One day last summer I had the good fortune to spend a day alone in Paris with my six year old daughter, Julia. My wife would have joined us but her friend John had come to Paris to meet us and she and he had decided to spend the day together.
Long in advance we had known our plan for this day. We would go to the Jardin du Luxembourg, a large park with paths of dirt and manicured greenery, many hundreds of folding metal bistro chairs, a busy pétanque court, a pond where children sail toy boats, a restaurant with saucisson sandwiches and friendly waiter service, and ― and this is where we were heading ― a humble and old little carousel.
It was our plan because Julia had ridden this carousel when she was about three years old, but at the time was not old enough to play the ring game. Is there a carousel with a ring game here in the US? I don't know, but I don't think so.
Once we had firmed up our summer plans and I knew we could go to Paris I described the game to Julia: Children hold a stick as they go round and round and try to pull a ring out from a ring-dispensing device held by the person who runs the carousel.
It was August 10 at around 12:15 pm when we arrived. The carousel was closed. Canvas blinds pulled down from the roof to the floor circled the perimeter and nobody was there. Worry shot through my body. Much of Paris is closed in August, when French city-dwellers take vacation. What if the carousel was closed on this day ― our only full day in Paris? Quel dommage!
A lot was riding on this. I wanted Julia to experience the magic of a place that I knew we couldn't easily return to ― a magic I was sure she would always remember and cherish, a magic that might not matter to her when she is older. And while we adults have been conditioned to believe that dreams do not always come true, children sometimes live for such things. To children, dreams can come true.
When I told Julia I thought the carousel was closed, her dream seemed in peril. I said we could double-check with someone but that if it was closed we should visit the Mona Lisa. I believe she would have accepted this change of plan. But she did not have to.
A ticket booth clerk at the nearby children’s park said the carousel was closed for lunch and that the man who runs it would return at 1. What a relief! With forty-five minutes to kill, we went to the cafe and ordered a saucisson (ie. salami) sandwich, a Pschitt lemon soda, and a sparkling hard cider. As we waited I made a couple of high-speed photo series of Julia running. This ― and playing the Italian card games Scopa and Briscola ― had become favorite pastimes of ours during our four-week summer trip to Italy and France.
One o’clock rolled around. We could see from where we were sitting that there was no action at the carousel. We shot more photos and kept checking the time. The waiter offered to make a photo of Julia and me.
At around twenty minutes past one, I saw that one of the canvas blinds was raised off the floor by about two feet. It wasn’t moving, but it had moved. Julia wanted to hurry there right away. I wanted to wait a little longer, relax, and drink cider. I knew it would still take time for the carousel to open ― but with Julia's command, we hurried.
When we arrived, the carousel operator ― a man dressed in a khaki safari vest, a lavender short-sleeved button shirt, and white baseball cap ― had finished raising the first blind. We could see in. I couldn’t tell how old the horses are (nor do I know how old the carousel is) but they had peeling paint and rich, old colors. The spacing between them was greater than that at carousels I’ve seen in the US ― and the floor was the actual ground, not a moving platform (the horses were powered from above).
As the carousel man made his way around the interior, he raised each of the other blinds by hand, tucking them into clasps. He did not hurry. We watched as he brought out a broom and a small hand whisk and began to sweep the entire floor ― from the center, between the horses, and outward to the perimeter. He then swept the benches along the outside. The time was now about 1:30. I sat and Julia stood by a little table just beyond the carousel’s entrance path. As the man began to sweep the path itself, his work brought him to within a few feet of us. He said the carousel would open in about ten minutes.
I think what Julia was feeling, as we watched the man sweep and sweep the dirt path that leads to the carousel ― a path that, so far as I could tell, is meant to be topped with dirt ― was excitement, anticipation, and what I would deem “friendly impatience.” She couldn’t wait to get on the carousel. As he swept the path, I felt impatient: why was he sweeping for so long? Why was it opening so late?
What an American I was! Here I was in Paris, just for one day, and I couldn’t push "pause" on my internal needometer. I tried to relax, but it was now past 1:45 ― almost an hour after the time the park clerk had told me the carousel would open.
