In Paris, France/ Stories

The Girl With the Red Balloon

As a general rule, when in Paris, one must always wear black, gray, or, if you’re feeling really adventurous, navy blue. I don’t know what is different about this day, but I decide to break that rule and wear red. It is November 26, 2015. Thanksgiving Day in the United States, but just a regular Thursday here in France.

Decked out in a bright red trench coat, I spend the entire day feeling self-conscious, trying to slip by unnoticed in a color that screams, “NOTICE ME!”

As I mill around the Trocadéro, too shy to ask anyone to take my photo, I spot her: a woman in a red jacket, like me. But unlike me, she is wearing all red, from the floppy hat on her head to the big balloon in her hand.

the girl with the red balloon eiffel tower paris

I imagine she must be a famous actress here with a team of photographers and stylists, but then I notice she is alone.

Next thing I know, she is asking me to take her photo. She plops a DSLR into my hand and exclaims, “Merci!”

Thinking she is French, I count “Un, deux, trois” before pressing the shutter button.

When she reviews the photos on her camera, she gasps. “Are you a photographer?”

“Uh, I took a photojournalism class in college…”

My answer appears satisfactory to the woman in red. She proposes that I be her photographer for the next 30 minutes, and she will do the same for me. I find out her name is Ia (pronounced “EE-yuh”), and she is from Georgia (“the country,” she adds, in case there was any confusion).

“You are a super, super girl!” Ia tells me. “This is my last day in Paris, and I don’t have any photos of me.”

And with that, she takes my hand and leads me across a busy street to the Eiffel Tower. The traffic light tells us to stop, and cars are speeding toward us, but she says to me, “Do not be afraid!” and continues to charge through the intersection, dragging me along as I think of what a pity it will be to get hit by a car while visiting Paris’s most famous landmark. Just in time, Ia lifts her red gloved hand to signal to the drivers to stop, and the crazy thing is they listen to her. No one dares to question the woman in red’s authority. No one even honks a horn.

As we make our way across the Pont d’Iéna, the Eiffel Tower growing larger with each step, we see angels. There are women dressed in white flowing gowns and feathered wings, dancing across the bridge.

“How beautiful!” Ia cries. “We must get our photo with them!”

Before I can stop her, she’s chasing them down. She interrupts them mid-dance to strike a pose in their midst.

Ia’s poses surprise me. No smiles, no “holding the Eiffel Tower in the palm of my hand” photos, no. She pouts her lips; she throws her head back and bounces the balloon in her hand; she looks pensively into the distance.

When I ask her what she does for a living, I expect her to say “professional model,” but instead she tells me she is a journalist. Later, she hands me her business card that indeed says, “Journaliste Culterelle.” When I turn it over, I can’t help but smile—there is a red balloon printed on the back.

When it’s my turn to get in front of the camera, I am awkward and stiff, sticking with the only pose I know: standing with one hand on my hip and smiling into the camera.

“Come on, Amy, pose!” Ia entreats me. “You are beautiful! You are in Paris!” Somehow she imparts to me the confidence I have been lacking all day.

By 5 p.m., the sun has slipped beneath the horizon, putting an end to our photo shoot. We hug, and I promise to visit her if I’m ever in Georgia, which on any other day would seem unlikely, but not today. Today, everything is possible.

“You are my sister,” Ia tells me before we part ways. “You will always be in my heart.”

. . .

This essay first appeared in The Wherever Weekly, my weekly sporadic newsletter, in 2016. To be the first to access my latest personal essays, blog posts, and travel and creativity tips, subscribe below:

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