Two drunken Australian early twenty-somethings got on board the Metro a couple of weeks ago. You could hear and smell them at the other end of the carriage. They scanned the Metro riders for people to talk to and finally found a 20-something French couple.
“Bonjour,” one Aussie said with obvious discomfort. His face contorted and his mouth did not want to cooperate with the foreign word. “Do you guys speak English?”
The French couple looked at each other as if for reassurance. “Yes,” the French woman answered.
“Excellent,” the Aussies gave each other high-five. “We’re staying by the Bastille. Where should we go for a bit of a party? You know, a few beers, some girls and some fun.”
The French man and woman looked at each other, looked back at the Aussies and said in unison, “Rue de Lappe.”
Every town has a street like rue de Lappe and everyone has at least one under-age, alcohol-impaired, half-memory of an evening there. Bar after bar, lurid neon advertising cheap drinks and seedy bouncers lounging at the doors. Stale beer and urine are the overwhelming smells during the day. Eager hormones and the smell of spilt pitchers of sickly sweet cocktails fill the air at night. Large groups of young men or women stumble out of one bar and fall into the next.
Rue de Lappe was not where I thought we’d end up on Saturday night. When we entered the street I was certain we would pass through it on our way somewhere else. My husband and I were with one of my best friends in the world who had come to Paris to celebrate a big birthday. While my friend and I had shared a few buckets of beer (yes, literally buckets) in the Ohio version of rue de Lappe many years ago, I think we had something a little more grown-up in mind for Saturday night.
However, about half way down the street, my husband and friend both stopped in front of a bar and looked in. In between the other large-fronted, loud establishments there was a little slip of a place. As you looked in, there was just enough room for the long bar down the left side, a row of stools and a bit of space for people to squeeze past to get to the few tables in the back. In contrast to its crowded neighbours, this little bar only had a few punters. It was a dive and I can’t explain it any other way than to say something about it called to us.
“Do you want to go in for one?” my husband asked in disbelief. My friend and I both nodded yes and then shrugged at each other because we didn’t know why we didn’t march on.
My friend led the way to the end of the bar. We sat and they ordered beers. This was not a place that would serve my favourite tipple, fizz, so I asked the barman if he had a cocktail de la maison. The barman was a slim man with a mop of curly grey hair, boyish eyes and a deeply creased face. He could have been anywhere from 45 to 65 years old. He nodded and smiled causing his thin lips to part and reveal the three remaining teeth that clung to his top gums. He assured me that he would make me something, “très spécial”.
I could see him set to work in the tarnished mirror above the bar. A tiny workspace was squeezed into the gap between the till and a turntable. The turntable propped up a large collection of vintage vinyl. Solid Gold Soul was the sleeve facing outwards. A woman with brassy cropped hair appeared behind the bar and inquired what the barman was doing. Clearly cocktails were not the norm. He gestured to me, she looked over and saw me looking at the records. “We have a CD player but don’t really use it. There’s nothing like the sound of a needle on vinyl.” She arrived from London for the weekend 35 years ago. I couldn’t help but wonder if she had landed in this bar that very first day and never left.
The barman proudly put my drink down in front of me. It consisted of one thin slice of lime quartered, a little sugar and overproof rum, and was served in a glass a little larger than a shot. I tasted it. It nearly blew my head off. I asked for a little water and the barman looked wounded. He never gave me water, but did give me a tall glass and a few ice cubes.
While I sipped my toxic drink I had a look at the other occupants in the bar. A couple of stools down from me on my left was a black man about 60 with snow-white hair. It was cropped close on the sides and in the back but rose like a cliff a full 4 inches over his wrinkled forehead. He had a large gold hooped earring and wore a red silk cravat, dark blue collared shirt and bright yellow waist coat. The man next to him had a shiny round bald head, a round face and round, aviator-shaped, thick gold and white plastic 80’s style glasses. He had a thick gold bracelet and necklace to match and white track suit with green Adidas stripes that looked more pimp than athlete.
My friend’s voice brought me back to our end of the bar. “Merci beaucoup,” she enthused and I saw she was petting something green, yellow and furry on her finger. “Look, the barman gave me a birthday present!” She put her hand in front of me so that I could see the little knitted turtle finger puppet she proudly wore on her finger. “Wow, what a present,” was all I could think of saying. It looked like it had been chewed by a dog. The barman beamed a shy, three-toothed grin.
You have to understand that most places we go with my good friend we get special attention. She is tall, blond and beautiful. This combined with her chatty, flirty French encouraged by the bottle of bubbles we had before we left our flat made her a star attraction. A small man in a Converse t-shirt was the first to try to get her attention. Then two students made an attempt, and then another guy.
