After all the Paris-bashing that can sometimes slip from my lips, I have to apologize. I haven't been completely honest. It's just sometimes so much fun to vent in one's blog, but the truth is - I wouldn't even mention Paris if I hadn't had a blast while living there. But as you know, one's memory is selective, and has the tendency to overreact. You know. If a meal in a restaurant is fairly OK, we (especially women) tend to overzealously call it 'the most fabulous meal I ever ate'. If a movie was relatively dull, we screech about it being 'the lousiest piece of crap that was ever smeared on a movie screen.' If we've lived through some annoying experiences in a city, we roll our eyes and name it an 'absolutely inhuman hell-hole'. And me? Well, I'm a nuclear over-reactor.
Still, the stories I have told about my life in Paris and here in the southern French country side, however pity-inducing or laughable, are all true. There is one particularly fun memory I'd like to share with you. This is meant especially those aspiring musicians, painters, students and altogether starving artists that wish more than anything to try to make it big in Paris. Go for it, my friends. For I do not believe this story could have happened in the countryside...
Our band was playing what felt like the thousandth evening in a small piano bar at rue Daunou, the one next to Harry's Bar and close to the old Opéra. It must have been two thirty at night, and the party was just getting going. We knew we had at least another two hours to go before we could stop, and we had had a few 'kir's to get that extra energy boost. I was singing my heart out about the son of a preacher man, when I saw a tall man with long dread locks enter the bar. He had a drink and watched us play, and tried to hit on a young woman sitting next to him, apparently with no luck. When we took our pause, he came to ask if he could come and play with us for a while. 'What do you play?', I asked. 'Oh, a little bit of this, a little bit of that', he said. 'Hang on, I'll go get my trumpet from my hotel room', he said and disappeared in to the night. I thought that was the last we'd see of him, but the man came swiftly back and when we started again, he jammed with us.
We had a really fun evening, or should I say morning. When we finally stopped playing at four thirty, the guy told the young woman at the counter to come hear him play the following day. The lady didn't look that interested, but the musician was genial - he beamed at us and asked if we'd want to come hear his gig. We had nothing specific to do and so we said yes. He told his name and gave the name of his hotel. 'Call me tomorrow morning at ten', he said, 'I'll take down your names and give them to the door man tomorrow.' Slightly swaying, he left for his hotel, and we packed the car to go home. Outide the bar, the young lady from the counter warned us: 'Be careful with that guy. I'm sure as hell I won't go anywhere to see his gig! He said it was in some pub called 'Bar des Sports', and you know what those are like!' She strutted off, and we shrugged - hey, what the heck. We like music pubs. The musician had been nice and we still held on to our plans to go see him play the next day, at the 'Bar des Sports', wherever that was.
The following morning I dialed the hotel's number. 'Ritz Paris, bonjour,' a man answered. 'Oh, umm, can you put me through to room five oh six, please?' 'Certainly, ma'am', he said. The phone rang in room 506 for quite some time before the musician answered. He took a while to remember who I was, but as I explained too him we had jammed the night before, he seemed to remember us. 'Oh. OK. Here's the address, show up at quarter to seven tonight. I'll give your names for the doorman', he mumbled and hung up.
We looked for a while before finding the address he had given. After searching for a while we realized the place he had mentioned with his american-accented french wasn't Bar des Sports at all. It was the 'Palais des Sports', an immense concert and congress hall. We shrugged and went to see one of the doormen. He eyeballed us for a while but took our names and went somewhere to verify the list. A long line of viewers was forming a queue at each door. I had time to finish a cigarette as the doorman came back and asked us to follow him.
We followed the man through long hallways into the gigantic concert hall, where he directed us to be seated right in the middle and on the fourth row. I grimaced thinking about what would happen next - we would be chased off our exclusive seats when he figured we hadn't paid for them. But the doorman dug something out of his bag. 'Here', he gave us each a plastic card. 'These are your VIP passes. When the show is over, stay seated until the hall is empty; you will then be called to the back stage. Have a good concert.'
We sat, stunned, as the lights went down and the crowd cheered. The musicians, one by one, filled the stage, among them the trumpet player - who was also a pianist, percussionist, accordionist and band leader. The last person to join the band, accompanied by a standing ovation, was Paul Simon.
After the show, we were invited backstage as promised, and we got to meet the musicians and Paul Simon. Unfortunately, I never saw the trumpet player again.
The following night, we went back to play in our piano bar, wondering who would walk in next, just happy to be there, alive, exhilarated. In Paris.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Monday, November 21, 2011
I recently got a permit to teach music in French primary school, an accomplishment of which I'm extremely proud. I gave it my best, and the inspector who was there to approve or disapprove my methods asked me: 'Why on earth are you here, in this small village? Why aren't you in Paris or Toulouse?' I didn't know what to answer, not instantaneously. There are so many little details why I prefer village living to big town living, which one was the top reason? When I got back home, I started making a list. Why did I love living in Paris? Why do I love living in Villecomtal, population 412?
