It was a cool September morning outside Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, and my associates and I were wearily emerging from customs and immigration, achy and stiff from an eight-hour flight. Still, we were in Paris, the air was crisp and full of excitement, anticipation, and exhaust fumes. We would be there for just under a week, gathering information, setting up tours and making reservations for an upcoming Tour de France! Exhilarating as it was to be back in Paris, there was much work to be done.
To expedite the process, I’d hired an English-speaking driver, as I needed both an interpreter and someone brave enough to navigate the Autobahn-esque streets of Paris. As I craned to see over the shoulders of the airport throng, I caught sight of a shifty man in a rumpled suit. “Surely this is not our guide,” I thought. But there it was, a makeshift sign with a hastily lettered “MAYER” scribbled across. This man was our driver, fully equipped with greasy hair, ten-o-clock shadow, bright purple socks, and a Gauloise cigarette drooping lazily from his lower lip. So this was our fearless leader for the duration of our stay? My stomach turned.
Surprisingly, his van was clean and actually quite posh. Cushy leather seats, all the latest magazines, and plenty of room for our luggage. I figured someone else from the agency must’ve maintained it. Maybe I was just grumpy from the long flight, I thought, mentally chastising myself. I decided to turn my attention to the sights of Paris whizzing by. As we passed the milky-white Sacré-Cœur basilica, our dandruff-laden leader began to speak quite poetically of the architecture of the cathedral, the rooftops of Paris, and the martyrs at Montmartre. He was almost…eloquent.
Suddenly the van came to a halt, shaking me back to attention. “Why have we stopped?” I demanded. “This is your hotel, madam,” he replied. Embarrassed as I was at being so short, I was more taken aback by the fact that we’d all been mesmerized by his every word. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name,” I said, hoping to erase the moment. “Jean,” he offered, “my name is Jean.” We bid him adieu until the following morning, and as I collapsed into a jet-lagged slumber, I decided we’d let him drive us again the next day. We did need time to find a replacement, and maybe this was just his laundry day.
The next morning he greeted us at the crack of dawn looking like he’d just come off an all-night bender, sleepy-eyed and still wearing the same rumpled suit and purple socks. Ugh, I thought, here we go. Luckily, we had a second, much tidier man along with us who was to be our guiding expert in the beaches of Normandy. His name was Leon. I planned on focusing my entire day on Leon.
About an hour into our journey, Jean reached into an obscure compartment that I hadn’t noticed before, retrieving an elegantly wrapped box with the name Ladurée exquisitely printed across the top in gold letters. “Anyone hungry?” he asked.
“Macarons!” Leon exclaimed in a fit of rapture. “Ladurée macarons! Jean has brought you a treat!” Curiously, I sank my teeth into the crunchy exterior, and an eruption of chocolate delight burst into my mouth. Before my taste buds could readjust, Jean began whipping up fresh cappuccinos! He actually had a hot water tap in the front of his van! What could this seemingly indigent man possibly know of white-glove service? I would soon learn.
I’ll never forget that day, as both Jean and Leon illuminated the Normandy beaches with culture, history, and a surprisingly objective account of the infamous D-Day. There was no trace of the assumed French animosity. They spoke quite humbly and appreciatively, and I, myself, began to feel a bit humbled.
The rest of our stay was a whirlwind of monuments, museums, art, and architecture, and Jean was right there with us, cheerfully opening our doors, interpreting without a hint of disdain, fascinating us with his stories, and of course making cappuccinos all the while. His service was flawless, and day by day, he began to look less rumpled and unappealing. I actually looked forward to listening to his stories. But there was one tale I hadn’t heard, and against all better judgment, I decided to ask. “What’s your story, Jean?” I poked and prodded as best I could. I asked if he was married: he wasn’t. I asked if he had a girlfriend: he didn’t. Children: no. Pets: no. Befuddled, I began to wonder about and almost pity this lonely Frenchman.
On our last morning, as I sadly climbed into Jean’s van, already nostalgic over my last cappuccino, I noticed a large photo album on the front seat. “You’ve asked me about my life,” Jean said. “I thought it would be easier to show you.” I opened the album to images of poorly clothed children against an impoverished backdrop. There were at least a hundred kids here, all different ages, all a little dirty, all a little thin, but every one of them smiling.
“Five years ago,” Jean began, “my friend Marie and I were hiking upcountry in Thailand, and we happened upon this little village. Through our guide, we discovered that many of the children had little or no education because there was no school. So we decided to build them one. The first one was nothing more than a simple plywood shack with dirt floors, and we paid to bring over a teacher, but they still had no books. This was four years ago. Since then, Marie and I have saved all our money for building materials, and we are now in the process of building a school with real cement walls. When we are finished, they will have benches for the children, a desk for the teacher, windows, fans, and books!”
I was speechless. Sensing my astonishment, Jean tenderly said, “Driving tourists through Paris is part of my life, but this village and these children are what I live for.”
As I settled in for my transatlantic flight, I reflected upon my experience. I’d learned a lot that week in France. I learned that Ladurée macarons cost the equivalent of six American dollars apiece, and you have to be there before sunrise to get them as fresh as the ones Jean had. I learned that the Eiffel Tower is not the first thing you see when you enter Paris; the first thing you see is Sacré-Cœur. I learned that not all French people dislike Americans, many speak English, and all of them drive like maniacs. But mostly, I learned that you really can’t judge a book by its cover, and that one unlikely Frenchman can single-handedly serve mobile cappuccinos on one side of the world while moving mountains for humanity on the other.
I still write to Jean and send donations from time to time. And from time to time, he still writes back. Last year I received an unexpected package in the mail. Inside, I found an elegantly wrapped box with the name Ladurée exquisitely printed across the top in gold letters, and underneath, a photograph of a brick schoolroom with large windows, a teacher standing beside a desk, rows of benches with smiling children, each of them holding their own book. And back in a far corner stood a familiar unshaven, sleepy-eyed, shabbily dressed Frenchman named Jean.
The Tablet editorial team would like to thank everyone who participated in our first-ever travel story contest. We received dozens of entertaining stories and had a wonderful time reading each one. It was tough choosing just a single winner, so we’d like to highlight a couple more of our favorites: