Paris is a fine city any time of the year but for some the time of year when it is at its finest would be the first few days of January. Paris can be a satisfying trip if you pinch your euros efficiently. And, because the French love the New Year ever so much, there are wonderful Parisian sales to take advantage of. The sales are government regulated, so everything is the same percentage off. But once, a curious incident occurred on the Boulevard St. Michel.
At a clothing outlet, there arrived two aging French women on holiday in Paris. Their names were Cordelia and Emma. The two of them had met in Lille four years ago when they noticed that both of them went to the same café every Thursday for breakfast and had always ordered the same dish the other was eating. They had been casual friends ever since. In December they had both received their annual bonuses. They decided to blow all of it in Paris in January. They saw no other pressing need for it.
The first of the sales began on the second day of the year. Cordelia and Emma arrived at the clothing outlet and discovered that the door would not open. It was Cordelia who tried to open the door at first. She wrapped her fingers around the large handle attached to the metallic outline of the glass door and pulled. Nothing happened. She pulled again. Cordelia was testy in all things and now she was irritated. This did not change her luck, for the door would not open. She pulled a third time. The door would not give way. The door was, in her mind, becoming a nemesis. Cordelia was certainly strong for a woman of her age. But the door did not yield.
It was now Emma’s turn. She calmed her friend and explained that this was the type of door that opened not out but in. Emma slipped off her leather gloves and stretched her still-warm fingers out across the glass part of the door and pushed. Nothing happened. She pushed harder, now frustrated herself. Nothing happened. Emma may not have been as angry as Cordelia but her patience was far shorter. The women saw that the outlet was open; they could see that it was full of people on the other side of the glass. Emma and Cordelia made a pact: they would conquer this infernal door.
After spending another half an hour trying in vain to open the door, Cordelia noticed a young man mounted on a bicycle. He half-stood, half-sat there on the edge of the narrow curb and looked as if he was waiting for something. After ten minutes, she noticed that the young man was still there. Indeed the young man on the bicycle had truncated his usual route after noticing two elderly women trying to open the giant glass doors of this clothing outlet. It was the oddest thing.
Morning became afternoon and more people started circling to observe this most peculiar sight. At first it was just bicycle boy, but then came women with strollers, tourists from London, snarky teenagers, and an assortment of Parisians voyeuristically peeping in on the bizarre spectacle of Emma and Cordelia struggling in vain to open the door with admirable tenacity, but not seeming to notice the very obvious alternative that everyone else had noticed immediately: less than a quarter way down the block was the actual entrance to the clothing outlet, with its even bigger doors spread wide open for all to enter. Yet none of the people gathered decided to mention this to the two persistent women. They simply wanted to see what was going to happen.
Four hours passed.
By now three camera crews were jockeying for position and the two women had developed a citywide following. When Emma and Cordelia spoke about taking a short break for dinner, the people took it upon themselves them to offer them snacks and water, explaining that they were in support of their struggle. Emma and Cordelia probably would have been confused by this had not all their attention been focused on the door problem. They accepted everything at face value. The clothing outlet was also benefiting from the situation. People were flocking to its open door and pouring in to see Emma and Cordelia from the other side. This stopped once it appeared to anger the duo further; people had developed a certain attachment to the women and did not want to see them upset.
Emma and Cordelia struggled on. They pushed and pulled and finally decided to adopt new strategies. They threw rocks at the glass and probed the door looking for a weak spot. They considered calling a locksmith but discovered that their phones had run out of power.
By evening all of Paris (and all of France) was caught up in the duo’s struggle, now calling them the Porte Pioneers. Emma and Cordelia knew that the crowd was with them and asked that someone call someone with a blowtorch. This proved to be a mistake. The man with the blowtorch put on his mask, asked everyone to stand back, ignited his torch, and succeeded only in welding the two doors together. Now even angrier, Emma and Cordelia got the crowd to pass along buckets of water. They would hurl the freezing cold water on the smelted door, in an attempt to reverse the effects of the heat. This particular twist in the story was discussed at length that evening on Paris’ most popular local news station, where a chemist indicated that cold water had the opposite effect on smelting. An attempt at using a battering ram failed as well, and the fans of Emma and Cordelia were propping up corkboards all over the street where people could post suggestions on how to open the infernal doors.
It was nearly midnight when my train pulled into Gare du Nord. I was working for an online magazine in Cardiff and I was in Paris to report on some new controversial tax plan. During the train ride I had been on Twitter looking for public reaction to the plan. Instead, all I could find were remarks about these two crazy women trying to open a clothing store.
As soon as the train entered Gare du Nord I walked down to the Boulevard St. Michel. By now it was raining outside. I saw the gathering, now a thousand strong. I slipped my way through the throng and I found Cordelia about to light a stick of dynamite. I paused at this sight to take in the situation, which was interesting to say the least.
Like everyone else had done I looked down the block and I saw the giant open doors to the same store. I walked forward to Emma and Cordelia, who had just finished the fire and were about to light the stick. The crowd cried to me to stop but I only understand a little French and I got over to Emma and Cordelia and knelt down and when I knelt down they looked at me with the flame still burning in Cordelia’s hands and I motioned down the block and I said in fractured French: “Madame and Madame. You do realize there is another way?”
Jonathan Shapiro, Age 18, Grade 12, Saint Ann’s School, Silver Key