Paris Stories

Night Scene

I’m not a very good drunk. I tend to open myself up to people and situations that I wouldn’t do in a sober state. Which could be a good thing for sure, but it normally sees me sharing my life story with taxi drivers at four in the morning who would much rather be listening to the radio. Not being a frequent drinker either, it doesn’t take a lot to get me in that first state of intoxication when your body mass lightens and the world transforms into soft focus. Then there’s that moment when you’re offered another by more seasoned drinkers who sense you might be on the verge of ‘making a show of yourself’, and they’ll have the satisfaction the next day of saying that you can’t ‘hold your drink’, a crime in Ireland on a par with pedophilia.

I was still in this first state of intoxication when I passed through the doors of my favorite gay bar in the Marais. It was usually half-empty and managed to avoid the more commercial side of the gay scene, where bars act as mini-clubs and are only a precursor for moving on to somewhere else with even louder music. The walls often had an exhibition with erotic themes by a local gay artist. That night it was the turn of chubby gays who were shown bathing, sucking each other’s toes and one crawling up the Eiffel Tower, which was depicted as a phallic symbol. The bartender, who usually greeted his regulars by kissing them on the lips, forwent the opportunity in my case but was courteous enough not to keep me waiting.

As I was leaning distractedly on the bar counter, a young guy, probably late twenties, sidled up beside me. He wasn’t trying to get the bartender’s attention and I couldn’t think of any reason why he’d choose to stand there other than for me to buy him a drink. That was difficult. If I offered to do so, I risked being met with a look of disbelief that I thought he would be interested in an old queen. That would hurt. But there was also the pride element where I wouldn’t want it assumed that I, an older person, was gagging to bed any chicken that crossed my path. And the young don’t realize that, while many young people avoid older people, many older people avoid them because they don’t want to be reminded they’re old!

He smiled as soon as he caught my eye and I recognized years of life experience in his emerging crow’s feet that perhaps dwarfed my own. I returned the smile out of social politeness and also secure that I wasn’t going to be humiliated. He used that most effective conversation opener by simply asking how I was. The directness threw me off-guard because the truth was that I was terrified. Having landed in middle age without a partner or a career of note, I was as lost as someone who was going out into the world for the first time; in fact, I had gone out into the world and come back empty-handed. It was not the kind of answer you give to a stranger in those circumstances, even if you are tipsy, so I merely replied that I was a little bored.

He said he was bored too as he’d just come back from Miami where he’d been enjoying the hospitality of a friend in his luxurious oceanfront home. When I asked him what he did for a living, he told me he was in the process of doing a Masters in International Business but was taking a break to help a friend set up an online business. He also wrote occasional articles for an online fashion magazine and reported for Spanish Vogue during Fashion Week. If that wasn’t enough, he also assisted with the marketing of a club night a drag queen friend of his hosted. I was impressed but aware that none of these were a regular source of income and he was, to the man on the street, basically unemployed.

To keep the mood light, I complemented him on his English but was informed, indignantly, that he was Maltese. Even still, I suspected Maltese was his first language and English a near but poor relation because he sung his way into every sentence with an ‘um’ or ‘ah’ to give him time to organize the syntax. His accent was also affected, elongating his vowels for grandiose effect: the word ‘Voooooogue’ for instance sounded like it was taking off into orbit. I also detected at one point a slight mid-Atlantic drawl, then at another an upper-class English clipping of phrases, and overall there was excessive eloquence in the Indian tradition. I would defy any linguist to identify that he was Maltese, having a truly international accent, a twenty-first century addition to the genre.

His love life was similarly obfuscated. When I asked if he was single, he avoided answering directly and detailed how he’d been involved for two years with a English lawyer, who was now back in the UK. He showed me a photo of them together as if trying to prove they were still an item. He then mentioned that he was in the throes of an affair with a wealthy businessman (straight and married) who was about to take him on holiday to Greece. The businessman had recently bought him a silver chain with a shark’s tooth pendant which I had to admire – more evidence. Then there was his first love who was in the process of moving from their hometown to Paris and who would be living with him in the foreseeable future. Again, when I unraveled all this – and it was becoming more difficult with the alcohol – he was single and just as desperate as the rest of us.