While I watched all the drama, two men appeared at the end of the bar. They were regulars and greeted the barman with kisses, as the French do. The older, smaller one had dark eyes, chiselled features and silver/white well-groomed hair that was tidy on the sides but longer on top. He also had a chiselled body that was shown off by a tight, but not too tight, t-shirt and well-fitting jeans. The younger, tall one had short dark black hair and a Roman nose. His body was also well-defined. If the older man looked like he took care of himself, the younger man’s fitness looked more natural or rather acquired by a labour of love.
The older man was the only one, other than the barman who managed to engage my friend in conversation and the younger man sat quietly by his side. My husband and I could not figure out the connection between the two men. The barman put us out of our misery – they were father and son. The barman also said that the older man was a magician. The younger man rolled his eyes and shook his head. Excellent, I thought, my husband is stuntman and I am a spy.
Then the magician took the knitted turtle and proceeded to do 5 minutes of slight-of-hand tricks with it. The turtle was in his hand, and then it was gone. It was back in his hand, then put in his mouth and then pulled from behind the barman’s ear. He appeared to throw it into the air, and then he pulled it out of his pocket. Then up in the air again to be caught behind his back and then gone completely. Over, up, down, gone, pulled out and then finally, produced on a business card that said he was, in fact, a magician. Wow. The card had a photograph of the man in a tuxedo and black bow tie and detailed that he was not only a magician but a “Gentleman Magician”. The son, we found out, played volleyball for Italy, hence the well-toned physique, and was an industrial designer.
Both men were a little put out when my friend said to me that she was trying to get the attention of another young man sitting at the table behind the bar. “What should I do?” she asked. “Go talk to him,” I said. The father-son team gave me simultaneous look of despair, what did they have to do to get her favour, they’d literally been doing magic after all.
While my friend went over to try to chat to the only man in bar who hadn’t been trying to get her attention, I got some of my own. Didier pulled up a stool next to mine and sat down.
“Bon soir,” he said. “Le blah blah blah, blah blah.”
“I am sorry I don’t speak French,” I said and this was one of the few times I was glad of it. Didier was not my type. This did not deter Didier, “Le blah blah blah. Blah blah blah.” The English woman behind the bar caught my eye and said, “That’s Didier. He has a bit of a reputation as a lady’s man, a bit of a Casanova.” The magician and his son both nodded in agreement.
I looked back at Didier. He was about 5ft 2in tall and wide. He was bald, pie eyed and pie-faced. I looked back at the woman behind the bar, the magician and the son, and asked, “This man is a Casanova?” They all nodded vigorously in agreement and in all seriousness. The woman behind the bar said, “He is and he’ll sit there as long as he thinks it’ll take.”
Didier raised his glass to me and gave me what he probably thought was his sexiest smile. “Blah blah le blah.”
For a second, I was intrigued. Had I been a bit too harsh in my assessment of Didier? This was France after all, maybe he had some secrets. I looked into his eyes. “Blah blah. Le blah blah,” he said spitting a little and struggling to keep me in focus. He then spilled a little beer.
“Didier, I’d like you to meet my husband.” The woman behind the bar translated this and Didier smiled and raised his glass to me and my husband but remained firmly seated next to me. “Blah le blah blah. Blah blah, blah blah, le blah blah.”
It was then that the magician decided to make his move. I imagine that he saw the geeky, spectacled young man my friend decided to chat up and figured he still had a good chance. Him or the pipsqueak? Everyone in the bar would have put money on the hot magician. He went over to their table, sat down and joined the conversation. My friend’s original pursuant in the Converse t-shirt strangely took the magician’s move as a cue to try again also and started to do a little po-go dancing around their table.
The son looked even more forlorn. “Why wasn’t she interested in me?” he asked. I suspected that he’d had a lifetime of being overshadowed by his father. I wanted to tell him that his volleyball body would have been more than enough for me, but I am happily married after all.
After a while, my friend came back to the bar and said that Sebastian, the specky boy at the table, was a German student. She petted her turtle gift and said it was maybe time to go home. I asked if she was sure she did not want to talk to the magician and the volleyball player again, after all a father/son team is what a million big-birthday daydreams are made of. But she said no, it was time to go home.
We said our goodbyes and the cast assembled to send us on our way. Arm in arm, my husband, my friend and I walked down rue de Lappe and my friend christened the turtle finger puppet, Sebastian. I looked back over my shoulder to see our new friends waving goodbye and they seemed to be disappearing in the 2am mist. I wanted to remember this night and looked above the door, but could not see a sign or the name of the bar. I looked down again for the crowd and they had all disappeared. I remembered the story of Brigadoon, an enchanted Scottish village that only appeared once every hundred years, and wondered if I came back to rue de Lappe I’d be able to find our little enchanted bar.
Happy birthday ED!