The man from Paris and I were having coffee and breakfast at an outside table at Miss Cordelia's in Harbor Town. It was a warm, sunny morning, a prelude to another bright, soul-wiltingly humid July day in Memphis. The man from Paris was a business writer for Agence France-Presse. He was staying at my house under the auspices of the Memphis Council for International Visitors as part of a month-long sojourn in the U.S. He'd spent time in Washington, D.C., North Carolina, Atlanta, and other spots, mostly in the South.
As he observed the passing joggers, the lively conversations at nearby tables, the mothers walking by with strollers and dogs in tow, he remarked: "I've seen so many American cities with downtowns that are lifeless. This is really pretty striking." And it was. From where we sat, Memphis was alive, urbane, interesting. The man from Paris was impressed.
He spent the day being squired around — to the Chamber of Commerce, to industrial sites on Presidents Island and near the airport, to the National Civil Rights Museum. When he returned to my house, he was hot and tired but pleased with the stories he'd found.
My wife and I took the man from Paris out to dinner that night at a Midtown restaurant. It was bustling and crowded and smelled of sauteed butter and smoky herbs. Over glasses of wine, we discussed his day and his thoughts on Memphis. Bottom line: He liked us. He was impressed. He even wanted to go see Graceland before catching his plane the next day.
Joining us at dinner was a representative from International Visitors, a Memphian who escorts foreigners around the city every month. She was pleased that the man from Paris had had such a good experience, but, as she confided to me, two other Memphis guests had not had such a pleasant time.
Two women visiting from Thailand — a professor and her interpreter — were staying at a hotel near Court Square. When they ventured out to walk around, they were immediately accosted by several aggressive panhandlers. Frightened, they hurried back to their hotel room and refused to leave again without accompaniment. Needless to say, these two won't be writing love letters about Memphis. Just the opposite, I suspect.
Last week, when it came to international visitors, we went one for three.