At 7:34 on a soft spring Paris evening, 5-year-old Sonia inspects the carousel at Place du Trocadero the way she might scrutinize the window of a tempting patisserie.
Will she ride the finest horse in the stable? Or climb aboard the shiny Le Petit Prince biplane? Or perhaps lounge inside a pastel seashell surrounded by smiling fish?
She points a stubby finger at the plastic wicker basket of a Jules Verne-style hot-air balloon.
At 7:35 she is soaring above the sidewalk, over the heads of envious toddlers clutching their mothers' hands. Up, up, up into the sky she goes.
Never mind that she's barely three feet off the ground.
That is the fantasy of the Paris carousels, enchanting time machines that transport their riders to another era for two euros &
about $2.70 &
less than the price of the ice cream cones and cotton candy for sale next to the ticket booth.
Dozens of them are scattered like miniature circus tents across the cityscape &
in parks, on street corners, in squares grand and modest. Some, like this one, are double-decker extravaganzas with a menagerie on two levels.
Sonia's mother, a simple gray head scarf knotted under her chin, stands barely three feet from the dizzying whirl of colors, smiling and waving emphatically as her daughter lifts off.
"I bring her here to show her there is more to life than ugly high-rise buildings and broken streets," said Sonia's mother, Farida. "I want her to know beautiful places so she can have dreams."
Farida is an illegal immigrant from Algeria &
"Please, no last name, please, no photograph." She lives at the end of a subway line in one of the government-subsidized housing projects that ring Paris. Two, maybe three times a year, she and her daughter take the Metro from their world of concrete into the magical City of Lights so Sonia can romp in a park, ride a carousel, see the Eiffel Tower.
In a city segregated by race, ethnicity and social standing, the carousel, or manege as the French call it, has become one of the capital's greatest social equalizers. The children of North African immigrants in street market T-shirts mount horses next to the sartorially resplendent youngsters of Paris' upper crust and the tourist kids in shorts and tennis shoes. In this fantasy world of painted ponies and magical sea creatures, all children squeal in the same communal language of delight. No translation necessary.
At 7:36, one minute into the ride, the glint of the descending sun through a leafy canopy turns Sonia's laughing face the color of molten honey.
She passes the Eiffel Tower, a blur of khaki and gray metal spider webs tilting skyward. Another quarter turn, and the monolithic, sand-colored facade of the Trocadero floats past atop a spray of fountains. Another quarter and there's her mother's brilliant smile, waving arm and gray scarf. Another quarter and she's once again skimming past the cloud of lime-green sycamore leaves.
She looks up and the ceiling is painted with enchanting scenes of Paris &
the Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur, the Moulin Rouge, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral.
Behind her, three pearl white horses skewered with gilded poles bob up and down in time to blaring music. In front of her, a black-haired boy in a red shirt clutches the worn leather reins of a glossy ebony plastic horse trailing a tail of real horsehair. He urges it faster and faster on its familiar clockwise journey.
Time stands still even as the world reels by and the breeze whips at the riders' hair.
These modern-day merry-go-rounds are descendants of French equestrian festivals and competitions more than three centuries ago. Back then, extravagantly dressed riders demonstrated their skills in lavish ceremonies accompanied by the music of the most notable composers of the day.
Today the music is canned, scratchy and loud. It only enhances the carnival atmosphere.
At 7:38:30, three-and-a-half minutes after Sonia lifted off in her balloon, the carousel glides to a stop. Sonia returns to earth. Reluctantly, she clambers out of the basket beneath the cream-and-rust-colored balloon.
She walks away from her fantasy world, past the ice cream cones and cotton candy her mother cannot afford to buy her. She glances back at her balloon wistfully, once, twice, three times.
A few minutes later three giddy American teen-agers approach the ticket booth.
"Are we too old to ride the merry-go-round?" one asks the attendant inside the glass cage.
He replies in thickly accented English, "One is never too old to ride the carousel."
In Paris, two Euros buys a spin back in time