Saturday, September 19, 2009

Enigmatic sights

If you have walked around the Tour Monparnasse at night, especially on weekends, you have probably seen her: a woman who plays speed chess on the sidewalk, in order to raise money for a trip to Australia.
As far as I can glean, she is Australian, somewhere in her 20's, and the sign that she has made explains that her mom has lung cancer and she is trying to raise money to go back to Australia and visit her. When I first saw her playing, the sign said that she need to raise 12oo euros. So she has set up a chess board on the sidewalk, and a boom box cranks out some techno at a pretty high volume, and she challenges people to speed chess matches (the sign also explains that she was a high school chess champ). She does not exactly charge people to play her, but the implicit understanding, I think, is that if you do play, you will leave some euros in the case. There are always many people watching her play, and no shortage of people waiting to play her. Part of the draw, I suspect, is playing this tall, blonde, young woman. Most of her challengers are young men, whom I suspect think they can easily beat her, since she is young, and a woman, and blond.
I've watched her play for a few minutes on several occasions, and she has yet to lose a game, although things looked a bit grim a couple of times. Speed chess is sort of mesmerizing, even if you do not like chess-- there is a sort of aggression to the game, and a lot of instinct and snap judgments. Watching these cocky guys realize they are in deep trouble is also mesmerizing, especially since in chess, if you are any good, you know you are toast well before the end actually arrives.
The story, however, has a further wrinkle. A few blocks down on Blvd. Montparnasse, in front of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, you'll find a first-rate churro and crepe stand. Next to it sits an elderly and rather sad-looking man, asking in a whisper for spare change. A few nights ago, we were walking by, and there was our Australian chess player, squatting down, holding the old man's hands and talking to him. She got up to leave, and put some Euros in his cup, and he took her hand, and kissed it again and again, and she smiled and told him she'd see him soon. And she got into a BMW station wagon, where four passengers were waiting, and drove off.
She is back at her corner tonight, playing chess, striking a blow for feminism, and her sign says she only has 450 Euros left to raise.

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