Among meter-maids, markets, sangfroid and sex shops, Michael Watkins finds a heart of gold.
It was April in Paris. Spring was in the air, but not, alas, in the Parisian’s step. The old man shuffled towards Sacre Coeur, dispensing breadcrumbs to the sparrows which settled upon his shoulder. He had a good face, creased as yesterday’s croissant and kind; but an air of neglect clung to him as mould does to old leather.
Leaving the birdman of Montmartre, I disdained the frontal assault on Sacre Coeur, favouring instead the sheer north col which has claimed countless wheezy victims. You set off from the Rue Foyatier, outside the Ecole Garcons, arriving at the summit 264 steps later.
The basilica gleamed denture-white as Paris dissolved into a morning haze, and the touts were out in force. The Risen Christ was a thing of wonder, but the masonry seemed lifeless; the fabric had not yet absorbed 100 years of prayer. I took exception to the notice ‘Entrez seulement si vous voulez prier’, which struck me as discriminatory. There’s some that likes to sit and pray, and others that just likes to sit.
However dismissive the guide-books (‘pseudo’, ‘jam-packed’, ‘overpriced’), I still find Montmartre fulfils my dreams of Paris. By which I mean all the gooey-lovely-schmaltzy stuff: chequered table-cloths in restaurants, the Place du Tertre jam-packed with pseudo Chagalls flogging their overpriced canvases, tourists swirling by in awed slow motion, palette-bright faces of art students emerging from their garrets to storm the boulangerie. I never starved in a garret, and so perhaps missed much.
Conversely, I didn’t miss anything by shunning the delights of Pigalle which seems to survive on sex and Love-Burgers. Well, someone had to think of it: Un Amour de Burger or, if you are insatiable, a Double-Love Burger, chips and milk-shake. John Courage ale was on tap at the Cockney Tavern; while, at Le Tete d’Eau, ‘recherche hostessess’ were available to Visa and Diners’ Club card-holders. ‘Life Sho’ flickered a neon sign lasciviously, but the establishment looked more dead than alive.
Art and travel aficionados propose one stern admonishment: be selective. But I take no heed. Gluttonously do I devour a gallery; my approach to a city is similarly wolverine. Thus did I set out from the Hotel Westminster in the Rue de la Paix each morning to walk, bus or Metro for eight hours, saturating myself in this most elegant and arrogant of cities.
I stood at the corner of the Place de la Concorde, trying to cross to the Quai des Tuileries. The traffic was in full stampede, remorseless, and I knew that by the time I made it I’d need another shave. You could die and decompose on the pavement before anyone would stop. I made off in another direction, towards Les Halles and the Pompidou Centre; the first has marginally less grace than a Portacabin, the second slightly more charm than an oil refinery. Except that charm passed away with Piaf, Chevalier and Degas.
At Les Halles a drunk detached himself from a group of winos to fill his cap with fountain water, which he then discharged at a passing housewife. It was an action devoid of anything but malice.
It may just have been that lunch hadn’t yet been served. For, as Orwell noted when he was down and out in Paris, ‘most French are in a bad temper until they have eaten their lunch.’
Scuttling across to the Left Bank I made for Saint-Germaine-des-Pres where – dodging the Cafe de Flore and Deux-Magots which, lacking the physical presence of Sartre, looked merely self-conscious – I settled on a bollard at the corner of the Rue Jacques Gallot. Fourteen Sorbonne students were making music, boldly, brassily and terribly badly; which was smashing because, just as I was on the verge of abandoning hope, it incubated the Parisians’ pre-luncheon smiles.
You should, according to teacher, devote three weeks to the Louvre, I did it in two hours and didn’t miss a trick: Leonardo’s ‘Gioconda’ and the ‘Venus’ included. Not to mention those acres of swooning Rubens flesh, Bellini’s ‘Portrait of a Man’, the Guardis and the Canalettos.
I stood beneath the Arc de Triomphe, hushed and respectful with schoolchildren at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier; I walked the Champs-Elysees, resting in the symmetrically divided Tuileries Gardens; I felt the implacable, glorious weight of Notre Dame and was moved by the memorial to one million dead of the British Empire of whom most rest in France.
I took the Bateaux-Mouches ‘romantic cruise’, including a splendid dinner, feeling that they shouldn’t have gone to the trouble of floodlighting Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower just for me. On another day I was mightily impressed by Les Invalides where Napoleon’s ashes lie in a series of six coffins. I hadn’t realized there was so much of him.
I even dined at the famous Maxim’s. It was quite an experience – as it should have been for about pounds 1 a mouthful. The art nouveau appealed to me and there was so much stained glass I didn’t know whether to get on with my pigeonneau farci or pray.
Dressed up like a dog’s dinner, I was placed in the Grande Salle, a signal honour, but on balance I reckoned the waiters were better value than the clients: they wouldn’t have gone all sneery if you’d wanted garlic on your ice-cream. Some of the customers had piggy manners, discharging cigar smoke over their coquilles, and occasionally disrespectful to their female companions, allowing their fingers to do rather too much walking, as if they were reading the Yellow Pages.
Which was all very well, this slavish dedication to the obvious; but I’d also like to mention a few of my favourite things. Like the market in the Rue de Seine, where I slipped wodges of Tomme, St Albrey and Reblochon from Barthelemy’s into my plastic bag and was confronted by asparagus the size of Arizona cacti.
Like the meter-maids (aubergines, as they are known) decked out in powder-blue haute-couture-ish uniforms, with saucy hats on top; and the seats reserved for mutiles de guerre on the Metro. Like the polished jewel dazzle of the glass in Saint-Chapelle, founded it is said on the sale of the Crown of Thorns to Louis IX; or the classical purity and balance of Place Vendome.
Or the Rodin Museum, all peace and tranquillity in the Rue de Varenne, housing some of the loveliest pieces: ‘The Kiss’, ‘The Thinker’, ‘Lady Sackville-West’, ‘The Hand of God’. Or backstage at the Opera to watch a rehearsal of Giselle, somehow more haunting than the live performance, perhaps because the nerve-ends were less prettily grease-painted.
No inventory is complete without a few hates. Franglais, that bastard argot of le weekend, le cocktail, les girls. Algerian beggars barefoot in the park. The Moulin Rouge-Lido-Crazy Horse. Range Rovers, so unsmart in London, so chic in Paris. Morabito’s window display of crocodile golf-bags. Arrogance.
Yet my recurring anxiety in Maigret’s city was the Mysterious Case of Gay Paree. Whatever happened to it? Was it fact or fiction, reality or merely a myth born of desperation?
There had to be a clue; then suddenly I knew where to look. Among the Impressionists, of course. And there, in the pavilion of the Jeu de Paume, among the Manets and the Monets, Van Goghs and Cezannes, I solved the riddle: Paree was no gayer than anywhere else. There it was, in Lautrec’s ‘Jane Avril’, in Renoir’s ‘Le Moulin de la Galette’, an impression of gaiety, the mask worn by every clown.
The discovery made me like Paris more; she was flesh and blood after all. She was almost one of us. Anyway, such was my theory as I ate that evening at Les Jacobins in the Marche St Honore. The food was delicious, the price reasonable, Madame was warmly solicitous. It was a small restaurant, a family place with 20 couverts. And into these modest surroundings dropped a party of three couples, French, American, English, in their late teens, early twenties.
They were delighted with each other and with life. They were glazed with hope, their armour untarnished; and when they looked at one another, their glances held no side. Their talk was of Paris and their love for her; and that, more than theory or legwork, was good enough for me.