The seven year hitch: Paris edition

To celebrate our wool-and-copper wedding anniversary, traca da broon and I hopped a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris last Friday to see Tom Waits at Le Grand Rex. This is not the Grand Rex, because I couldn't be arsed to take a picture of it, but just some street corner:

Yes, yes, how romantic! The hitch? We both got nasty colds and were sick the whole time. The train was fantastic, though. The steward shoved a tray of desserts in my face and I gratefully accepted it -- before being told I was only supposed to take one. I had bought a French phrase book but we were too sick and tired to read it. We had to get along for three days on bon jour, café au lait, le menu, grande bière, vin blanc, toilette, voila, merci, and bon soir. And of course, Honh honh honh! and Sacre bleu! In non-English mode, we kept speaking Dutch to the tourist-weary French, a language not one person in Paris speaks.

Our pockets bulging with tissues in various degrees of damp, we ambled with snot-pressured heads vaguely toward the river. I inadvertently took a third Loratadine, meaning I was on three times the daily dose of that anti-sniffling drug, with its side effects of "insomnia, nervousness, and anxiety." We stopped for that meal between lunch and dinner, which turned out to be pigeon-harassed stiff pizza from a nearby street vendor because we'd chosen the one cafe whose kitchen wasn't open, and I could only sit at our tiny iron table drooling and watching pigeons strut around me trying to hypnotize me into giving them peanuts. At another cafe the waitresses couldn't understand me, and the Spanish woman at the next table knocked my beer over with her bag, soaking the only pants I had brought. Being sick in Paris is like being castrated at an orgy.

We fought the crowd and achieved our seats for the Glitter and Doom tour, which I had seen announced via the "press conference" on his site. Le Grad Rex is a glorious space made to seem like you are outside, with a ceiling like a starry dusk and props of exotic villa-ruins on either side of the hall. It was hot inside, the seats in front of us were millimeters from our knees, and the slope was so steep we felt that if we let go of our chairs we would tumble forward all the way down to the stage. The well-named Mr. Waits started 45 minutes late, and we remarked how if it wasn't Tom Waits we would be crawling back to bed. After 44 minutes and 58 seconds, I simply had to have some water, and as soon as I had lurched to my feet, causing my neighbors to stand and let me through, the lights fell and Tom Waits strode onto the stage. But I had to have water. When I came back I couldn't find our seats and watched the first number squatting in an aisle.

He was so fantastic he actually captured and held our disease-damaged attention. We weren't really expecting a sloppy, slurring piano-man-clown, but then again, we kind of were. He did have a kind of tramp-on-his-first-interview look, with an old hat he kept taking off and bowing very deeply with. His band sounded absolutely gorgeous. His son Casey was on the drums, and his other son Sullivan, a teenager, sat in on "assistant clarinet and saxophone." The man himself did play a solo piano set of tearjerkers, but mostly he was center stage at the mic, wheezing and howling and quivering like he needed an exorcist, and stamping his feet around on some old boards with chalk in them, so that dust flew up when he wanted, and there was an old bell by his foot which he kicked from time to time.

He stopped one song when the audience started clapping along. "Now, when you're all clapping, and you're a little bit off, it throws me off. No, no, it's okay, I understand. You've never worked together before. But that's why I wear the hat. I'm the conductor. We're gonna start this song again, and this time wait for me to give the signal." Later, when he gave the "karate chop" final note signal to the band at the end of a different song, he shot a scowl at the drummer, his own son, who had let two extra beats slip.

He also told a story: "The last time I was in Paris, I went swimming in a pond. There was a sign there. I don't read French, and it probably said whatever you do don't swim in this pond. I thought it said Welcome to Paris. So a few months later, I had some discomfort, and it turned out I had accidentally swallowed some tadpoles and now had three bullfrogs living in my stomach. The doctor said, 'Of course, it's up to you what to do about it ... it's your choice.' So I kept them. They live right here, over to one side, in their own little world." He played for 2 full hours, and then came back for an encore that included "Way Down in the Hole" (The Wire's opening music), and his dark version of Disney's "Heigh Ho" (scroll down to Disc 3), and my favorite of his songs, "Jockey Full of Bourbon."

