It's seven, seven-thirty on a hot summer morning and I am on the Portobello Road in London. The street is stirring; there are flickerings of scents, some of which will be too pungent by nine: oranges and lilies on the greengrocer carts rolling to the curb to set up as they have every day for twenty years, a small dog discreetly claiming ownership of a tree, the flat beer in a mug on a picnic table, unclaimed by the publican the night before.
My intent is on coffee, a perfect latte, which I know I will get at this Italian café on the corner with a few plywood tables and enamel chairs outside and a full rack of newspapers inside. I get my coffee and sit down outside, with the Guardian and the Independent-why not be greedy when just borrowing?-with my back to the café, facing the street.
A man comes around the corner, on a cell phone, smoking a cigarette, slim with a graying ponytail, dark eyes, a linen shirt and jeans and sandals. I of course see him. Surprisingly, he also sees me as he walks past.
I mean, sees me. He actually clocks my existence, the fact that I am a woman and, let it be said now, of a certain age; whatever that age might be in your mind, let it be that. He nods and does not exactly smile but our eyes meet. He sits beside me at the next table.
I mean, our eyes actually meet. Man, woman, the smell of coffee and maybe gitanes, something slightly perfumed and not at all offensive, just, well, European. This is not an pallid Englishman but there are no gold chains, no industrial strength aftershave. And me? I am not a size zero blonde in a transparent slip, with piercings, and I am reading, or was.
There is a brief glimmer of mutual appraisal. A window opens, a breeze moves a curtain, there is another fragrance, a sound, a breath.the window closes and he returns to his cellphone conversation and I to my Guardian.
The air shimmers slightly. It is not yet eight on the second day of my vacation.
I am in a pub on the South Bank, mid-afternoon. All the doors are flung open onto the river, with its sludgy smells and labouring tugs and dawdling cruise boats. But all eyes are focused inward, upward, because Ghana is playing Brazil and people turn their chairs, sit alongside strangers chatting, sipping, but never losing sight of the game.
I am sitting with a quiet young couple but I seem to be flirting with a man on a high stool by the window. He is also engaged in conversation with a stranger at his table, and with the waiter who is too handsome. But we smile at one another, lift a glass when something good happens in the game. He is younger than I am and sounds Scottish in the rise and fall of his vowels and the resonance of his laughter and precision of his words. We never speak, it's not about actually making a connection, nothing corporeal or complicated like that. It feels like a very ancient game of gallantry, a mental pavanne.
It is ten in the evening and I am in the amphitheatre of a citadel in a village in southern France. With about one hundred villagers, some tourists, small children, elegant very old women in slim cotton skirts, a small dog or two, I am watching a troupe of dancers from Quebec. There is a full moon and after a hot day the air is cool and fragrant with the smell of lavender in the nearby fields.
A man, slightly overweight, with a moustache, bright roguish eyes and thick hair, and a cane I now see, one leg swinging out to the side, stands in front of me. He needs a hand to climb up the step and I extend mine and he takes it. A firm, dry grasp, enough to give him the spring he needs to get to the next level. We nod- merci, de rien- and before he releases my hand he lifts it close to his lips, just close, not to touch but his eyes are smiling.
So it goes, this summer in Europe. I am something close to how I remember being before, through no choice of my own, I took on the cloak of invisibility, became a cipher to be looked past on the street, a shadow blocking the sun on the patio of a café in midafternoon. Here, in a subtle, lighthearted way, I am again desirable, female, alive . How I secretly think I really am, except that, in North America, no one else knows that.