At some point the bar started to fill up and a guy quite naturally came between us to order a drink. It would have been rude to continue speaking over him so we shut up and focused our attention on him like children presented with a new toy. He didn’t shy away from the scrutiny but turned it back on us by complimenting my friend on his jacket as if continuing a conversation that was already in progress. And so we proceeded as a threesome, only stopping to marvel at the fabulous cocktail our new friend ordered. Not to be outdone in fabulousness, my Maltese friend ordered a similarly elaborate concoction, and I followed suit since that was the way we were going.

I had no problem distinguishing our new friend’s accent as it couldn’t have been much stronger in his native Russian. He was in his early thirties but had the air of someone much older, which made sense when he told us he was a hotel manager. Small in stature, he compensated with exaggerated movements, holding his drink as if making a permanent toast and making sweeping hand gestures that dismissed political systems, nationalities or famous personalities in one foul wave. It wouldn’t be fair to say he was ugly, but he didn’t tick many of the boxes Winckelmann put forward as tenets of classical beauty. Maybe he was aware of this because his oversized azure glasses and powder blue cotton suit were more representative of his personality than any attempt to enhance his natural features.

He was full of stories. He’d just had some unruly American guests at the hotel who then had the audacity to leave an unflattering review online. So he wrote a response telling them, and everyone else, exactly how obnoxious they were and that they weren’t invited back! He’d recently had a near calamity when renewing his working visa. Faced with two immigration officials, one white and one black, he knew if he got the black official he could be on his way back to Russia (he didn’t do political correctness). Just as his number was called for the black official, he switched it with the person behind him on the pretense that he had to rush to the toilet. He got his visa renewed.

He was in the middle of a divorce. He didn’t divulge the reason for the split but was now embroiled in a war with his soon-to-be ex over their apartment. They’d bought the central Paris flat eight years ago for a song and, after extensive refurbishment, it was now worth double what they’d paid. The thing was, in another five years, the way the market was going, it could be worth double that again, so neither wanted to vacate what was a dynamite investment. If they held on to the property jointly and rented it out to someone else in the meantime, they would be unable to make a clean break from each other. So they were still living torturously together, waiting for the other to cave in. I was thinking that the apartment might ultimately keep them together. Greed is a wonderful thing.

It must have been after three when we stumbled through the exit. It was starting to drizzle but we hardly noticed, insulated in our intoxication. None of us knew where we were going and we sauntered along, knowing there was probably nowhere to go at that hour. At one point my Russian friend played an Edith Piaf song on his iPhone, while my Maltese friend took me in an embrace and waltzed me down the street. As the lights reflected on the glassy footpath, I could have almost believed we were dancing on an enchanted stairway to the stars. Before we knew it, we arrived at my Maltese friend’s bus stop and exchanged contact information. We waved him off, looking a little less fabulous surrounded by immigrant workers, part of a shadow army heading to their menial jobs.

My Russian friend led me down a side street to an all-night café nestled between a taxidermists and a nail salon. The kind of local dive that foreigners avoid, the mismatched tables and chairs were scattered haphazardly, while faded posters for theatrical productions long since closed littered the walls. There were a couple of petty criminal types at one end of the counter, and an older man, possibly an insomniac, staring at nothing in particular at the other. The young waiter, whose gigantic feet seemed to carry him further than intended, hurried about unnecessarily. When he backed-up to our table, he informed us that half the menu was unavailable so we ended up ordering a couple of dishes he recommended.

As we waited for the food I could feel an awful emptiness descending. It was the kind of emptiness I was feeling a lot then and may have been the reason I was drinking. I tried to explain it away originally on the grounds that I was single, or not having children, or a career I could love like a child. But it was deeper. Born from existential sources, I was, in effect, looking into the void, the nothingness at the center of everything that renders life as meaningless and bores a hole in your belief system. And there was nothing to do but sit there and let the wave of nothingness blow through me, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake that I was unable to clear up with the clichés and truisms that had formerly sustained me.

