Dispatches from Paris

Dispatches from Paris
A lot of words . July 2012 . This is a work of creative non-fiction

#1. Le Divan

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A bar, Le Divan, in the 2e arrondissement, off Bonne Nouvelle station.

Kenza, my host in Ivry-sur-Seine, picked up Brazilian dance last year, and the flavour of the language has mixed her French with Portuguese. She makes the motion of twisting a knob by her ear to make the switch. She had introduced me to the Brazilian teachers when we first entered the bar and my cheeks grew chafed at the endless kissing.

Faded blue and green tattoos skated up the man’s muscled arms and disappeared beneath the sleeves of his t-shirt, and the woman wore a midriff-baring top and skin-tight black leggings. You wanted to have a drink in your hand. We stood outside on the street with the others who wanted more to have a cigarette in their hand and grey scarves of smoke wrapped themselves in the sticky, pathetic breeze.

Earlier, Kenza, who has been all over the world, born in Morocco, who has backpacked in Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, had praised Montana above New York City, above California.

I find that our space impresses Europeans the most – we like their monuments and they like that we don’t need any monuments when the greatest monument to nature is itself.

Lydia’s “time in the woods”, I thought, because James had put it that way, and I imagined her portaging through the wilderness with the canoe over her shoulder.

Tonight is La Fete de la Musique in Paris. Actually it’s a world holiday. The metro will run until the early morning, and that almost never happens. We don’t have this holiday in North America. Kenza says that on this day there are free concerts all over the world. Amateur musicians of all skills are invited to play in the street, in public spaces, throughout the day and all night.

When she was younger – “your age,” she said – she and her twin sister Selma would tote bottles of beer and walk the streets all night on La Fete de la Musique. But tomorrow she has to work. She can’t get too fucked up.

I thought about the office building in La Defense, where they had a set up a huge LCD screen to broadcast a live concert. A sea of suits gathered in front of it. To the side there were shiny new turnstiles and card readers and more suits flowed through in each direction. Only some of them lifted or turned their heads.

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I was asked by Laurent in the hi-lighter-pink t-shirt to explain my dancing experience and said, “Un petit peu.”

Mostly I just jump. I have enthusiasm. “Je vais sauter. Comme ca. Et peut-etre je peux faire le Macarena ou Y-M-C-A. Comme ca.”

I am dancing in the middle of the street. Who the fuck cares. Motorcycles are bleating past.

“Your shirt,” Kenza told him, “feels very Californian or Floridian.”

I said, noticing the pack on the table, “And what you’re smoking. You’re smoking Lucky Strikes!”

“Eh? Quoi?”

“Uh…tu fumes des Lucky Strikes?” I pointed at the iconic lettering on the pack. “I just thought it was interesting because Lucky Strikes were what American soldiers (well, the higher ups) smoked in World War II.”

I heard an imaginary voice saying, “Is everything La Guerre to you?”

I said, “That seems like a conscious stylistic choice,” because apparently I have to comment on everything, like when I really could not resist giving Felix hell for that beat-up Tolkien showing an exact inch-and-a half out of his blazer pocket.

But I liked the Lucky Strikes. They still make them. There is a small but loyal fanbase out there who keep it all alive in the imagination.

“La menthe,” Laurent said.

“He says,” Kenza turned to me, “that he likes the mint quality.” She asked him, “Is that a fashion?”

“I think,” I said, smirking, “Laurent sets the fashion.”

“Quoi?”

“Hmm. Comment dit-on… Il fait le mode? Il définit le mode?”

The smoke from his cigarette lifted slightly and the cherry burned hot-red.

“Pfffff. Moi?” he said. “Jamais.”

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Other language quirks – apparently pfffff is the key to everything in French. Just check out “Shit French people say”.

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Kenza and I took a break to sit on the side of the dancefloor. The dancefloor is smooth hardwood. It’s easy on the shoes. New shoes were being sold at the door at a bargain price and Kenza was eyeing them hungrily.

I watched the precise movements of the dancers.

They are aficionados – real dancers, passionate, sexual without having sex.

One of the them, the girl sitting on the other side of me, is studying abroad for a year. She goes to Rutgers. When she introduced herself, having heard Kenza and I speaking in English, she said she was from New York.

I said, “Isn’t Rutgers in Jersey?” Three years ago, I’d gotten stuck on a megabus with three fine art students from Rutgers when the bus spontaneously broke down in the middle of nowhere near Scranton, Pennsylvania. That’s how I know.

She nodded. “But if I say New Jersey they all think it’s Jersey Shore, so it’s easier to just say New York.”

She met her boyfriend here in Paris, but he’s gone back to the States, and she’s got two months left. She’s here at Le Divan alone. She’s wearing a tight tube top that bares the tops of her breasts, her hair slicked back into a ponytail, wet from sweat.

She is very, very beautiful. Her makeup falls naturally on her face.

She usually dances West Coast Swing, not salsa, not samba. Not this, which she calls zouk.

She was pointing to a girl and boy spiralling in front of us, their feet featureless in movement, going chest-to-chest, crotch-to-crotch. “They’re not lovers. That’s just the dance.”

The dark frayed hem of the girl’s skirt swished and they were replaced by a second couple who were going at the same vicious, fastidious tempo.

“Another way to tell,” said Gabriella – that was her name – as she nodded at the elderly Chinese couple sitting in the corner, “–is that those are her parents right there, watching.”

“Jesus,” I said, having not noticed until then the resemblance, the same nose and mouth and chin as the girl, who looks like Zhang Ziyi.

They too had been dancing passionately. They danced with more gusto than my parents have been able to muster in twenty-five years of marriage. My father cooks dinner every night and my mother takes her bowl of rice to eat in front of the computer in her room, and they haven’t slept in the same bed for four years. My father is threatening divorce again. Just for the record, he’s threatening me.

Gabriella said, “They’re okay with it. She’s okay with it. It’s all beautiful. Now they swap partners and it begins again. You want to go to the bar and get a drink with me?”

“God, yes. Vas-y the fuck there,” I said.

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In Paris, drinks are a fucking scandal. Actually food is just a fucking scandal. Give me $6 sushi lunch special on Spadina Avenue any day.

Gabriella said, “I want to get fucked up. But I, like, have no money, so we need to find the cheapest drink with the most alcohol. I’m feeling like a shot. But what of?”

I was putting away the second gin and tonic of the night. The quinine was really hitting me hard.

“Tequila,” I said. “Oh my god, body shots. Please, for the love of all things hot.”

She giggled. “This is a hard one.”

She came back with something. “Rum.”

“What are you doing?” I asked, as she flapped her hands a bit and placed the palms over her exposed and glistening collarbones.

“Steeling myself. I think this is my first shot?”

“Like, ever?” I keep having to remind myself that she’s terribly young. Couldn’t be more than twenty-one. Or more like I’m older than I think (Mathilde had said I was ancient. When I met her she was eighteen and I had to try to forget things like that or I start to question this entire fandom experience.)

“Bottoms up,” I said, grinning at Gabriella. I honestly can’t remember my first shot. I think somebody just handed it to me. I’ve no idea what it was. Or if it was so cheap it burned.

Kenza had been released by her partner and approached with a caparinha, the national drink of Brazil, in hand. “Chou! Chou!” (Sorry, I’ve no idea what the actual spelling is).

“Santé,” I said.

“Ay! A la votre!”

Gabriella’s shot face is the funniest, I decided.

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