Today in Fells Points, Baltimore. I'm there to meet a friend in town for a meeting. I just park in front of the water, right across the street of the Bonaparte pastry shop, one of the best French pastry shop in the area. A short walk to the meter to get a sticker for my car but the machine is not working with my credit card. I can't get a parking receipt to print and I don't want to try again for fear of getting charged every time I try.
I see two women ready to leave and I just call out to them for some help. Maybe they have the change for $4. One of the ladies comes up to me. She is about 60 years old. The air of a favorite grandmother, with a little smile in the corner of her mouth as if she was anticipating some joy that only she could see.
I ask her about the machine but with my accent she quickly asks me about my nationality and with my answer, she immediately switches to French. Her French is slow but perfect and singing. She is clearly enjoying speaking it and it is my turn to ask questions. She has never been to France but was born in Alexandria, Egypt from Italian parents who put her in a French school.
She jokes that her Arabic is almost gone and that her Italian is too rusty. "Not many people speak it around here" she says, and the ones who speak it, speak it in a way that is different from the ones she grew up speaking at home.
She used to live in New Jersey but moved to Baltimore a couple of months ago to be close to her daughter. She lives in a house for old people. She turns her head a bit whispering "old people only complain all the time. I prefer to be surrounded by young people. They have more energy". I follow her look to her car where her companion is sitting waiting for our conversation to end.
We laugh. I'd love to keep talking to her, to ask her stories from her childhood in Egypt. Ask about her impression of America when she arrived here probably as a teenager or a young adult. I'd like to know all the details that are never mentioned in any book. The smells, the sounds, the people. The same feeling than when I buy a new book. The promise of stories in these pages. I am ready to ask her for a phone number or an address but I fear not to be able to follow up on the enthusiasm of this instant. I fear to be disappointed. The best stories are the ones that are left untold. They are the ones still open in the imagination. I can see my friend coming toward us from his hotel so I just ask her name. "Nelly" she says. I tell her mine and we part. She gets into her car and leaves. I still have to find $4 in quarters to pay the parking machine.