My Russian friend started to reminisce about Moscow, which prompted me to ask him why he chose to come to Paris. He said he’d always been attracted to French culture and had won a medal in high school for being the best French speaker in his year. The impetus to make the move occurred after he relocated to Moscow and spent a miserable year being bullied by his manager in one of the larger hotels. The underground gay scene also proved hostile; but he could see now that it was as much to do with his own insecurities as anything. He laughed when he related that he would avoid guys who were too queeny, unaware he was as big a queen as any of them! To cap it all, he ran into financial difficulties when his mother’s health deteriorated and he had to take out a sizeable loan for her care.

To cut a long story short, he decided to take his own life. There was a storeroom at the top of the hotel that had a raised platform with a wooden beam above it, which made it perfect for a hanging. The night before he planned to do the deed he just walked around Moscow saying goodbye to his friends and family in his mind as the city moved by him like a dream. It was the most peaceful he’d felt in years, which perversely made him think he was doing the right thing. At about seven in the morning, he arrived at the hotel and was greeted by his manager with some condescending remark. Hardened in his resolve, he headed straight for the storeroom. When he opened the door he found a hotel guest, he had booked in the previous evening, swinging lifeless from the beam. He got such a fright that he ran home and booked a flight to Paris.

Not surprisingly, this shocking story jolted me back into a sober state or at least one where my faculties were re-awakened. The image of the hanging seemed to chime with the grotesqueness of the scene around me: the dingy décor screaming for a make-over, the stick figures clinging to the drippings of the night, the remains of the reheated food. My friend grew solemn and quiet, and there didn’t seem to be a lot to say after his story anyway. I decided to go and offered to walk my new friend home, but he said he wanted to hang on for a while to avoid his soon-to-be ex leaving for work. The waiter cleared our plates and I paid my portion of the bill, which was cheaper than expected.

Roses in December

Apartments in Paris were hard to find. After two months of searching I finally found mine but had to wait a further three weeks to move in. Which seemed unnaturally cruel as I was living in a hotel and spending a king’s ransom. On hearing of my plight, one of the other teachers offered to put me up for the few remaining weeks in her two-bedroom apartment in Vaugirard. She added that I would have to put up with her teenage daughter, Alison, who was a handful, but that there was a beautiful view of the Eiffel Tower from my room. Which turned out not so much a bedroom but a little alcove off the hallway with an embedded bookcase, a writing desk and a fold-out bed. So I settled in, falling asleep on the first evening to the twinkling lights of the Eiffel Tower blurring in the distance.

The first few days passed off peaceably enough. Alison gave me the cold shoulder as expected: I can’t blame her for not being overjoyed at having to share the bathroom with a guy she didn’t know from Adam. However, I didn’t dislike her in the slightest as she was a spirited creature who I could imagine standing up to some bully or other. Unfortunately she didn’t seem to like her mother either, disagreeing with her for the sake of it over everything from what to eat, what TV program to watch, what time she should be home. On the third evening, after another minor disagreement, Debbie explained that she was really a good kid but the divorce was very hard on her. I was thinking that the little brat was taking full advantage of her victim status to get her own way.

Later in the week Debbie and I went out for dinner and she elaborated on the events that led up to the divorce. She met her husband Dave, a New Yorker, through a mutual friend soon after she moved over from Michigan. She was working illegally as a live-in nanny and ran into difficulties when her employers began to exploit the fact by making unreasonable demands. Though only dating for a few months, Dave gallantly offered to enter into a civil partnership so she could gain her legal status and escape her imprisonment. Afterwards they just continued on as boyfriend and girlfriend until they moved in together, and finally got married when she fell pregnant with Alison. She said she really enjoyed those early years after the birth because Dave made a very good living as an IT Consultant. It allowed her to design that kind of Parisian life she had envisioned in the States: good food, fashionable clothes and a wide circle of interesting friends.

