A Paris Moment


A summer storm is imminent and, as we hurry along Rue Vieille du Temple, tiny dust devils dance along the pavement beside us like scruffy dogs.  We scurry past the park adjacent to the Picasso Museum and make it to the restaurant entrance just as the first raindrops pound down on the hot July asphalt.

Earlier in the evening, we had passed A 2 Pas du Dos, a charming restaurant just around the corner from our apartment on Rue Barbette.  The front wall, a series of hinged wood and glass panels, had been accordioned back to open the interior to the street, and tabletop candles glowed invitingly in its dark recesses.  The menu posted by the front door guaranteed gustatory paradise in three courses.

We stand inside the doorway for a moment, peering at our surroundings.  The décor is a modern blend of minimalist furniture and semi-abstract paintings of well-endowed Centaurs.  The maitre d’, sporting a rakish set of sideburns, escorts us to a table and introduces us to Adonis, our waiter for the evening.  For an apératif, Adonis recommends their house specialty, Kir Royale, a mix of Crème de Cassis liqueur and champagne.  Perfect, we decide.  If we can’t paint the town rouge, we can at least go for a purplish blue.  Flashing a brilliant set of Attic teeth, Adonis bustles off to the bar with our order.

This gives us a chance to survey our surroundings.  Casually glancing over the tops of our menus, we admire the nipple rings visible through the mesh T-shirts of the two men sitting beside us.  Across the aisle, a very mature businessman in dark glasses is entertaining a very curvy young blonde.  Near the door, a party of women with sensibly-shaved heads are feeding a Golden Labrador bread sticks beneath their table.   Adonis arrives and, with a flourish, deposits two Champagne flutes on our table.  We raise our glasses and toast our move to Paris.

Linda and I had been to the city of lights many times before as visitors and had always enjoyed the restaurants, museums, cafés and stores.   But only in our wildest dreams did we ever imagine living here – that was for millionaires and glamorous people in celebrity magazines.

But, sometimes, fate delivers your dreams on a silver platter.  In the middle of June, Linda received a call from Orlin, the manager of a big American firm based in Houston.

“How would you like to work for a year in Paris?”

“You mean, Paris, Texas?”

“Hell, no,” he boomed.  “Paris, France.”

It took Linda a moment to find her voice.  “Do you need a decision right now?”

“Course not, Honey.  Take a week to think about it.”

We spent the next seven days in a state of giddy dread.  We knew that an international assignment, even in a city as wonderful as Paris, was no promenade in the parc; there were always obstacles.  Of all the possible problems that might arise, speaking French, not unusually, was right there on top of the list.

I grew up in a town where children were arbitrarily punished with compulsory French lessons.  Madame LaGlace was a hatchet-faced woman who would order us to conjugate verbs for a half-hour every morning until she could stand it no more, and would harangue us in a salty French that we were never able to locate in our primers.

After two years of sufferance, I was released from Madame LaGlace’s ministrations and fled to senior high school where, through the kind of luck experienced by passengers on the Titanic, I was assigned to her husband, Monsieur LaGlace.   Although he struggled manfully to pound the niceties of French into my thick skull, the highlight of five years of lessons was my ability to order a peanut-butter and banana sandwich.

Not that I was afraid of going to a country where I did not comprehend the language  – I once spent a year in Australia — but there are strict laws in France against abusing the language.  My version of French went way past abuse, more in the area of aggravated assault.  I envisioned the language police pulling me over to the curb and forcing me to speak into a voice analyzer to confirm that I was well over the limit of tolerance.  I would then be cuffed and hauled before a magistrate who would sentence me to four years with Madame LaGlace.   Would I risk going to Paris for that?

A second concern was the matter of documentation.  Linda needed to start the job immediately, and such niceties as work visas would have to wait until a later date.  The agreement was that she would be hired as a consultant through our company in Calgary and merely be stationed in Paris on a temporary basis, but this was a flimsy fig leaf in the official eyes of Gallic bureaucracy.  Would we have to travel to France on the undercarriage of the Eurostar?

On the other hand, this was Paris.  Several years ago, we stayed at a renovated convent on the Ile St. Louis, an island in the middle of the Seine.  Each morning, after dining on a buffet of espresso and croissants in the tiny breakfast crypt, we would venture forth to explore the city.  The weather was sunny and warm, the food was sublime and the people we met gracious to the verge of embarrassment.

