I was back in Paris again in September 2018. Here are a few impressions from my trip there.
- At Charles de Gaulle airport, the announcements and signs are in French, English and Mandarin – a sign of the new world order. (Well, if you are a commerçant at the Louis Vuitton store on the Champs-Élysées, with dozens of Chinese queuing up outside your store before the opening hour of 09H30, you’d also learn Mandarin rather quickly). In fact, you’d be one step ahead – you’d have Chinese staff in your employ. I have the usual anguish about my suitcase getting lost, and it is late, true to form. The train carriages to central Paris are bursting with baggage and people. Two accordion players in the metro made me feel at home, though. I alight at Denfert-Rochereau, and catch a taxi driven by a rather aged French lady who could not lift my suitcase into the boot if she tried. This is the new demographic order in the developed world …
- It is 13H30 and my room at Hotel Unic Renoir on the Rue de Montparnasse is not ready. The receptionist is on lunch, so a North African cleaner woman doubles for him during his extensive lunch break. She did not have le droit – the right – to book me in, non, desolée, she says, setting her Hoover aside and wiping her hands on her apron. A shrug of the shoulders and a lame smile summarises the hopelessness of my situation. There is nothing to do but wait for the receptionist’s return from lunch. Et en plus, I shouldn’t get my hopes up for his speedy return, she advises, as the receptionist seemed to have left for lunch with a gargantuan appetite in his eyes. From this you can surmise, gentle friends, that I wasn’t staying at the Hotel Ritz at Place Vendôme with the BCBG. There I would have had three uniformed staff members overwhelming me with an understated reception, comme-il-faut, straight out of the Swiss International Hotel school curriculum.
- What to do but to go to the Café Odessa on the corner to await the satiation of the receptionist’s appetite. I settle in at the bar and take in the Montparnasse late-Summer Saturday lunch crowd. The barman is in a determined cleaning frenzy, casting out splatters from the counter top as he would demons, and arranging what is disarranged so that it is ready for the next dis-arrangement. In between all this activity he throws me a quick glance – ‘Monsieur!’ – then refocuses on the counter top that has his actual attention. I waffle my first instruction, pondering between options, which doesn’t fit into his current purposefulness. A clipped ‘Pardon!’ from him jolts me into issuing a clearer order: a glass of Pouilly-Fumé AOC Domaine de Roux s’il vous plaît. He acknowledges this with a rapid nod then carries on wiping as if I were a mirage. I look around. There is industry among the waiters, the place is a beehive, they come and go at the counter in waves. I don’t quite want to eat but with an eye on dinner ask the dapper manager, who wears a tie and issues commands to the waiters on the fly, whether they serve ris-de-veau here. ‘Non, we don’t.’ ‘Do you know where I can get some in this quartier?’ I ask, knowing that I’m setting myself up for a fall. ‘Ah Non!’ he says in a rasping staccato. ‘Ça, je ne sais pas!’ he adds on the move, imparting not ignorance, but utter dismissal. And with that, he turns on his heels and carries on bee-hiving around. My masochistic side felt so fulfilled, so nurtured again, content with its place in the world’s hierarchy, down there, below the hauteur of Parisian café waiters. It felt so good to be dismissed into oblivion by a self-important non-owner-yet-manager, ahhh. The wine, of course, is excellent, and consoles me with my lot in this world.
- I return to the hotel well after 14H00, when they should be ready to book me in. The receptionist has indeed arrived, and has a sated, unhurried look in his eyes. The contrast with the pace of the café could not be greater. It’s the very worst thing about heavy meals – they tend to slow one down. No, I am not booked in at this hotel, he puffs, toad-like, but at the sister hotel 100 meters down the road. Sorry, Monsieur Pestana, but you’ll have to take your suitcase there, he rumbles. So I wheel it down the pavement and enter one of those typical small hotels dotted all over the backstreets of Paris. It looks slightly more upmarket than the first one. An Asiatic in a correspondingly more upmarket French accent books me in. There is a crowdlet in front of the small lift, all scurrying to assault the elevator which can at most take two people at a time, with space to perhaps squeeze in a suitcase as well. I eventually get into my room on the sixth floor, which has a splendid view of the side wall of another building, and a bit of blue sky. I settle in, making sure I secure the precious euros I bought with my plunging emerging market currency in the safe.
- I find ris de veau at the restaurant Le Petit Sommelier at Montparnasse, just around the corner from Odessa. The dish is ris de veau croustillant au kasha, petits pois à la française, girolles et noisettes. A véritable plat de résistance. Proper service, but it’s not given for free. What a cuisine culture. The Brits like to say that their food scene has ascended to one of the top in the world. The problem is that it comes in on top, with talented chefs, and that’s where it stays. Where is its deep culinary culture? Look, I will concede that a country has arrived on the gastronomic scene when gastronomy features as a serious standard topic on television quiz shows, as it does in France (and Portugal for that matter). That’s when you can say that a country has gastronomically arrived, that food culture has seeped into the general culture, that you can start hoping to compete with the likes of France.