The problem she flatly stated was Dave’s ego. He’d always fancied himself as a singer/songwriter and sometimes hosted a weekly open-mic for expats. There he met Michelle, a fellow New Yorker, who took an immediate shine to him and was soon lauding his talents as a way into his pants. Over the next six months, with Michelle’s encouragement, Dave underwent a transformation from computer geek to arty bohemian, even affecting a Beat poet manner of speech. Debbie had dismissed it all as a mid-life crisis until Alison asked about the girl she saw Daddy kissing in his car. Debbie said she was willing to forgive him the affair, but realized she couldn’t stand the pretentious asshole he was becoming. Though Michele had long departed the scene – continuing her Sally Bowles jaunt of taking Europe ‘man by man’– her legacy had unleashed, for better or worse, a new Dave. Maybe the real one.

I didn’t have long to wait to meet the, by now, infamous Dave as he arrived on Sunday to take Alison out. He didn’t disappoint. Donning a battered bowler with crushed velvet dinner jacket over ruffled shirt and morning-suit pants, the whole effect was of Beau Brummell in debtors’ prison. Undoubtedly bohemian, there was also something vaguely unsettling about his appearance as if he was harking back to a previous era, which suggested he was uncomfortable in this one. His breezy manner stood in stark contrast to the restrained atmosphere in the apartment where Debbie’s controlling hand was on everything, down to the angles the cushions were placed at. If they were still at war – and I suspected they were – Dave was having the PR victory, managing to affect an air of nonchalance in the face of Debbie’s barely disguised anger.

The following Sunday I was walking through the nearby park when I spied Dave curled around his guitar on one of the benches. He was singing, more to himself than to anyone else, and every so often would shift position in anticipation of some intricate piece of fret work. His black outline hung like a brooding presence in the surrounding landscape, dominated by a pale blue bandstand and dotted with several female classical statues. Unusually for that time of year, there was a row of yellow rose bushes still in bloom – no doubt helped by global warming – running along the central gangway. I was struck again by the sense of time being askew, but I was at a loss in determining whether it was time lost or time gained that was the issue.

As I approached, he rose from the bench and greeted me like an old friend. Dispensing with small talk, he entreated me to listen to one of his latest creations. It was a strange song, full of wistful longing about how he hadn’t seen the moon for six months and then, suddenly one evening, there it was, glowing like a half-forgotten image of some former world he’d inhabited. The lyrics were almost too poetic to be poetic – ‘blue-streaked silver sky’ – as if the actual experience was lost in its need to be channeled poetically. When he finished I praised what I thought was a heart-felt effort, but couldn’t give him the sort of validation he craved. Attempting to impress me further, he invited me to the musical soirée he hosted.

On Wednesday myself and Alison, who suddenly found my company tolerable in light of traipsing round Paris on a school night, set off. The club was hard to find, lying down one of those narrow side streets in a historic area that was crawling with tourists during the day but at night was as quiet as a museum. We were ushered through the entrance by one of Dave’s friends and escorted to a basement that was possibly once an aristocrat’s wine cellar. Dave was onstage introducing some English guy who took up an aggressive posture as if about to deliver a biting political satire but launched into a paean to unrequited love. Dave then brought us over to a table where his roommates were busily working through their own supply of alcohol. In turn I was introduced to Danial, a Bostonian in his sixties who spent his days busking in Place des Vosges, and Jasper, a black guy from Chicago who played percussion for an established jazz singer. I noticed that Alison blushed profusely whenever Jasper directed his attention towards her.

As the night wore on, Dave seemed wrapped up in his hosting duties and didn’t pay us much attention. While he expertly linked the performers with funny anecdotes, I felt a little sorry for him, pandering to an audience of American students, nannies and Starbucks employees half his age who saw him as an eccentric uncle. I was also painfully aware of how much he was loving the attention, believing himself to be a kind of pirate king leading a band of renegades through the highways and byways of Parisian nightlife. He played a couple of his own songs, usually when an artist was setting up, and dedicated one to his beautiful daughter. Alison was beaming with pride, but I couldn’t help wondering if she might have forgone the song to have her less ‘talented’ Daddy back under her roof where she didn’t have to share him with a bunch of strangers.