One night we ate in the basement of a tiny restaurant around the corner from our hotel.  The veal was cooked to the point where it literally fell apart with a fork.  The jus, made from cream and bouillon and Madeira wine, was the tastiest sauce that had ever passed through my lips.  After the meal, we walked down to the shore of the Seine.  On our right, Notre Dame was ablaze with spotlights; to the east, the full moon rose over the river.  I held Linda in my arms and kissed her — it was one of the most beautiful, and romantic, moments I had ever experienced.

Not that Paris was ceaselessly wonderful; the next time we went back, we suffered a hectic kaleidoscope of snooty waiters and kamikaze drivers.  Once, while staying in a hotel in La Defense, I made the mistake of going for a haircut.  The barber, wearing a tiny black T-shirt and a bolt through his belly button, shaved my hair and beard back to the stubble point favored by his personal hero, Yasser Arafat.  After we finally escaped, we vowed never to come back.

I understand this is typical; on one visit to Paris you are smothered in a joie de vivre that literally warms your heart, and the next you are treated with all the courtesy normally reserved for a Panzer tank division — and there is no predicting which reception you are going to receive.  As an absolute last resort, we decided to ask our friends for advice.

“Are you nuts?” exclaimed Marge, a long time friend and Francophobe.  “Those Frogs will steal the gum off the sole of your boots and sell it back to you as snails.”

Brendan, our Irish friend with a fondness for everything cultural and alcoholic, had a different point of view.  “I’d give up Guinness for a year in Paris.”

But the deciding word came from Phil, sitting at home thinking about the malignant growth in his brain and all of the wonderful things left undone.  “If you don’t go, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

Well, you can’t argue with that.

Everyone has a vision of the Perfect Paris in their head, one that has been culled from movies and books and visits.  For me, it consisted of the smell of fresh bread wafting from corner bakeries, a busker playing the accordion on a bridge over the Seine, a florist sprinkling petals from a bucket of old roses on the sidewalk.

Reality, alas, sucks.  Paris is a huge metropolis spread out over hundreds of square kilometres.  It is big, noisy and dirty.  As we searched through the various arrondisements, we soon realized the difficulty of our task; how were we going to find that Paris of our dreams, a neighbourhood that combined access to the delights of a big city with the quiet charm of a rural village?

The list was short, and not too sweet.  La Défence is modern, open, clean, and close to Linda’s work.  But it was also built in the seventies to serve as a business centre for France’s expanding economy.  The massive apartment blocks that dot its landscape have about as much charm as a charity hospital, but without the quality of food.

The Champs Élysées forms the centre of the 8th arrondisement, a wide, attractive boulevard running from Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde adjacent to the Louvre.  Swank hotels are outnumbered only by luxury shoe shops where, every weekend, countless women abandon their husbands for the intimate embrace of Charles Jourdan.  Needless to say, if you don’t own at least one Sheikhdom, you go barefoot.

The Left Bank, once the haunt of Hemingway and Sartre, is less expensive, but less, well, French.   McDonald’s hamburgers, Jeep Cherokees and USA Today news boxes dominate the streets.  You are far more likely to hear the pros and cons of The Sopranos being discussed than existentialism at the sidewalk tables of Café de Flores.

Only one possibility remained.  Years ago, on a brief stopover in Paris, we stayed at a tiny inn on the Right Bank, in the Marais district.  The Hôtel Acacias was barely 12 feet wide at street level, but it burrowed up through a 16th century apartment block, a rabbit warren of cubbyholes, dormers and cul-de-sacs.  Whenever we ventured forth out onto the Rue des Archives, we were greeted by men in Lycra tops and shiny purple work boots, Hassidic Jews in black coats and Fedoras, and swarthy Moroccans wheeling immense barrels of briny olives down back lanes.  Beautiful women in designer dresses sat with their leather-clad boyfriends at sidewalk cafés.  A cacophony of bells rang the hour from crumbling church steeples.  It was ancient, it was magic and, quite frankly, it was weird.

When we returned home, I looked up the history of the Marais.  Once upon a time, the neighborhood was home to wealthy kings, beautiful princesses and inspired poets.  It also sheltered adulterous queens, ruthless dukes and infamous felons.  Civil wars, literary masterpieces, treachery and liberty were all plotted and hatched here.  For a brief time in history, the Marais was a fairytale kingdom and an evil sanctuary, a greenhouse of flowering intellectualism and a haven for evildoers.  It was a neighbourhood rich in controversy and conspiracy, culture and madness.

In other words, it sounded like our kind of place.

At the invitation of a rental agent, we take a cab and make our way up Rue Vieille du Temple to Rue Barbette, a tiny lane near the Picasso Museum.  The street, about 100 metres long, is lined with tall, narrow apartments.  The taxi lets us out in front of a set of blue double doors marked with a 23; the location of the apartment for lease.