- After a day of retracing the paths of my student days in central Paris, I alight at metro station Vanvin, one of the three closest to my hotel, but have not registered the exact direction of the hotel from this station. I pop into a café at the corner of Avenues Raspail and Montparnasse, a large carrefour with streets coming into it from all points of the compass. I order a demi and ask the barman for directions. ‘The Rue de Montparnasse? Yes, it’s a tout petit rue off the Avenue Montparnasse,’ he says, pointing behind me. I turn around but all I see are angles. ‘Ah non, monsieur, regardez-moi, regardez-moi!’ he insists. He knows that the angles can bewilder. So, I look at him and observe his gallic gesticulation. With expert dactylology, he cuts out the angle I have to follow in the air with geometric precision. ‘Not the obtuse angle, monsieur, the acute one, do you understand?’ ‘Thank you.’ I proceed down the indicated acute angle and find my bearings right away.
- Across the street from my hotel is the Falstaff, a bar with little benches against its windows right on the narrow pavement. I am to develop a nodding acquaintance with the waitress over the four days of my stay. People come and go next to me as I decompress from the day’s walking with a drink and my iPad. Joffrey comes to sit at the bench next to mine, reading a travel book on Portugal, to which he is leaving in a week’s time. We strike up a chat and get along famously. He’s a lecturer in something, somewhere. We end up liking each other’s company and arrange to have dinner at Brasserie Lipp on Tuesday night, definitely, oui. I wait for him on Tuesday night but he doesn’t pitch. Serves me right. I was warned against picking up people at bars, but do I listen? What to do but leave for Brasserie Lipp on my own. This is not a day to skimp, so I order extravagant French dishes, very classic, accompanied by a grand cru from Bourgogne. As Nubar Gulbenkian famously said: The ideal number of people around a dinner table is two: Myself, and a darned good head waiter.
- On my way out of Brasserie Lipp, I see an immaculately turned out waiter, now the maître d’hôtel I think. He is rather self-conscious about his appearance as I had spotted him casting various glances at himself in the many mirrors that line the walls, now adjusting his bow-tie, now giving his hair little touch-ups. Naturally, it’s not vanity, it’s all about presenting his best side to clients, yes, for le service is all important at Lipp. I recall him from my last visit to Brasserie Lipp in 2007 and tell him so. ‘Ah oui, it was definitely me, monsieur!’ he says, bearing up. ‘My name is Luc, there is only one here. I have been with this establishment since the age of eighteen.’ Waiting on tables is a career in France. Students don’t really ‘help out’ at eating establishments as they seem to do in Anglo-Saxon countries. In France, the restaurant is far too important for that.
- My dear friend Alain comes all the way from Dieppe in Normandy to visit me in Paris. He and his wife were very good to me when I studied in Paris all those years ago. He is now retired in the country and I have not seen him in ten years, since we went to Namibia together. He looks a little frail and suffers from Parkinson’s. We have a rendezvous at Chez Michel, an art nouveau restaurant on the Rue St Dennis, close to the Arc de Triomphe. His speech is slightly slurred, and his partner Josette and I have to empty his champagne glass a little so that he doesn’t spill as he picks it up for cheers. Apart from that, he is the marvellous Alain of old. He is very good at explaining things about France and the French to me, which he does with thought, deliberation and good exposition. I order Tête de Veau, a dish at which the waiter nods in approval and informs that it comes from La France Profonde. ‘La France Profonde, Alex,’ says Alain, ‘Alors, La France Profonde are places in France, typically rural, where people live among themselves, have little contact with the outside world, have their own customs and gastronomy and speak nothing but French. It is not Paris. You can find these areas for example in Le Massif Central. This world is shrinking today, with French city dwellers tired of city life moving in and infusing sophistication into these places. Even foreigners are moving in, infiltrating some Anglais into these havens, heavens forbid…’ I enjoy seeing my friend. Time moves on, and we move on, but hopefully values like good friendship are eternal.
- I never fail to go to the Place du Tertre to see the artists at work when I’m in Paris; the square holds a fascination for me. I sit down at Café Au Cadet de Gascogne watching the tourists flock by, when the idea comes to me to have a series of caricatures done of me by various artists. What an experience it proves to be! The same sitter, the same day, yet totally different results. Each caricaturist captures a different essence, a different light, a different angle on their same subject, and a different feature to expand or diminish. In my case, one common feature stands out to all of them: my huge proboscis. They captured Pinocchi-alex. All that fibbing. I knew I’d pay for it one day. But more about this in a future ID.