Next day we bought Metro day passes and got off somewhere south and west on the map and ate lunch. Lunch is a great opportunity to play the Mock the Foreign Menu's English Game, and we found a winner -- maybe the all-time winner, anywhere: Eventail d'avocat et pamplemousse aux crevettes, which the restaurant had translated into "Range of lawyers and grapefruit to shrimps."

We'd done the tourist bit before and got the idea to try and find the famous "Left Bank," thinking we'd go hang out where all the artistic American ex-pats had hung out and perhaps absorb enough of that coolness to forget our colds, but we had no guidebook and couldn't read the French maps, and when I asked our waiter where it was he shook his head gravely and said, "Never heard of it." We wandered in the heat and finally at an Internet cafe discovered that the term just means the left (south) side of the river. In other words, we'd been walking around the Left Bank trying find it. So more walking. At a perfect people-watching cafe right in the thick of things, on the Seine, we commenced to pound beers to ward off the heat and drown our viruses, laughing at how sick we were, then coughing, then laughing some more, then sniffling and asking each other for tissues.

Finally we unstuck our asses from our seats and wobbled toward a little diagonal street.

"What's that?"
"Some fantastic historical thing we would go into if we weren't sick."

After walking till we had sweated out everything we'd drunk already, we stopped at an absolutely charming little art nouveau cafe tucked in a cobblestone alley next to the crumbling ruins of a church-like building and split a carafe of wine, which turned out to be a mistake. My system was already overloaded, and you can only fake being fine for so long. So we set out again north, vaguely toward our hotel, crossing the Seine at sunset over a wide bridge that was lined on both sides end to end with families and groups of friends who had spread out blankets and brought baskets of bread and cheese and wine and fruit, and we said Ah, so that's what you do, because you would certainly go broke after even a week of eating and drinking at the prices we were seeing. At one point I squinted an 11-euro beer on a bill -- around $18. And it was only a Heineken.

I was like the walking dead, and we finally got irritated with each other when we couldn't find a good path back to the hotel on the last night. There were no good streets, they all went the wrong way at useless angles. We used our Metro cards for the last time, getting off at a stop we knew, but unsure of which direction to go. And did we want to stop and eat one last time, and where, or keep walking? We even ran through the I-don't-care-myself-but-I-hate-it-when-you-don't-care routine. At the hotel, sweat-drenched and collapsing from fatigue, we each took a bath in the small tub. In bed clean, with the curtains blowing warm air on us, we were too tired to read. Determinedly, I managed the superhuman effort of turning my head in what I imagined was seductive fashion toward my bride -- and was greeted with a soft snore. Soon, quite, quite, soon, my own joined hers in chorus.

Waiting by the train station at yet another sidewalk cafe, we ordered beers. The waiter went away and came back and said, "I'm so sorry, but we only have the Brown Pelican." (When we turned the bottle around, we spied the not-while-pregnant warning shown below -- just look at that brazen tramp guzzle!)

On the train back, two little kids sat behind us. At first they were cute, but as I tried to sleep one of them began a 3-hour shrieking exercise. The other kept reaching through the seats grabbing at me. Then, seeing my silvering hair -- which makes me look distinguished and sophisticated -- he cried, "Opa! Opa!" ("Grandpa! Grandpa!"). Which is just what a 42-year-old wants to hear.

I kept trying to get good photos of both of us. Ah well, next time maybe. A typical one:


pjkm said...

This made me laugh so much. You two are hopeless. Happy anniversary.

Once I was eating dinner in Paris with a work colleague, and the waiter pretended not to understand when he asked for butter, because he'd said "beurre" instead of "du beurre" - whatever!

Nicole Jackson said...

Happy anniversary! Please tell me you ordered the lawyers with grapefruit.

Grendel said...

Turns out, lawyers taste like chicken.

Brando said...

I beg your forgiveness for being late with the congratulations. I was caught in the vortex of Vacation and Baby Time.

That last picture is perfect, by the way.

I also think you two gave a new meaning to "The Lost Generation." Maybe Hemingway drank and fought so much because he couldn't find his goddamned hotel.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Hey, I went to that same restaurant and took the same photo!!!

(Thanks for the blog comment today...)