We stand back and take a good hard look at the façade, which, to put it charitably, would make even the most hardened Victorian orphan blush.  The building is about 300 years old, judging from the paint job.  The wooden window shutters are hanging at angles that only Salvador Dali would appreciate, and some graffiti goon has sprayed a swirl of black acrylic pornography across the front door.  I am reluctant to turn the doorknob with a bare hand, but finally screw up the courage to enter.

The foyer of the building perfectly matches the exterior; a large green garbage bin partially blocks the passageway, and the cobblestones beneath our feet are so old you can still see the gouges made by horseshoes.  The musty smell that hangs in the air makes me wonder what else the horses might have left behind.

We are reluctant to go any further, but the rental agent comes clattering down the wrought-iron, circular staircase and kisses us on both cheeks.  Monique pats her hairdo and confidently assures us that the trip upstairs is well worth the effort.  The apartment, she explains, has been renovated and decorated by the Maestro, an Italian conductor of great distinction, and he had given her instructions to show it only to the most discerning clientele.  Never ones to resist a little flattery, we follow her up the stairs and enter the apartment.

As Monique promised, the interior has indeed been given the once over.  The plaster walls sport a shiny coat of white paint and the galley kitchen has been upgraded with modern appliances.  But it is the living room that seals the deal.  The ceiling soars five metres above the hardwood floors and an immense sandstone fireplace covers one wall.  Two floor-to-ceiling windows fill the south wall, and a large, wrought iron chandelier hangs from the centre of the room.

We sign the lease on the spot.  It’s a little pricey at 13,000 Francs a month, but there’s no getting around the charm.  I hug Linda in delight; for the next year, this will be our home.

Several days later, when we arrive with our belongings, the graffiti has been scrubbed off the outside of the building and the foyer has been given a thorough cleaning.  Any lingering doubts we might have had over our new home vanish.  After we unpack our bags, I have the chance to examine the apartment more closely.  The bedroom is tucked into the back, away from the street-noise, which I notice tends to rise to the level of a circus act on occasion, and the bathroom is outfitted with a walk-in shower stall and a claw-foot tub large enough to scrub an ox.  Thankfully, there is more than enough space in the living room for me to set up a writing desk, and the dining room table is large enough to swing a cat comfortably or sit eight guests uncomfortably.

The furnishings are another matter.  The living room contains a buffalo-hide lounge chair and a propeller from a Sopwith Camel biplane.  In the dining room, hanging over the table, is a large wildlife portrait of what appears to be a cross between a duck and a constipated stork.  At noon, when we sit down to lunch, it hovers above the table, staring balefully down at our tuna sandwiches.

But these are minor inconveniences, details that can be rectified with a little judicial use of closet space.  That evening, as we sit drinking our Kir Royales in A 2 Pas de Dos, we begin to plan how we can turn it into our own home.  Some throw cushions here for color, a sideboard there to hold the stereo; perhaps a few new pictures to break up the white expanse of walls.

Our appetizers, preceded by a waft of Adonis’ cologne, soon arrive.  The ravioli is stuffed with artichokes and sprinkled with fresh coriander and smoked bacon, all served in a bowl of beef broth.  The seafood is calamari laced with goat cheese, anchovies and herbs.  Both are perfectly spiced and exquisitely presented.

We are far more excited to find out what lay in store for us when we venture out tomorrow.For the main course, Adonis arrives with a lovingly prepared roast rack of lamb.  The meat is served with a plate of vegetables that includes fava beans, courgettes, asparagus, roast onions and garlic cloves, each one separately prepared, then mixed together.  I once saw a wildlife documentary in which a school of Piranha pick the bones of a Gnu clean in 30 seconds, and I have no doubt whatsoever they would have been impressed with our efforts.   We pause only to gulp down an occasional mouthful of the house red before our plates are licked entirely clean.

Thank goodness we didn’t order the Gnu.  For dessert, the chef prepares roast figs in home-made ice cream and a chocolate cake with a hot fudge center.  By the time we are done, I cannot eat another fig.  We thank the staff volubly, and are bowed back out onto the street with kisses and handshakes.

By now, the storm has blown over and a full moon peeks over the Picasso museum.  As we walk home arm-in-arm, a warm breeze blows up the road, carrying with it the smell of summer asphalt, rain and urine.  Revelers drift up Rue Vieille du Temple toward the bars and clubs at the heart of Marais, but we decide to call it an early night and get a good sleep.

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