- Through all my time in Paris and all my trips back I never went to the catacombs at Denfert-Rochereau. As my hotel was close, this was my chance. So I queued up for 45 minutes to get in, and descended deep into the bowels of Paris, a good 120 m down, well beneath the metro and the gutters. Have you ever wondered from whence all the limestone came for the buildings of Paris? It was mined from quarries beneath the ground of the left bank of the city over centuries. A large system of tunnels was chiselled out over time and propped up by whatever means, inadequately as it turned out. Paris was to expand over the abandoned mines, and there were major subsidence problems from time to time, including a major one in December 1774 when about 30 metres of a street collapsed to a depth of 30 metres, which caused a revolt and led to Louis XVI issuing a commission of enquiry into the problem. These same underground quarries were later to serve as repositories for the skeletons of many of Paris’s overcrowded cemeteries. The bones were exhumed from their former resting places and moved into these tunnels over time, which often flooded, spreading disease. Today the tunnels are catacombs, part of which consist of a bizarre ossuary of millions of unidentified skulls and bones, neatly preserved, arranged and displayed for you, the visitor. It feels strange to walk past what were once people like us, going about their lives as we do today. One isn’t allowed to, but I place a finger on the forehead of one of the skulls. Bless his or her; who knows, I might have established some sort of cosmic connection with their soul. These are memento mori, made all the more powerful by the odd religious inscription on the walls reminding us of the fugacity of life. On April 2, 1897, a group of 50 amateur musicians staged an impromptu, and highly illegal, midnight concert in the catacombs for about 100 people. The programme included Chopin’s Funeral March and appropriately Camille Saint-Saens’s Danse Macabre, the xylophone entries of which sound like the knocking of bone against bone and which rang through my ears for the rest of the day. (See a popular recording on Youtube by l’Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France – Ctrl-click on the link https://youtu.be/71fZhMXlGT4?list=RD71fZhMXlGT4).
- Beggars abound in Paris, as they do everywhere. Most of them come out at nightfall. They appear in all shapes and sizes and ages. Families too. It is not unusual to find a man, his veiled wife and a child huddled on a small mattress begging for alms. Most of them sit slumped in front of a polystyrene cup, hoping. None of these press any buttons within me, excepting for two. The first begged with a wine glass. Original! I have never seen this anywhere is the world. As I’m a supporter of the wine team, he got my vote. The second was a man playing with a dog. Two cardboard signs in front of him said he was homosexual, and that love was difficult to find in his situation. Luckily he has his dog, Champion. Love, love indeed. Where does one find that, even under the most favourable conditions?
- At Au Pied de Cochon restaurant next to Saint-Sulpice, I linger longer, in fact, very long over lunch. It’s 16H15 and I’m the only client left. The maitre’d ambles over and apropos nothing tells me that I’m the only client in the restaurant, actuellement. Not that he’s in any sort of rush to get me out – this is a 24-hour establishment. ‘You’re the only diner in the restaurant now, monsieur. But that’s fine, what we like here is quality, not quantity.’ This is of course an unmistakable segue for my champagne self-deprecation. ‘Well, monsieur, in my case, I’m afraid you have missed out on both counts. Bad luck.’ ‘Mais non, monsieur, you are quality, quality indeed, that is apparent. We only accept quality here,’ he flatters. I could do with some flattery, having been stood up the previous day, and it in no way harms his prospects for a larger tip. Incidentally, don’t ever, ever address a waiter as ‘garçon’. It’s demeaning, and you’ll pick up attitude.
- Another Parisian trip over, I book my shuttle to Orly, having paid a deposit of eight euros at reception the day before, with eighteen to give directly to the driver upon pick-up. The shuttle arrives promptly at 09H15, my luggage is packed into the boot and I am seated in the shuttle next to other passengers by the Maghrebi driver, who takes my eighteen euros and excuses himself to confer with the receptionist, rapidement. We all wait. Ten minutes pass. Tensions rise in the minibus as flight departure times near. The driver comes out and asks me with some urgency what I have paid to reception for my trip, and marches back to reception. More waiting. I surmise the delay has something to do with a dispute about his commission for the trip. In fact, it is definitely that. Fifteen minutes have now passed since the shuttle’s arrival. Highly irritated, I get out of the minibus and march to reception myself to find driver and receptionist in an argument. They are prepared to risk clients missing their flights for a few euros! I have words with the driver and order him to get a move on unless he wants to pay for my missed flights with his commission. He moves alright.