sitting right next to me!"


She said something to her brother. I had not noticed him there. I found it rather comical how she could have forgotten him when he was sitting right next to her, but I said nothing of it.


Her brother was listening to something on his phone, so he hadn't heard her. She addressed him louder. When that failed, she yanked the earphones out of his ears, which made him look up in surprise. She scolded him in her native tongue. I didn't catch much of it, but I did catch the word Henri. Probably his name.


He looked at me and grinned, "hello, my name is Henri." I told him my name. I was glad I had met two people who weren't from New York City. The neighborhood I lived in lacked outsiders.


And these two, I noted, were two people who would free me from the cage I had been stuck in for the longest time.


I found myself in a flowing conversation with my benefactors. By the time we neared Paris, I felt even closer to them than I felt to Alice. A little voice told me to remember her, too, but my heart refused that slice of humble pie.


I was sad when I had to part with them. But Henri and his sister both gave me their contact information. I took their emails and phone numbers hungrily, similar to what Johnny Appleseed would have felt like had the biggest apple tree he had ever seen took root in the ground right in front of him.


Our group walked out of the airport with high hopes. But perhaps I was the most elated. Not only was I on my first missions trip, but I was flowing over with confidence of the friends I was to make.


Alice smiled at me, "I had a blast talking with Jennifer and Melissa. Sorry if I didn't get to talk to you much. But wow, you look really happy!" She took notice of the glow on my face. "You wouldn't know just how happy I am," I winked at her. My eyes sparkled.


The bus our group was on cruised passed the boulevards and cafes of Paris. I caught my breath hundreds of times. Most magical perhaps was the moment we passed close to the Eiffel Tower. My heart beat wildly in my chest. I was ready to cry with joy. "Don't be so dramatic!" Alice giggled. "You've read too many travel guides about Paris. You look like you've just met your first love."


I blushed a little. Only Alice would think of that. She secretly wants to meet a dashing frenchman who at first glance will fall passionately in love with her. I suppose it was my fault. I introduced her to Les Miserables. I found out her little secret when at her house. I accidentally read her diary when trying to find my lost watch in her bedroom.

The bus neared the hotel we were staying at. It was chateau-like, and I just couldn't wait to try out the French patisserie in the lobby.


We got checked into our rooms. The floor was made of Italian-made marble tile. The beds were covered in red velvet. The bathroom sinks and toilets were made of pure gold. The window looked out over a very small portion of Paris. Didn't see the Notre Dame or the Eiffel, but I did get a quaint little view of some Medieval buildings a block away. I practically melted to the floor in a pool. This was my dream! Nevertheless I had to protect my dignity. "I don't think our church should allow us to stay at a hotel like this. How can we afford this? And we aren't living among the poor," I yelled seriously at Alice. I kept a straight face the whole time, but had difficulty keeping the smile off my face. Alice didn't seem to believe me....



"Remember, kids, we may not be able to see him, but The Almighty loves us and is with us every step of the way," I said rather dully to a group of young kids. The little ones' eyes were wide with happiness. A sparkle of hope was shining through. It battled with the dark hole in my heart, and it seemed to be winning.


It was the second week of our trip. We were half way through the mission. I was happy to get to be surrounded by little kids and my friends, but I was itching to travel the beautiful city God so gracefully landed me in. I had contacted neither Henri and Simone, and vice versa. I was beginning to fear that they were dangerous people who were trying to learn everything they could about a foreigner.


I still refused to let the thought take deep root within my head, so after 3 hours of fun I found time to dial Simone's number. I waited on one end, nervously. I didn't know how to start phone talks that well, but I would have to try this time. Suddenly I heard someone cough and a scratchy but girly voice answer on the other end, "yes?"


I gave myself a second of encouragement before answering, "Bonjour. I am Virginia Kent. You are Simone D'anile, no?"


The speaker registered my name for a minute. Instantly an "AHHHH!!" slammed my ears. I shuddered. This was Simone, all right. She continued excitedly, "Ah, Virginia. My dear friend from America. How are you?"


I went on to tell her that I was doing quite well, thank you. But she cut me off. "Very good. Very good indeed. Meet me at The Corner Cafe at 3:00. See you there." Then I heard the phone click.


I tried to recover. But considering the loudness of Simone's voice, and the surprise meeting in two hours, it would take a while.



I arrived at the cafe. I searched the tables for a familiar face. I could see Simone talking happily with someone, a guy with thick dark brown hair and chiselled features. "Wow. I'm glad I didn't bring Alice here," I thought knowing she would pound him with questions. Ones like, "Have you lived in Paris your entire life? That's so romantic!" and worse still "What do you think about the French Revolution? I'm glad we didn't live during that time, because you might have lost your pretty head." I cringed at the thought.


