Monday, June 16, 2008

An old school friend in Paris, 2008

Our room was at the top of a hotel (6th floor and the lift broke down), in the heart of Paris’s Latin Quarter. It was much beamed (real, and half-timbered, too), decorated in plum-coloured wallpaper depicting bucolic 18th century scenes, spacious, quiet, with a small internal balcony with semicircular steps leading to it, and with a modern bathroom adorned with lovely light brick-coloured marble with thin white lines running through it.

We settled in, and had an aperitif at Conti, in the Place Buci, where crowds of the monde and demi-monde passed by. And then we ate at the Orestias, two doors from our hotel, for the princely sum of £28 (three courses and a bottle of Greek wine). Here the waiter could only speak at a shout, and had probably done so ever since I first ate there soon after the Second World War.

That is a way of Paris, and that is the way of this unchanging small part of the 6th Arrondissement where the rue de Seine, rue de Buci, Mazarine, St André des Arts, Dauphine, Ancienne Comédie and Grégoire de Tours more or less converge. All are artistically and boutiquely inviting streets, holding many a bar and interesting restaurant.

The occupants of this quarter, shop at the market stalls, flower shop and supermarket, and rest from their exertions by taking a glass or cup of something while gaping at the goings-on in front of and around them.

A glamorous film star lady, with long legs and short skirt, was being followed by a director, 4 cameramen, 2 soundmen and other hangers-on. She wandered, entered cafés, and generally acted the part of a famous and much-fêted star.

Her lady companion was plainer by far.

Above a café opposite, the outside of which being much photographed, was a banner saying “Entrée des Joueurs”. She and her companion entered for a while. We imagined that she could have been the first prize, but not her companion.

The objectives of these film people was clearly to paint a background picture of Latin Quarter life for, later, we saw one of the photographers directing his lens at a local, characterful worthy. This ancient and bebobble-capped gentleman was bent over his pastis in contemplation, perhaps, of the current ideas of some French, left-wing philosopher.

There was an objective to our Paris visit. An American Taft School friend, from my early war years in that country before I was old enough to return to England to become an RAF pilot, was to be in Paris with his French wife of 60 years. We were to meet at last after several times of trying, and failing to co-ordinate a rendezvous in France. This was one reason why we had chosen to stay in the Latin Quarter (at the Grand Hotel de l’Univers, no less), an area frequented and enjoyed by both of us in the past.

One of the windows in our room overlooked an almost cubist depiction of roofs, chimneys and balconies – all zinc and cream surfaces.

As I was doing one of my postcard drawings of the scene (Paris is not as crumbly as it used to be), an animated little scene took place on an exposed and distant roof terrace. And who should the participants be but the girl and film crew seen from our seats in the café. And what were they doing on this exposed terrace?

Well, the cameramen and soundmen were now directing all of their attention to the prettier girl. Several times she rehearsed a scene where she had to prance (dance?) around, take off all of her clothes, and throw them to the floor in either anger or disgust. Between takes she wrapped herself in a white towel to keep warm, as the springtime Parisian late afternoon air was decidedly chilly.

We then dined at the Polidor restaurant, a favourite of old in the rue Monsieur le Prince, before walking off the effects of it and getting lost in an area that I should have known better. But we did pass a nice looking little eating place in the rue Jacob, where one of the first courses, written on the menu in English and displayed in the window, was - six nails.

My old school friend of 67 years ago, Ted Mason, and his wife, Ginny, take a small apartment each year near to the Eiffel Tower. We went to see them there, opening first, as so many people have to in Paris, those huge and formidable doors that lead from the street to accommodation beyond. Behind them was a quiet courtyard, in this case with the focal point of a large, potted olive tree, pruned to look like a Bonsai.

Our instructions were then to ring a certain doorbell, admitting us into a hallway from which we entered the smallest lift imaginable. Inside it there was room for two – just – or an adult and a dog.

On the 5th floor, the third barrier door to unwanted entry (one thinks of the French Revolution) was their apartment door.

Once inside the apartment, decorated as if frozen in time, we were able to meet my old pal (being absolutely in demeanour the intelligence, policy-making Lieutenant Colonel he had become in the army) and his charming French wife, whose accent had retained a very strong affinity to her roots. It was a great occasion.

We lunched well at a local brasserie, and parted as the good friends he and I had once been, and now with them both as a devoted pair.

It is almost obligatory when visiting Paris to enter the Galleries Lafayette for, if nothing else, to marvel at the ornate interior of its enormous Belle Epoque dome of plaster, gilt, bronze and stained glass. And the shopping to be done on its seven floors around the dome is many a woman’s dream.

Not far, along Boulevard Haussman, by the Grands Boulevards Metro Station, is a street to the left, called rue du Faubourg Montmartre. Here, shortly on the left-hand side, at the far end of a small courtyard, is Chartier.

Here one eats in a vast, Victorian, working man’s restaurant. The menu can hardly have changed since the restaurant’s inception, and the food is served sometimes by waiters almost as old as the place itself.

Created in 1896 to serve traditional bouillon to customers at marble tables, hats (bowler or top) and coats are accommodated on brass racks and hooks above where you sit. You are put to share tables with strangers. The restaurant still retains numbered drawers for customers’ napkins.

Do not omit to finish your meal with a Mont Blanc (cream on top of a purée of chestnuts) – even if it is not on the menu.

To give an idea of this restaurant’s success, they serve over 1,200 meals a day. And excellent they are – reasonable, too.

So well will you have eaten that it is quite possible to leave and forget to take with you the bags of Lafayette shopping that you have placed on the racks above.

There was a Vlaminck exhibition on at the Musée du Luxembourg. Although one of my favourite artists, as with any large show of someone’s work, one tends to make comparisons, to see repetition, derivation and influences, whereas, just one single work (almost any in this case), if seen alone, would be quite enough to astound and please the senses.

We ended our stay in France’s capital city with a stroll on the gravelly sand of the Luxembourg Gardens. In sunshine, and in shade beneath trees, we passed many chess players, hunched over the park’s chess boards, either in solitary combat or beneath the admiring gaze of a ring of spectators.

Around the pond behind the Palace, crowds of people were relaxing in the Saturday afternoon sunshine, picnicking, herding happy or fractious children, or running around the pond with sticks to re-direct their hired model sailing boats. And of course, being Paris, there were lovers, staring vacantly into each other’s eyes as lovers do.

It was a Seurat scene, one we had to leave, but will keep in the memory.