I said to myself: "I don’t have anything else to do. It's a lovely day in Paris and I'm spending it with my one and only child in a beautiful park. How lucky! Have I any right to feel frustrated?"
I tried to change my attitude. I watched the man as he swept. I saw that his sweeping was successful in its displacement of dirt away from any surfaces encountered by the broom. His goal was simple: to make it right.
He invited Julia and several other children to enter at around two o’clock. Children chose their horses, parents tightened straps, and the man stowed away his brooms and collected the money ―1.50 Euro per ride. He then pushed a button and the carousel began to turn at a slow speed.
The man wove his way between the horses once around and then brought from a little side room many wood sticks, each about two feet in length. He handed one to each child on an outer horse. He then pushed another button and the carousel sped up. He returned to the side room and brought out a few dozen metal rings. He loaded some of them into the ring dispensing device ― a wooden bowling pin-shaped thing that hung by linked chains from a metal post attached to the side of the building.
It works this way: As rings get inserted through a side metal opening, another protrudes from an opening at the bottom ― but doesn't come out unless pulled. The carousel operator holds the device steady so that it doesn’t swing as the children ride by, each trying to hook a ring with his/her stick and pull it out from the dispenser. When a ring is taken, a new one emerges from the bottom and the man inserts another through the side slot. It’s not easy, this ring game. Older children have more success than younger ones.
Let’s pause for a moment. How cool is it that carousels in France (a similar one exists in Lyon but I’m not sure where else) feature such a fun game. Even the oldest or most beautiful carousels in the US seem more special from the outside-looking-in than from within the ride. Most carousels go around and around until they stop, and that’s it. Calliope music. Do they excite anyone except the youngest of children? But in France, children want to ride the carousel multiple times for multiple chances to get more rings. Julia rode it seven times. Others also rode it many times.
It became obvious that parents’ ― myself included ― chief concern between rides was to make sure to pay the man. What we did not realize was that after a ride (or two or three), leather safety straps can become loose. And so, prior to each new ride ― after he pushed the “slow” button ― the carousel man walked between the horses to check each strap for tightness. Sometimes a child’s shirt got pulled up and through the belt so that his/her lower back was exposed. The man then reached under the belt, pulled the shirt down, and straightened it out. Appearance matters.
In my impatience I had missed the raison d’etre of this man. He swept to make things dirt-free. Swept benches meant parents could sit in the shade and not get dirt on their clothes. He opened only when the carousel was ready. Even though they'd waited a while the children enjoyed themselves no less (each ― well, each American child ― joyfully yelled out his/her number count whenever he/she snagged another ring). The man focused on the rings and the passing children as he held the ring dispenser steady, adding rings when needed. And ― what finally made me realize how amazing this person was ―he made sure the children's shirts stayed down.
To this man, children matter. And because the game matters to the children, the game matters to the man. If I was French, perhaps I would understand his sense of ownership ― perhaps it's cultural. Or maybe it's just that he's a good person.
I left wondering if he owns the carousel. I'm not so sure. It’s a carousel in a public park in Paris. Would a carousel operator who runs a carousel in the Jardin du Luxembourg own the carousel ― or is that too quaint? Regardless, I saw how he takes pride in his job. I also saw that the very doing of his job gives him satisfaction because he knows his job gives joy to so many children.
It could be a carousel man. It could be a tax accountant. It could be a sanitation worker or a company CEO or a bus driver, a home cook or a restaurant owner. People can seize an opportunity to do something because they love doing it and because they see how the work will benefit others ― and that can become a source of joy.
What attracts me most to the food places and food people I love is that to these people, work is not a chore. They may do what they do out of financial necessity but their approach includes passion, care, and vicarious joy. The essential biproduct of their work is the happiness of other people.
One day last week, when for the first time I rolled out pastry dough in a certain way, I experienced such pride during the doing. I folded the dough like an envelope over a flattened square of butter and then I rolled it out and folded it more. I took my time, it came out great, and I couldn't wait to share the results.
Perhaps the lesson of all this is ― whenever possible ― "86" the chore! Invest your self in the things that you do. Rewards and joy will follow.