- is the City Of Opportunity. For an aspiring musician, it's heaven. Underpaid heaven, but heaven still. Where else can you find yourself jamming with internationally renowned musicians at the end of a bar tour? Where else can you find the world's top musicians to play on your album (if you can afford them)? There are so many music pubs and clubs, you always get a gig. Sometimes you may even get paid for it.
- is beautiful. I used to work at Montmartre but lived next to Musée d'Orsay, and always walked across the city just because it was so damn gorgeous. Crossing the Pont Royal at sunrise, walking up rue Sainte Anne and all those japanese restaurants crammed in medieval townhouses. Up across the Grands Boulevards passing tens and tens of Haussmann-styled bourgeois buildings, gleaming cream-colored jewels with dark-green doors. Uphill past the 9th arrondissement, past the little dimly-lit bars where expensive drinks and women were available from dusk 'till dawn. Past Pigalle and Moulin Rouge, up the cobblestone alleys, catching fabulous smells from the cheese or chocolate stores, carefully avoiding the various dog turds that spread out through Paris like a stinky minefield.
- is ever-changing. If you're bored, that never lasts long. You just change your 'arrondissement'. From artistic to bourgeois to chic, to ethnic to glamorous to chaotic. Never a dull moment.
- is filled with movie theaters. I'm a sucker for old films, most of which were constantly playing in Paris' hundreds of theaters - theaters that look like old-fashioned movie theaters should, along with red velvet seats, shaggy carpeting, gilded angels on the domed ceiling, dusty smell and heavy curtains in front of the screen.
- has fabulous food. Max Poîlane bakers' shop on rue Brancion (15ème) is as if you stepped into the 1920's. Le Petit St. Benoît restaurant on rue Saint-Benoît (6ème) that looks and tasted exactly the same as it did in the 1950's. La Grande Epicerie on rue de Bac (6ème) is the Mecca of food fanatics. Mariage Frères tea rooms (7ème, 17ème, 4ème) in which the Sakura green tea with cherry blossoms is beyond comparison. I feel silly even writing this list, for books and volumes have been written about culinary wanderings in Paris. (It also has some of the worse restaurants on the planet, but they do not belong on my 'why I love Paris' list).
- has history written all over it. For a history buff, it's miraculous to walk the streets of Paris. Every turn in history is so clearly visible in its meticulously preserved architecture.
- is where public transportation is great, and it means you don't really need a car.
- is where one's will power and imagination is measured. Since I had imagined the professional opportunity doesn't exactly knock on your door in the countryside, I had to become creative and use my long-lost talents in finding work. Instead of giving concerts, I have concentrated on studio work, song writing, album-making, wedding song wielding, pedagogy and teaching. And since there are so few artists and musicians around, I'm suddenly employed to the max. What's amazing, I've actually had people knock on my door, offering work.
- is beautiful. Stepping outside my door, nothing but ancient red-stone houses, small alleyways, ancient gateways... and then, rivers, mountains, oak and chestnut trees, castles and chapels. An added plus is that I seem to be the only one around that takes walks, so I can enjoy this magnificent nature alone, with my family, or with a few given wild boar or deer. And all of this this in my village alone. The surrounding villages are some of the most unbelievably breath-taking places I've ever seen - Conques, Estaing, Rodelle, Bozouls, St Jean-le Froid, and on and on the list goes.
- is unflinching. I think the last village renovation dates in the 13th century. This village has even had the same families living in it for hundreds of years. A stroll in the cemetery confirms this.
- is quiet. Apart from miaowing cats, owls and birds of all sorts and the occasional cough from the old man next door, there is a blissful silence that makes it wonderful to fall asleep and to wake up.
- has wonderful food. The working man's lunch at Café des Voyageurs, made by the Ukrainian chef and bar owner Hanna, is savorous and interesting, along with a cheese platter enough to make you dizzy. The 'Auberge de la Cascade' in nearby Polissal is country cooking at its best - wholesome, greasy and tasty. The 'Auberge du Château' in Muret-le Château is fine gourmet food, beautifully arranged of exceptional quality ingredients. Another Auberge, that of Rodelle, has a worker's menu that one can easily imagine having been the same for 200 years. And I love Roquefort.
- has history written all over it. This goes without saying, but this is one of the oldest parts of France, and it shows.
- has friendly people. At first, friendly as towards a tourist; then, friendly as towards a neighbor.
- makes it possible to live inexpensively. Rent is cheap, buying a house is cheap, food is cheap. Only gasoline isn't, and you do need a car should you want to go anywhere. Unless you're an athletic bicycling machine, which I am not.
Hmmm. Both locations have immense, sometimes matching qualities. (Except for the friendliness, that I cannot honestly say I've ever found in Paris. Nor any movie theaters in the countryside.) Can an expat truly feel at home anywhere? I do. I feel right at home in this village. I guess it all boils down to whether deep in my heart I'm a city gal or a country gal. And I happen to be a country gal. And that's how I answered the school inspector. I'm a country gal, and that's why I love it here.