When you read this I’ll be on a train on my way to Paris. Ah, the wonders of scheduled posting! In honour of this, here’s a previously unpublished story of another Parisian night back in August. It won’t be as warm this time around, but it doesn’t matter – as the song goes: I love Paris in the springtime / I love Paris in the fall / I love Paris in the winter, when it drizzles / I love Paris, in the summer, when it sizzles / I love Paris every moment, every moment of the year …
Like an idiot I came out with a pencil but no notebook. I’m pleasantly full after a meal of beef tartare served with crisp, fat chips and a carafe of wine, and want nothing more than to sit, digest and people-watch; thank god and traditional Paris brasseries for brown paper table mats.
Rue de Lappe in the 12ème arondissement is just as Paris ought to be of an August evening. The restaurants, brasseries and bistrots are all packed with people, as is the street itself. I don’t know if the French have a word for what the Italians call ‘la passeggiata‘ – the late evening walk – but there are plenty of people doing it here in the middle of Paris. It’s a people-watcher’s paradise.
French fashion is somewhere in between English and Italian. There’s no bling, but it’s very put together. Where the English look scruffy, the French look tousled and sexy; where the Italians seem flashy, the French look elegant. Which isn’t to say there aren’t occasional disasters: denim hot pants over thick, white, embroidered tights isn’t a look that anyone should aspire to.
The brasserie I’m sitting in is typically French, with small, marble-topped cafe tables outside. They’re perfect for dinner à deux, or for groups of friends to pull together and squash themselves around, shoulder to shoulder, laughing and chatting – or just toute seule to watch the world pass by. Imitation wicker-backed chairs are all voluptuous curves and duo tones, and dark wooden panelling is offset with etched glass and art nouveau pictures on the wall. I’m comfortable here. Who cares that I’ve forgotten how to speak French when the waiters are happy to laugh at me and my Italianisms. There are always menus to point at and after a glass or two of wine the French comes back – or I don’t care any more about sounding like an idiot. One or the other.
The two women next to me are here to drink wine, smoke cigarettes and gossip. I, however, am here for the food. Paris, you and I may have fallen out on this subject a while back, but when you do dishes like the beef tartare that’s just arrived in front of me I can forgive you everything. A perfect mound of dark red meat is thrown into visual contrast with white and yellow egg on top, and silvery-green chopped capers and onions on the side. Taste-wise, worcester sauce and tabasco splashed liberally and mixed with a careless couple of swirls of the fork make every mouthful different. It’s the first time I’ve eaten it, but it won’t be the last.
The American couple on the table behind me have had a few glasses of wine and are getting louder. The woman begins to spout vitriol about another woman they both know. “Let her go out and get someone else to pay – because they will“. Hell hath no fury … The husband lapses into silence in the face of her vehemence and the wife fiddles with her earrings, eyes darting around for a distraction. She snatches up the pudding menu and scrutinises it, chewing her lip with increasing desperation until her husband takes the hint: “So, honey, what are you going to have?” Verbose with relief to be back on neutral ground, the wife chatters about chocolate versus coffee. Her husband summons the waiter with a crooked finger and a nod.
Delicious smells waft along the street from other restaurants. It’s a melange of roasting meat, Indian spices and piquant sweet and sour Chinese sauces, with a hit of grilled cheese from the bistrot kitchen. It’s almost too much to bear. I muse on my next move: pudding or another glass of wine? That is the question. No – the real question is can I remember how to ask for it in French? I refuse to cave and speak English. Scanning the menu, I notice the digestifs. Ricard! Now there’s a plan. I smile at the waiter and he takes my order, coming back moments later with a shot of Ricard in the bottom of a highball glass, along with a jug of water. He pours the water over the pastis, turning it from oily amber to cloudy white. I settle back into my chair, happy.
Ricard is the drink that just keeps giving. The first glass is viscously aniseedy; syrupy despite being half and half water. I savour it, taking small sips and topping up with water when the glass is half-emptied. The texture becomes lighter, but the aniseed after-kick is just the same from first taste to last.
A group of English girls – and one boy – pass. Art students at a guess. Long, gangly, porcelain-white legs emerge from floral mini dresses, underneath thick-rimmed glasses and rainbow-coloured hair. They’re followed by thick-set French boys with heavy-lidded eyes, whose big shoulders look even bigger in their wifebeater tops. Many men would look thuggish, but somehow these boys make it look good. Vive la France.
A silver Renault Clio cruises through the crowds of people, French rap blaring from its open windows as the lights begin to go out further along the street. It’s 11pm and the restaurants are closing in favour of clubs. Blue lights flicker on in what looks, from the outside, like an art gallery, but can’t be. The reflection of pink neon from the chi-chi shoe shop over the road turns the windows into a violet fantasy. I pay up and head for my hotel to dream of red meat and golden wine.