It’s no news that the French have a low incidence of cardiovascular illness relative to Americans (although the numbers have increased since the arrival of Fast Foods in France). In the United States, we are told that this is because the French drink a lot of red wine, and certainly that is an important part of the story. But there’s more to it – at least according to the Foie Gras salesman at my local, organic food market! This guy claims that one of the reasons French people have healthy hearts is the amount of Foie Gras they eat! That’s right – this trafficker in the fatty livers of either duck or goose claim them to be as good for us as olive oil! The notion seems a little far-fetched to me, but apparently the fat in Foie Gras is monounsaturated (or is that poly?), making it to other animal fats what fish oil is to butter! Who knew?!
Paris is still wearing her holiday best. That’s because it’s winter here. But yesterday morning, there were birds for the first time this year, singing the sun and me awake. It was still drizzly and grey, but the air was warmer. Today was cold again, but in that blustery, cloud-bursty, invigorating, almost-March way. Spring is right around the corner…
What kind of a music lover do you have to be to go out on a night like this?!? Some kind of crazy, that’s for sure! It’s -2 (degrees centigrade) with a wicked wind, and now it’s snowing! Well, I’ve loved Manu Dibango since forever, and today while I was out doing local errands, I saw he was scheduled to perform tonight and tomorrow night at Le Petit Journal, which is in my neighborhood – just a quick nip across the street, up the escalator into the train station and down the escalator on the other side of the station and across the street again. For 25 euros, I got a glass of champagne and just about the last seat in the house!There were nine of them on stage: a keyboard player, 2 drummers, a guitarist, a bass player, a flute/saxophone player, 2 singers, and Manu, himself, on vibraphone and sax. Dude is 78 years old and looks awesome! Wonderful saxophone player, too, but, for some reason, the show didn’t set me on fire. Except for that one moment when one of the singers invited the audience to get up and dance. I danced and I danced! I would have danced longer, too, had I not been the only one in the room doing it.Frankly, the most thrilling part of the show was a painter, who set up a blank canvas next to the stage. At first, he used huge paint-brushes on the canvas like a drummer, without paint. Then, he started putting streaks of color on the blank surface. Every now and again, I would turn my head and be astonished at the transformation. By the end of the show, he had created a quite evocative rendition of Manu Dibango and his band!
When you visit Paris, you need to visit the Que Pasa Cafe, at 3 rue de Lappe, near the Place de La Bastille. It’s quite an unusual night spot and happens to be the creation and personal domain of my ex-husband, David. In the summer, it’s a fun place to sit outside and watch the throngs of people that stroll along the cobblestone street – pretty girls in mini-skirts and high heels, comical drunks, show-offs, the local bar-flies. Couples kiss, beggars beg, flower salesmen peddle overpriced roses, and an occasional fight breaks out. Once in a while, a car goes down the street as well. Sometimes this is due to driver error but, as David points out, the majority of cars on the street have exhibitionism as their only goal. You see, the Rue de Lappe is a street that doesn’t really lead anywhere, but because the street is so dense with pedestrians, it doesn’t lead anywhere slowly. The majority of cars, easing down the street Tournament of Roses style, are expensive sports cars, driven by arrogant young men studying the people who are studying them.
In the winter, Que Pasa is a little cave, sheltered from the cold and damp – a refuge, where anything can happen and often does. I like it because I enjoy a Mojito, which is the bar’s signature cocktail, made with Havana Club, real Cuban rum. And, when I’m not in the mood for rum, there’s always plenty of champagne. A word of warning, though: the Que Pasa Cafe is not for the overly squeamish – those who require pristine cleanliness, for example, or an elegant decor. It’s cluttered, funky, and dimly lit, with Che Gevara posters everywhere. Although it’s a simple bar, still, it has pretensions. The other night, when someone asked where the bathrooms were, one regular replied, “Just follow the flies.” That was a little unkind, as David pays someone handsomely to clean the place on a daily basis. But if it isn’t genuinely dirty, it is artificially so, in the same way that its owner has pretensions to being a communist. If we’re talking armchair philosophy, I suppose he really is one. But don’t bring up the fact that he’s a nightclub owner in one of the world’s most expensive cities. That would hurt his feelings.