I walked over and sat by Simone. I turned and looked at Alice's dream Frenchman. He was.... Henri?!


"Um, hi, Henri." I forced myself to say, confused. Simone sensed it. "Oh, you're wondering why he looks this way. Well you see, he's wanted to dye his hair for a long time. He also wanted to lose a few pounds. I told him to wait until we got back to France so his friends would be shocked at how much he's changed." She laughed. Little of the confusion was cleared. I was left to find out by myself how someone could look so different after shaving off a few pounds.


"What's up?" I asked as Simone motioned at me to sit in one of the chairs. "Not much, we've both been studying for the exams coming up next week. And how is the mission going?"


"Fine, I guess. I've been kind of lonely, since all of my friends are busy, but I'm so glad you called me up today."


Henri chuckled, "Yes, that's the situation in Paris, is it not? Everyone wants to come here because they want to be chic like the French, while we're hardly that at all. Most French people have peasant ancestors, but Americans come here because they think they'll be blending in among aristocrats and scholars. It can get drearier here than in London, I'm afraid."


Simone wagged her finger at me, "Don't let him ruin your trip for you. He always warns tourists in this way. I'm afraid he's becoming more and more like Papa, and Henri only 19." She sighed dramatically.


I tilted my head a little as I chuckled, "I'm afraid the only force in Paris drearier than London is you, Henri." I shook my head in mock-annoyance.


"I'll let you in on a little secret," he motioned me to come closer. "A friend of ours on the West Side of the city is holding a big party next Saturday at 8:00 PM at her house. She has a very nice home, that kind of Parisian home that is perfect for holding parties of all kinds. You know what kind I am talking about?"


I nodded. Truthfully I had not a clue as to what his friend's house really looked like, but a childhood diet of classic films, PBS, literature, Pavarotti, and renditions of the Russian Ballet added to afternoon teas with Choo Choo, my Build-A-Bear in a golden qipao, were enough to give me an idea. I hardly ever watched the Disney Channel. My Disney fix was Disney movies, most of them from the 2000s and earlier. If you haven't yet noticed, I lived a childhood that was overall protected, and yet made me aware of things at a fairly young age,


"This party will be a very special one. My friend – oh, and her name is Brigitte by the way – has not let me in on the elaborate details. But I DO know there will be some jazz music, a buffet including fine cheese tasting and hot chocolate, as well as a little bit of dancing. Some lesser-known Paris socialites will be there. I'm sure that if you went, and maybe brought along a few of your Church friends, they would be glad to get to know you."


I contemplated for a moment. I knew neither Simone nor Henri that well, but I did trust them. Bringing along some Church friends meant bringing along everybody, as I couldn't go out after 7:00 PM without a chaperone, and Saturday nights meant the whole gang stuck together. I had a 9 out of 10 chance of feeling a little bit out of place among the socialites, especially with Alice. Alice probably would try to bring me in, but socialites hang out the best with socialites.


And I didn't know Simone and Henri well enough to know how they would mix in among the higher ups of Parisian society. A nagging feeling nawed at my stomach. I had to do this. After all, Mrs. Salitone, one of the leaders in our group, had stated that if we found any good forms of entertainment while we were here, she would consider all of them. AND if I couldn't just leave out anyone, especially with the curfew-without-a-chaperone policy.


"Why not?" I exlaimed.



Henri took it literally. "I don't know why you wouldn't come. Is it because you have something going on with your mission group?"


"No, no. Henri, I was just saying that I would love to go. And you can rest assured that I will mention it to my group leader."


Simone interrupted,"That blonde girl over there. I seem to have seen her before. Was she on the airplane with us the time we met you?"


A thousand thoughts passed through my head, but it took only 2 seconds to realize that it was Alice she was talking about. I turned my head, and, sure enough, Alice was sauntering cheerfully over to our table.


"I can't believe you would leave me with Paul Khan, Virginia! He can talk the hind leg off a donkey, to quote Marilla. And who is this?" Her silvery-blue eyes swam over to look at Simone.


"Alice, meet Simone D'anile. I met her and her brother on the plane to Paris."


"Oh yes, I think I remember having seen her before. And – is this her brother?" Alice's aqua globs shone at Henri.


"That's right. Henri D'anile is the name. I look quite a bit different now. Hair dye and a diet can work wonders," Henri grinned.



Before I knew it, everyone was talking and laughing. I laughed too. It was the best time I had had in years! But as Alice started to spoon her bowl of strawberry jam onto her bread, I merely poured an unneeded second teaspoon of sugar into my coffee. As Henri grinned, showing his pearly whites, I pursed my lips. As Simone raised her eyebrows secretively, I imagined the bags under my eyes grower blacker and more apparent. I was tired, and could not wait another moment for my friends to notice.


