On a hot June Saturday in Paris, I strolled the ivory-white shopping streets behind the Musée d’Orsay museum wearing a black sundress and green-tinted aviator sunglasses. It was the furthest I’d ever been from home, and I was excited about getting to know the world on my own, but I was still learning how to maneuver in a foreign country.
I went into a local corner store and while checking out, struck a conversation with a cashier. “Find everything ok?” he asked.
Almost defensively, I asked how he knew I spoke English, and he pointed to my sunglasses, saying that only Americans wear aviators.
Laughing, I asked where I could buy some souvenirs for my friends, and he walked me to a nearby window vendor and helped me checkout. I was slightly skeptical of the stranger’s generosity, but I was proud of myself for being open enough to not reject someone’s offer to help me out.
Our mission complete, we introduced ourselves — I was Madison from Minnesota, and he was Mbarek from Morocco. I had nothing to do before meeting with my tour group later, and he had just left work with 30 minutes until he had to go back, so we decided to get coffee.
At a crammed outdoor cafe, we worked through my limited-French and his limited-English to discuss who we were and how we got to Paris. It was my second day on a performing arts tour in the city, and he just moved to the city a few weeks ago.
We smiled through our conversation’s earnestness, and I felt empowered, feeling as if I could go grab a coffee with anyone I wanted, anywhere in the world.
Needing to return to work, Mbarek walked me to the Musée d’Orsay to say goodbye. We wanted to keep in touch, so he put his number in my phone, and we parted ways.
Returning from dinner with my tour group later that night, I tried texting him, but it wasn’t sending. I thought it must be my phone plan, but even the hotel landline wasn’t getting through. I wasn’t heartbroken, just disappointed I couldn’t stay connected with my first friend I met abroad.
In April of the following year, I was in France again, after saving up money to travel to Europe on my own for a few weeks, something that became my goal after my first trip.
On my last day in Paris, as I went to revisit my favorite sites for the last time, I started retracing my steps back across the Seine River, toward the shopping streets behind the Musée d’Orsay, until seeing the same orange awning of the supermarket I met my friend at.
Mbarek, again, wearing an orange uniform vest, was at the same register inside. Shocked, I ran to the frozen food aisle to collect my thoughts.
Was I supposed to reintroduce myself? How should I bring up our cafe trip? I looked different. My hair was longer and I was wearing a scarf and jacket, not a dress like the first time.
But I had my green aviator sunglasses in my purse. I picked out a random snack to purchase and walked up to his register. “You look familiar,” he said.
Half-relieved, I pulled out my sunglasses and put them on. “I have these, if that helps,” I said. His eyes got wide.
“MADISON!” he yelled. “It’s been a year!”
We chuckled, having thought we’d never see each other again. He said he still thought of our encounter frequently, regretting he hadn’t taken my number down too when we said goodbye, as he’d later realized he had typed his new number in my phone wrong.
Just like the first time we met, he walked out of work and we picked up lunch. Eating on the Seine River’s ledge, we were able to connect much further, as we were both more conversational in each other’s languages. We both felt more comfortable in Paris.
Before we left, he wrote down his number on a napkin and I stored it in my wallet, promising to text him later. We said goodbye at the river and parted ways again.
The next morning, on my train leaving the city, I looked for the napkin piece with Mbarek’s number in my wallet, and couldn’t find it. Somehow, I had lost it.
Again, almost a year later, I was leaving Paris with no way to contact my friend.
I haven’t been able to connect with Mbarek again since meeting him for a second time, but I’ve learned to stay optimistic. Our short interactions together showed that even as two strangers from opposite sides of the world meeting in an unfamiliar place, it’s possible to find connections as long as you’re open, kind, and receptive to any opportunity.
Whether we will meet again is unknown — if things are meant to happen, they will — but I’m proud of myself for taking chances wherever I go, whether in front of the world’s greatest art museums or in a corner-store supermarket.