The temperature had plunged when we re-emerged into the street so we decided to get a taxi home. I wasn’t sure if Debbie noticed that we had returned because I found her smoking at the open window in my room. She didn’t acknowledge me but continued to stare into the middle distance as a shadow from an unidentified source fell over her face and departed before it had time to settle. Stubbing out her cigarette, she calmly announced that she was moving back to the States and then departed before I had time to give a reaction. I closed the window and felt, for the first time that year, the onset of a biting frost.

A Walk with Joyce

A colleague had taken it upon himself to organize a walking tour tracing the footsteps of James Joyce, and I, who had originally balked at the idea for being too Irishy, was eventually swept along on his enthusiasm. I should mention that neither of us had read Ulysses so neither could claim any expertise on his works. But having said this, Ulysses is such a barometer of one’s literary intake that ignoring it can be as defining as reading it. My colleague blamed the South African educational system for ignoring Western literature; I merely mentioned that I was saving it for my retirement.

He was waiting for me at the corner of the Bibliothèque Nationale in a long gabardine coat and tweed cap. I could tell already that everything wasn’t going to plan as he was leafing through several sheets of handwritten paper in an agitated manner. Rearranging his features into a hearty expression to greet me, he then broke the news that the Bibliothèque Nationale was closed. I didn’t care one way or the other, but he seemed rather put out because not only was it was a bad start to our adventure, but, as he explained, Joyce spent many hours there when he first moved to Paris possibly researching his great works. To feign interest I peered through the railings and pretended I was somehow enthralled by the entrance that was hidden behind a construction workers’ prefab and several characterless plants. When my colleague finished his little speech, we moved off, uncertain if we’d gotten an essence of something Joycean to take with us.

Our next stop was the former Hotel Corneille, a few blocks away. We were expecting something dingy as it housed the impoverished Joyce on this first sojourn when he wrote many begging letters home. However, we found a boutique hotel run by a hotel chain that offered corporate service with standardized room fittings. There were a few loud Midwestern Americans lounging on a few sofas in the reception area and a bespectacled middle-aged French receptionist looking down his nose at them. My colleague was insistent that we take photos of each other out front so he could post them on his Facebook page, but I couldn’t see the point as there wasn’t even a plaque to validate its connection with the great man.

As we approached a nearby metro station, I thought about the art deco entrance and how it must have been cutting-edge in Joyce’s time. I also got the sense that that Paris must have been a little more genteel than the one we inhabited, where speeding drivers honked their horns aggressively at anything that crossed their path. But I suppose that would always be the situation in a city where the elegant buildings are at odds with the loud, vociferous sounds of modern life. As it turned out, the station was one of the few in Paris that had been updated in a futuristic style with glass ceilings and white panelled walls, resembling a set on 70s sci-fi TV series Buck Rogers. My colleague drew my attention to an advertisement for Jameson whiskey with the tag line, ‘Born in the streets of Dublin’, which seemed apt in the circumstances.

We emerged into one of those areas that was non-descript Paris. The buildings were Haussmannian, the avenues wide and tree-lined, and the corners occupied by semi-circular, over-priced cafés. The clientele, nestled under gently flapping awnings, were mostly Italian and Russian tourists. The Italian women wore pale brown furs to complement their streaky highlights, while the Russians wore pale grey furs to complement their more severely-peroxided tresses. Both sets were wearing designer sunglasses that would have cost me a week’s wages. It seemed a world away from the cold, mucky playing fields of Clane, Co. Kildare where he set Portrait of an Artist. Maybe that was half the attraction of living in Paris, and I would speculate that the intensity with which an artist experiences events would often ensure they escape the environment to process them.