David is quite the actor, in some ways. He doesn’t exactly pretend to be something that he’s not, but if you’re accidentally misled, he’ll do nothing to set you straight. Once, for example, he found himself at an event for European movie people and someone mistook him for Marlon Brando. “What are you filming lately?” the innocent person inquired. “I’m working exclusively in porn,” my ex-husband casually replied. You see, David grew up as an Algerian in Paris, which is like growing up Puerto Rican in New York, Mexican in Los Angeles or Lithuanian in Canada – not exactly what you’d call the Ruling Class. But, because he’s a Kabyle, (as opposed to a darker-complected Arab), he has a different, physical look and can pass for almost anything, as can his friends. Sadly, North African Berbers (of which the Kabyles are but one of several tribes) in Paris live with the racism and bigotry suffered by minority populations the world over. This is doubly sad because Kabyles are historically, culturally and characteristically amazing. The Kabyles I’ve known through my association with David fascinate me. They tend to be warm and very funny people, who are able to converse on almost any subject, as they are startlingly educated and informed. Generally speaking, they possess a detailed knowledge of history, geography, politics and current events. They have the souls of artists and poets, and many of them are natural philosophers who are unafraid to discuss politics, religion or any other incendiary topic. Understandably, from time to time, friends will stop speaking to each other for months on end.
The clientele of the Que Pasa Cafe is a mixed bag. There’s a little bit of everything: local people and tourists, for sure, French people, other Europeans and Americans, not to mention ex-patriots and all manner of the disenfranchised, as well as Kabyles and other Berbers. It’s a comfortable place for the spiritually homeless. And, to top it off, the atmosphere is great because of David, himself, who exudes tremendous warmth and charm, as well as a bewitching charisma. And he’s a lover of good music. A lot of the music he plays at the bar is Latin, to support his theme. But he’s passionate about American Jazz (Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone) as well as other types of American music, (Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner), traditional French music (Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf, Serge Gainsbourg), Bob Marley and other Reggae artists, as well as African artists like Fela Kuti and, of course, Kabyle music by artists like Djamel Allam, Idir, Khaled and Rachid Taha. And, because the Kabyle community in Paris is so tightly-knit, David knows personally the majority of the most famous Kabyle and Rai music stars.
It wasn’t surprising, then, to see Rachid Taha enter the Que Pasa Cafe the other night. He’s one of my personal favorites and I recognized him immediately. Besides, I’d met him before. Rachid and David threw their arms around each other immediately, then David reintroduced him to me. Rachid and I had a conversation for the first time and, not surprisingly, it was fascinating. Turns out he practices Sufism, a mystical sect I was personally exposed to at a young age and have loved ever since. (For those who are unfamiliar, Whirling Dervishes are Sufi’s.) Rachid quoted a passage from an Arabic poem and, although I don’t speak Arabic, it was obvious to me that it was a poem because of the cadence and rhythm. It was beautiful. I mentioned Rumi, which sent us galloping happily off into further conversation and then, in a strange and touching non-sequitor, Rachid began talking about his son, who also lives in Paris. Rachid said, “It was so cold today that it made my hands hurt, so I went shopping for gloves. Then I gave them to my son.” A surprising sentiment from a rocker…
I’m having some difficulty adapting to the time change. I should be a pro at it by now and, actually, I am. However, being lunatic by nature, and menopausal by chronology, my natural rhythm is anything but, and changing countries just makes matters worse. As I mentioned in my last post, I slept until 1:00 in the afternoon the day after I arrived. That night, I went to visit my ex-husband David, who is the owner of a strange and marvelous bar called the “Que Pasa Cafe.” It was an awesome evening (I have pictures) and I’ll get around to telling that story soon. The problem with David’s bar is that it’s a Black Hole. Getting out before ridiculous post-midnight, early morning hours isn’t easy. This phenomenon, coupled with the lunatic disposition previously referenced, resulted in my going to bed at 5 a.m. my second day here. I was up at 8:30, back to bed at noon, then up again at 4, feeling disoriented. With the intention of creating a gentle evening for myself, I decided to eat dinner at the old, classic restaurant, Montparnasse 1900, which is just down the street from me. Afterwards, I’d pop over to see the George Clooney movie, “The Descendants.” It would be an early night.
Before leaving the apartment, I checked in via Facebook with various and sundry, tactfully avoiding those who would engage in chit-chatty, instant message conversations. Even so, I was online longer than planned and left in a rush. Rushing is always poison, particularly for me. Besides which, because of jet lag and the time difference, I hadn’t established a meditation routine yet. In short, I was out of the Flow, which is a dangerous place to be. It was bitter cold, with a raw, aggressive wind – unusually severe conditions for Paris these days – as I hurried along the Avenue du Maine toward the restaurant, in my wonderful MBT’s (remind me to tell you about these amazing shoes, which heal all manner of foot ailments, especially those resulting from “dancer’s feet” or ridiculously high arches!) With no warning, I stepped into a pit, tripped and found myself hurtling through space, my reading glasses ejecting themselves from their comfortable nest on top of my head and landing a safe distance away, while I continued air-borne, catapulting through the ether, eventually reaching earth, smashing-pumpkin style, behind them. There was no way to avoid hitting the pavement, so I accepted my destiny without resistance and landed painfully on all fours, wrenching my ankle, scraping my knee in several places, putting a hole in the knee of my favorite, cashmere slacks and rendering moot my dignity.
