We shiver and shoulder the cold, and the little restaurant looks like a beacon with all of its color and light and warmth on that dark, empty street corner. Her name is Myriam, and she has welcomed me into her home in this French pilgrimage city for the night. She wants me to try Sri Lankan food, specifically a kottu. I have no idea what this is, but I am willing to try.
When we enter, the Sri Lankan man who owns the restaurant (who also cooks and serves the food) greets her fondly and speaks with us as he prepares something sizzling and fragrant behind his counter. We sit down, she shows me what to order, and we settle into a bit of comfortable silence. We are both tired.
There is a middle-age woman sitting at the table next to us—dark makeup and a straightforward manner of speaking and an intense gaze. She addresses us with a husky voice and laughter that is sharp when it comes. She and my new friend try to figure out who they both know in this city, and soon they are sharing news as if they were old acquaintances.
She asks a few direct questions to me and does not seem to invite elaboration. She orders another glass of wine.
We are soon joined by another. When I first see him walking past the windows of the restaurant, I cannot tell if he is a man or a woman. His mess of gray hair is smashed under a hat and a voluminous black cape cocoons his short body all the way down to sandaled feet. “There’s Maurice,” the two women say, and he comes into the restaurant and sits across the table with the other woman. He stretches out his legs and sighs dramatically, taking out a new calendar he just got from one of the churches to show us. He flips through the icons so we can see their beauty.
He speaks in a rambling and passionate manner about the cold weather, the homeless, and the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. He has one—a Sacred Heart—stitched on the inside of his wallet. The two women leave to smoke outside and Maurice tells me stories about taking in men off of the street in the winter. “That cold—it’s impossible,” he says, shaking his head as if berating the weather.
The restaurant owner has been openly flirting with me. He asks if I am married, then if I have a boyfriend. He winks and smiles, but in a sort of benevolent way. He turns a bit solemn when the other discuss the Sacred Heart and asks me if I have faith in Jesus and in the Virgin Mary. I tell him I do, and he nods seriously. “I came here to this city with nothing. Nothing at all. I was on the streets. She blessed me. She gave me all I have.” He gestures to a picture of the Virgin, hanging on the wall next to a small statue of what might be a Hindu god.
The vegetarian kottu that he places in front of me—a blend of godhamba roti (a type of flatbread), eggs, cabbage, carrots, onion, ginger, and other spices chopped finely together and mounded into a sphere—is soft, warm, and filling. He gives me an extra sauce to put on top so I can try the different flavors. He is pleased when I like it.
We are a strange mix together. I feel as if I have fallen into some sort of novel, and if they are all characters, then so am I. I wonder vaguely who I am to them. I am the fifth stranger here, and perhaps the strangest of them all. I am passing through this place. This will be my only night in the city, and then I will be gone.
We all disperse at the same time, having eaten our fill. We have shared time, space, stories, presence, silence—things that we will never again share.
And now we shoulder once more the cold and the cinematic dark of these streets, but this time we are filled with warmth, and light, and color.
Jenna Griffin loves foreign music, old cookbooks, public transportation, and sunsets in new places. After graduating with degrees in writing and French, she is spending her first post-grad year as an English teaching assistant in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France.