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The International Writers Magazine
The French Girl

Brief Encounter in the Forbidden City
Paul Haire

I sit on my bike, propped up against the bronze railings and close my eyes, the sun's rays pleasantly warming my face and body, I am oblivious to the throngs of people all around, content in my own world. I take out my camera to take some pictures but nothing jumps out. I aim at a few people but then become shy and pretend to be taking something else behind them.

A girl in sunglasses is resting against the railings in front of me. She looks Italian or French with dark hair, sunglasses and a backpack. She smiles at me and I smile back, my senses momentarily aroused but I've been in this situation many times and it usually comes to nothing so I return my awareness to enjoying the sunshine as she turns away. When I open my eyes once more she is again smiling at me, I smile back and then before I know it she says a big "Hi'', this startles me but I try to act calmly as she moves closer and we begin to talk.

Her name is Alice and she is staying in Beijing only for a week after attending a conference in Wuhan. She is very pretty. We talk for a few minutes about nothing in particular and just as I am thinking of ways to say goodbye she asks if I want to go for coffee. The forwardness of this knocks me back a little, nevertheless, I agree and we head to Starbucks in Wanfujing.

We make our way through the crowds and the massive entrance tunnels to the Forbidden Palace, people milling all around, this place is never quiet. I learn that she has never seen Tiananmen square, so I bring her out into the world's largest urban square, with some sense of pride, happy that I can reveal this man made marvel to someone, though she seems unimpressed. We walk along chatting together, me pulling my bike and trying to impress her with stories of life in China. Though her stories impress me more she lives in Geneva and works in Chamonix. I become jealous as I think of clean air, steep alpine mountains and lush meadows, skiing in winter and hiking in summer. The complete opposite of dirty, urban, hulking Beijing. She is a paraglider, something which makes me like her even more, the outdoors man in me being drawn to active, outgoing girls. However, after initial small talk, awkward silences begin appearing, and my self confidence begins to falter and I wonder whether it was such a good idea to agree to coffee. I park my bike as we reach Wanfujing and lead Alice down into the bowels of Oriental Plaza to Starbucks. It's too crowded though, as usual, so we opt for another café instead.

We sit down and wait for our coffee's. Then real awkwardness sets in. I begin to panic, becoming self conscious, my mind is unable to think. She senses my awkwardness and also becomes uncomfortable, the mood is tense and I berate myself for getting into this situation, trying to be someone I'm not. However, after ingesting some caffeine my mood lightens and my confidence returns.

We talk more about Geneva and her work, China and my life here. She is successful and has a career and a house in Chamonix, one of the most expensive places to live in the world and she is only two years older than me. Suddenly I am acutely aware of my lack of achievement materially, my lack of a career, home, and the fragile day to day existence I am currently living.

I suggest some places for her to visit in Beijing, including restaurant areas, and  am suddenly aware that she probably doesn't have anyone to eat dinner with this evening so I invite her to a Chinese restaurant I know on Nan Luo Gu Xiang.

As I cycle home to get ready I can't help but feel happy, my ego having been boosted by the attention of a pretty and intelligent French girl. Maybe I was just in the right place at the right time. In this overwhelming city a foreign face can be a comforting and familiar sight, easing the sense of culture shock and alienation.
No actually, on second thoughts, I think she talked to me just because I'm bloody gorgeous.
© Paul Haire April 2007
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