A sweet woman rushed up to ask if I was okay. Struggling to my feet and dusting myself off, I reassured her that I was. “Ah, it’s treacherous,” the lady said, indicating the sidewalk behind me. I followed her gaze, searching for the jagged maw that had grabbed my foot and hurtled me to the pavement. “Yes,” I agreed, studying the visibly smooth and unblemished surface that had been my literal downfall. I muttered an embarrassed “Thank you,” and scurried away, reminding myself to be more present in my body, which wasn’t difficult to do with my newly acquired limp.
The decor of the restaurant was original Art Nouveau, the menu, traditional French. The waiter recommended pumpkin soup with foie gras as a starter, and the day’s special, Blanquette de Veau, as a main course. Smiling indulgently, I explained that I would be having neither the foie gras, nor the veal, as I was almost completely vegetarian. I then placed my order: beef, marrow bones, followed by kidneys in mustard sauce, medium rare, with a half bottle of St. Emilion to wash it all down.
The portions were enormous. I managed 2 out of 3 of the marrow bones and less than half the kidneys. At one point, the Maitre D’ came over and asked if I wanted more mustard sauce for the kidneys. Before I could answer, the waiter, alarmed, put the kibosh on such a nonsensical idea. “No! She can hardly eat what she has! You can’t give her more sauce!”
The Maitre D’ was winding up for a heated rebuttal, but before they could come to blows, I asked for my check. Then, for the first time in my 30-plus years of experience with France and the French, the waiter offered to wrap up my dinner to go! I was so stunned by this frankly American gesture, that it was impossible to protest. If this ever happens again, I’ll definitely try harder. It would be inaccurate to say that what the waiter placed in front of me was the size of a large microwave. It was more like a small toaster-oven, really, in the form of a casserole dish or loaf pan. This awkward container was made out of hard plastic, mummified in many layers of plastic wrap. Of course, it was not in a bag – how could it be? They don’t make bags that big.
After paying my bill, I left the chic restaurant holding my leftovers, which looked more like a potluck offering for a church social somewhere in Indiana. As I stepped out into the frigid cold, I said a small prayer that I would find a hungry, homeless person between the restaurant and the movie theatre. I crossed the street and there she was, sitting on the icy pavement, collecting coins in a paper coffee cup. As respectfully as I could, I said, “Excuse me, but are you hungry? This is my dinner – it’s veal kidneys with mashed potatoes in mustard sauce. It’s really quite good.” She gave me a sweet smile as she took hold of the still warm container.
I arrived in Paris yesterday (February 1). Decent flight, although the quality of Air France food has disintegrated wildly! Why, oh why, would Joel Robuchon take credit for it?! That, plus my crushed, split, mangled and exploded suitcase were the only downsides to the trip. The actual flight was exceptionally smooth, save for an odd, tippy landing.
What a greeting I received at the apartment from my landlords (now friends)! I had just started unpacking when they invited me to lunch – a plate of charcuterie (ie, prosciutto, salami, pate, pickles and salad) followed by a delicious fish – “colin,” which Google Translate says is “hake” – with broccoli. The meal ended with a luscious roquefort, and we drank a pleasant Bordeaux throughout. They further spoiled me by filling my refrigerator with everything I could possibly need to get started – so I wouldn’t need to leave home the first day!
It was great fun unpacking the boxes I’d left behind! Although it’s been less than four months, I’d forgotten what I had… The happiest find, next to the extension cord for my Mac, some perfume and my favorite nightgown, was the unopened box of 100% French cocoa powder! After a nap, I spent the evening in, watching “The Simpsons,” dubbed into French, followed by a couple of mediocre, American movies that I will refrain from mentioning by name. After a delicious hot chocolate, I went to bed and slept fitfully, until falling into a deep sleep from 9 am to 1 pm!
Tonight was an adventure, which I will share tomorrow… It’s nearly 4:30 in the morning! Faites de beaux reves! (That’s French – minus an important accent – for “Sweet dreams!”)