I waited. And waited. And waited.... Finally, I could stand it no more. "Guys," I exclaimed,"I'm very sorry, but I'm tired. I think I need to go back to the hotel. Alice, you'll be fine, right?"


"Why, of course I will, Virginia. But are you sure you want to go back now? Do you know the way back?" "Yeah, I do." "Take care of yourself then." "I will."

I closed the door to the cafe behind me. A sudden cold wind blasted me in the face, a sensation unusual for the summer. But I liked it anyway. I had always fantasized about winter in Paris, and a little bit of cold weather wouldn't hurt me.


As I trudged along the narrow streets of Paris, stomping on the occasional cigarette butt and chewed gum wad, I took in more. It was quite a pretty image, an image that I will never forget. There was a small bridge that connected one unnamed street to another. But from this bridge I had a marvelous view of the Eiffel Tower. Quicly, I took out my camera and took a shot. True, the bridge I was standing on wasn't famous. There were only a few other people on the bridge. But it had given me a little peak into the city I had spent years of my life daydreaming about, and that was enough.


Then I saw this woman. I noticed her because she looked so sad, unlike the two couples whispering and giggling and making googly-eyes at each other a few feet away from us. This woman was probably middle-aged. Her hair was blonde with a few unattractive streaks of gray, her dress an old-fashioned maroon, her face unusually sharp, and her eyebrows even more unusually sharp. I sympathized with her. She reminded me of my aunt. Sad, as if everything had been lost but the fear of losing more was always present. I felt something tell me to go and talk to her. So I did.


"Excusez-mois, parlez-vous anglais?" the words came out of my mouth nervously. I had a very basic knowledge of the French language. I knew that asking if one could speak English is generally a no-no, but I told you, I had basic knowledge. The woman looked back at me. "I can speak it."


My nervousness washed away, but my fear because this woman was a stranger didn't. I had a strong fear of kidnappers as a child, don't ask. "That's great! Ummm... I was wondering, you know.... is there anything...er... wrong with you?" I spouted out, thinking that was the best thing to say. The woman looked quite offended. "There is nothing wrong with me, thank you very much. Is being Scottish and living in Paris such a weird thing?"


"No, ma'am, most certainly not. But you looked so sad."


The lonely woman's eyes turned from fire to water. A sad, timid, lonesome pool of water. "I suppose I would look sad. I've just been fired from my job as waitress. Didn't think I was a good worker, my boss sad. I used to work in a restaurant that gets most of its profit from tourists. In America, a Scot working at an urban cafe would seem cool, but here, the tourists want to meet actual French people. I didn't appear to be a good fit for a waitress, and working in the heart of Paris has been my goal since I was a little girl. Sitting on my grandpa's lap, listening to his awe-inspiring stories of D-Day and Paris during WW1. I've been sick. I think I have a cancer, and I've been to hospitals both in Scotland and France, but the doctors say I'm just not taking good care of myself. Perhaps that's it. I don't even know why I'm telling you this, but I have no one else to talk to. If I didn't tell you, I would have broken. The police would have find me on this bridge tomorrow morning and I would've been dead. Dead of a disappointed, ill-treated heart."


At that moment I knew not what to say. I asked myself three times what I should do. The third time the answer came clear, help her. In what way, I didn't know how, but I needed to do something.


"Don't give up, please," I comforted the poor lady. "you have many years ahead of you. Sure, disappointments hurt. But everyone has those. Why, up until today, I don't think I've had many happy moments. Looking at my friends, knowing that they're there for me. Disappointments can be hell. Just remember, there are more good people in the World than there are bad."


"You-you really think so?" Drops began forming in the woman's eyes, but I saw a shimmer of hope foaming up. "Yep, sure do. And in the mean time, I know of a great restaurant/coffeehouse. I'll bring you there, to recuperate."


And I did. I brought her there. I sat her at a table, watching her cry her emerald eyes out over the roasted chicken and potatoes dish I had ordered. "This food, is good, really good," the words barely could come out of her throat.


I knew I had done something wonderful. Whatever I had accomplished at the mission, I'm sure to this day that I accomplished much more that one evening. I know I had been sent to Paris at that state of my life for a reason. I, a depressed, loved, but seemingly unwanted college student, could never have been in a better state to heal. For as I helped that woman, I helped myself as well.


I don't know what became of her. I don't even know her name. But I'm grateful. And one thing I know for sure. As she left that coffeehouse, she gave me a smile full of faith. Her last words to me were, "I don't care what anybody else says, you were sent to me from God."


I didn't believe her then, and even now I doubt. But as the years pass and as I become more and more of a young woman, I think perhaps. Perhaps.



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