I was walking around the Champs Elysees after running an important errand and suddenly decided to go and see “The Sheepman”, a 1958 George Marshall movie with Shirley MacLaine and Glenn Ross and Leslie Nielsen. One of the best comedy westerns of all time, with a great cast and a great script was the description and that sounded good to me.
Short notice…didn’t find anyone to come with me, so I called Kelly up (she’s in London) on my cell phone just to point out I wish she were here and we could go to the movie together, and she asked me to go to a cafe in her name. They don’t really have non-chain-store French-style outdoor terrace cafes in London. So I said I would.
I raced to the Latin Quarter area (Metro Odean, in Saint-Germain-des-Pres) and wound my way into the small streets to Catherine street, found the cinema then went deeper into the neighborhood to find food and the promised cafe.
I ate quickly and then sat front row at the terrace of a very small cafe, at the rounded corner of three very narrow but busy streets: rue de Bucci, rue Mazarine and rue Dauphine. This is the neighborhood where Oscar Wilde’s hotel was, and Moliere made his first appearance as an actor, stone buildings, aged cobblestones, narrow winding passages…
I ordered a “noisette” (hazelnut) which is espresso with a dash of milk and as I sipped it, things fell into place so quickly. This is the Paris that I love: no matter how busy and full of cars and little “mobylettes” a street is, because it is small and narrow, and because the people take over in this pedestrian of all cities, any street eventually feels pedestrian.
People spill onto sidewalk, sitting at their hundreds of cafe terraces, almost telling the passing cars: “look how far we are, we could totally take you over if we only wanted to, so count yourself lucky”. People cross in front of stalling traffic, ignoring zebra crossings and red lights, ignoring even moving cars, because they know this is their city, and they have the right of way. This is what I find admirable: in a city where everyone is in a perennial bad mood, drivers never really lose their temper at rude pedestrians crossin in front of them. It’s just accepted, and even revered. Cars have actually STOPPED in the middle of traffic for me to cross when I was on a sidewalk, one foot on the road. So uncalled for, and so…parisian.
It’s also the sounds that make it so pedestrian. You hear people talking, the rumble of voices covering the car and motor sounds. It’s not something I’ve experienced anywhere else, but then I haven’t been to Rome.
Sitting at that cafe in Kelly’s name was this rising foray into the Parisian way of life that is so unique in itself. I wrote for close to a half-hour, watching the people walk by in their very French way: the businessman with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, crossing the street, the couple arguing, the cheerful man with a side-step. And all the animated voices around me, communicating about work, about life, about Iran and Irak and I was drifting in and out of the conversations, enjoying the fact that here, people actually make time at least once a day for some, to sit outside, on the sidewalk, have a coffee, a bear or a cold drink and just talk. People here talk so much! It’s insane. I heard from a cell-phone specialist that they tried to do the “unlimited minutes after 8PM” deal here in France and they had to discontinue it because people took “unlimited” literally!
I walked out of the movie later, and lazily just walked, which is the best thing about Paris. It is a canvas for walking, and not sight-seeing but just walking. I let the streets show me the way, and stopped in this small street where a young man and woman who looked street urchins were playing instruments. They were both very skinny and dressed “a la Oliver Twist” complete with ragged short hair cuts, suspenders, leather caps. The young man was playing the violin and the young girl was playing an old accordion, but she moved in and out of her instrument while balancing herself on her toes with high steps that looked like she was being animated by strings from a high-perched pupeteer. Their music was very nostalgic, at the same time sad and funny, and so Oliver Twist kept popping into my head.
An man about sixty was leaning out of his third-floor apartment window for their performance, and I looked at him as I leaned in the dark entrance I had found as a discrete vantage point. He disappeared for a moment, and then reappeared and sent out a coin from his window to the performes. The coin bounced on the pavement and they both curtsied and nodded with a hop. I ran over and picked up the coin, dropping it into the violin case along with mine, smiled at them both and walked away.
And I realized that this is what I most love about Paris: walking away from beautiful live music at the moment I choose to.
I followed the banks of the Seine for a long time, until I came across the Solferino passage, a pedestrian bridge where about a hundred of youth were picnic-ing at sunset (at 10:30PM) playing guitar and drinking red wine and beer. I listened to a group of ten spanish-speaking singers and guitarists sing a beautiful song and then walked away, crossed over the Seine and stopped next to the Louvre to peek over the wall to the banks of the Seine where a brass band was interpreting some 80’s song that I don’t remember now with the words “I want to be alive, I want to be alive” and strangely, it was beautiful to see that dozen of musicians about five meters below me, next to the water, through the trees, holding their large golden instruments, and all of that being lit by the passing boats, red, white, blue, green lights, reflecting onto the water, making the leaves of the trees translucent, shining off their instruments, through their cigarette smoke and their hair, bouncing off their black clothes, and delineating their arm movements.
I cut across the Jardin des Tuileries and called my parents as I walked, and then continued on to Opera, where I caught the regional train home.
But it was all thanks to Kelly. Her cafe request enabled the rest of the magical evening to unfold as it did, or at least it prepared me to accept it, which in the end makes all the difference.
It was a great cup of coffee, Kel.