We turned off one of those said avenues onto rue de Grenelle and off that into Square de Robiac, which wasn’t a square but a cul de sac. The Joyces were obviously doing better at that stage because the apartment building today would be considered quite swish. I imagined Nora Barnacle – why is she always referred to by her maiden name? – at one of the big open windows airing out a sheet or a bedspread. She must have had a strong constitution to traipse around Europe with Joyce and their children. She must also have believed in his talent absolutely because no one would choose that kind of life otherwise. Again there was no plaque or anything to confirm their once residence and we moved on, a little baffled at this stage why Paris hadn’t acknowledged the greatest novelist of the twentieth century.

A few streets away on La rue Edmond-Valentin we arrived at Joyce’s final residence. The street itself resembled something from a fairytale, a combination of classical and gothic buildings with elaborate ornate façades, austere in their imposing beauty. There was even a view of the Eiffel Tower that hovered in the distance behind a medieval-style turret placed with architectural decadence on one of the roofs. Joyce had obviously made it and was living the life of any other upper-class Parisian, the artist’s garret being a distant memory. Of course, it’s a misconception to believe that writers are drawn to bohemian wine-soaked existences in the dim corners of society when many are, at heart, just as bourgeois as their parents. Ironically, there was a plaque outside this building in honour of some South American writer whose name escapes me.

As we approached Pont de l’Alma, I thought of Joyce being led by his secretary along this path to his favorite café. How much did he see in those later years, his eyesight failing in what should have been his triumphant period. Did he see the children transfixed by a street entertainer, whose parents then begrudgingly give him money? Did he see the young couple sitting facing each other on the quay wall, their knees touching? Did he see the murky waters of the Seine, somehow impervious to the golden shower of light discolouring its surface? His artistic powers were possibly failing him as well, considering it took him sixteen years to produce Finnegan’s Wake, which could hardly be described as an unequivocal success despite being redeemed somewhat these days. Maybe there was nowhere to go after Ulysses only further into his genius, understood by him alone and responsible for a mannerist work where perspective is obscured to the point of being lost?

Chez Francis resembled a cocktail lounge on a cruise liner. Deep hues of ebony and crimson swallowed up all available light, while the predominance of velvet choked up the air supply. The waiter, in a shirt so tight his nipples were singing, led us to a table in a gloomy corner. My eyes were drawn to charcoal drawings of Victorian gentlemen scattered around the walls, which were intended to add a note of gentility. After a twenty minute interval – by which the waiter let us know we were of no consequence – he returned and took our order. My colleague, who spoke fluent French, was perturbed when the waiter answered him in English, as if his French wasn’t worthy of a dignified response in that tongue. I had to suppress a smile because my colleague liked to flaunt his erudition at anyone within listening distance.

The snub may have made my colleague feel a little homesick, or at least very aware of his foreignness, because he suddenly started talking about South Africa. Not unlike other white South Africans I’ve met, his general opinion was that the country had gone to the dogs after the blacks took over. I nodded sympathetically, but secretly I was enthralled by the deposition of the ruling elite and had visions of gay people grabbing the reins of power similarly. Unprompted, he started telling me about his childhood and how he loved reading from an early age. His mother was encouraging while his father found his curious child annoying and would say things like, ‘If you stopped reading those books, you wouldn’t ask so many questions!’ I was moved by the way a simple sentence could sum up a fraught father-son relationship. The lump in his throat ensured that I didn’t probe any deeper and we moved on to more neutral topics.

On the way home I was thinking about that last paragraph in Joyce’s The Dead, the way the snow falls silently on the lovers in the Dublin hotel as the ghost of an ex-lover hovers above them, haunting their lives. Like having an asshole for a father, you can run to the opposite side of the world but the ghost of his memory will follow you. And the more you run, the heavier the snowfall gets until you‘re almost drowning in it, carrying the vast wound of his rejection like a crucifix. And there’s no escape really, only distractions that fill up the crevices in your life with hope momentarily. But it always passes, and you’re left with the image of a child with his arms outstretched, hoping for love, but gathered up by the night, the silence, and the ever deepening sadness.