Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Spy vs. Spy Part I

Okay, this is going to be a total letdown. I made a cloying reference to an encounter with a spy last week, then blew off blogging about it for a week. He's not really a spy. Well, I can't say that--he might be a spy, and I suspect he might be, but I have no proof. Anyway, here goes. The stor-ay [drumroll: ratatatatatatatat] of the SPY!
My friend Abdul, who is studying international politics in London, visited last week. Abdul's mother is a Russian Jew, and his father is Sierra Leonean. Abdul grew up in Sierra Leone and came to the States at 15. He speaks several languages.

You might ask why I'm racially profiling my friend. It's important to the story. You'll see. Ultimately, as far as I'm concerned, none of that information matters. He's one of the most down-to-earth people you'll ever meet, and he knows a ton about what's really happening in the world. This means that he is the rare breed who is totally pissed off about the state of the world, yet knows how to have a good time. Not a Debbie Downer, more of an Umberto Upper.

Abdul and I spent a Saturday aimlessly strolling arond Paris. He had a paper to work on, and I had some work to do, so we decided we'd find a seat at the Jardin du Luxembourg. We stopped at a cafe across the street from the park for lunch.

When we were about halfway into our sandwiches, a young man stopped and asked us for a cigarette. (It's more acceptable in Paris for strangers to ask for cigarettes than it is in the states. I've even done it a couple times when I've run out and the tabacs are closed.) We gave this guy a smoke, and he asked Abdul about his dreads. "I've got zee same hair as you!" They began chatting about growing dreadlocks, so we invited him to sit down.

His name was Mourad. He had grown up in Morocco, he said, and came to France when he was fifteen. His family was part Moroccan, part Spanish. He was now 23 and studying at university in Paris. I could tell you a lot more about Mourad, because he told us his entire life story. Everyone knows someone like this guy--manic, whip-smart, gregarious, freeloading, and self-destructive. Completely magnetic. He took over our table--we couldn't help but share our sandwiches with him, offer him more cigarettes, share our beers. Abdul or I would start to say something, and Mourad would launch into another manic soliloquy. We just let him keep going.

Really beautiful guy, too. Not beautiful enough to score points with all the women he flirted with, however. He was a total drageur. There is one pick up line in France, and all the guys use it. "Vous avez de beaux yeux": you have beautiful eyes. I thought a country with such a rich tradition of literature and amour could do better, but no. The real art is in the way women shoot the men down. Equal parts flirt and wit. Good stuff.

When he wasn't flirting with women walking by, he was telling us of his conquests. "I talk to 15, 2o girls a night at zee club. White, black, Asian, Arabic, everything. I've been with all kinds of girls." He leans in: "I LOVE the women! You know??!"

The guy likes to party. He claims to get a week's worth of sleep over two or three nights so he can stay out in the clubs till all hours of the night.

"When I want to do something, I do it! If I want something"--he smacks his hand on the table for emphasis--"I take it! I am young. You can't do this when you are thirty. When you are thirty, you have to have a family by then, you know?" Abdul and I--both thirty--raised our eyebrows at each other, then let Mourad continue.

Continue he did. We were at that table for at least two hours. Finally, I said, "Well, I have to do some work."

"Okay, here, here's my number. You want to go out, you call me. See that bar right there? My friend runs it. We get lots of drinks. We'll go to a club and talk to lots of girls. You want to go out tonight, you call me."

I didn't call.

I don't think Mourad would have been so enthusiastic to sit down and chat with me if Abdul hadn't been there. He seemed to be totally taken with Abdul because of his mixed background. The first five minutes alone was coiffure chatter. "I have hair just like you, see? How do you grow it? Is it natural?" I tried to connect with him. By coincidence, I had a book in my bag called Life Full of Holes. It's the story of another remarkable young Moroccan kid, whose personality seemed to be similar to Mourad's. I tried to show it to him, but he was already on to his next thing.

As we got ready to go, Mourad wrote his number down for Abdul. It was taking him a while, so I looked down to see what he was writing. It was a super-complicated mathematical formula! It was about five lines long, and he signed it with a flourish at the end. Unbelievable guy. I may ultimately call him.

Strange day. But it got even stranger when we encountered an even stranger stranger...

A. J. Liebling on Paris

I've seen a few quotes about this "young man moving to Paris" business. There's Hemingway's line about it being a moveable feast. There's Virgil Thompson, who said that Americans came to Paris in the 1920's for three things: "to get screwed, sharpen their wits, and eat like kings for nothing" (and as I recently told someone, I am getting screwed everyday--on the exchange rate).

But I've recently discovered A. J. Liebling, a former newspaper journalist and press critic for the
New Yorker whose style--humble yet confident and sardonic, colorful yet direct and parsimonious, and aghast at all cliché--reminds me of one of my heroes, H. L. Mencken. Unfortunately, Mencken didn't spend much time in Paris--indeed, he hated to spend much time at all away from his dear, beloved Baltimore. Thank god Liebling made it to Paris.

The quotes David Remnick pulled out for his appreciation of Liebling on his 100th anniversary took the words out of my mouth time after time. Of course, Liebling's gems would have been coal had I tried to express them. Luckily we have his

On first living in Paris as a young man: “I liked the sensation of immersion in a foreign element, as if floating in a summer sea, only my face out of water, and a pleasant buzzing in my ears. I was often alone, but seldom lonely.”

Liebling was a gourmand--or, to use the crude, childish
mauvais mot, a "foodie." (Really, can we drop this awful phrase? This is something a toddler says when he's hungry, yet I've heard it many times escape from mouths that rest beneath crow's feet.) His fascination with all things gastronomical began, of course, in Paris. Here's Liebling lamenting the fact that Proust's madeleine was but only a "tea biscuit":

In the light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world’s loss that he did not have a heartier appetite. On a dozen Gardiners Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a peck of steamers, some bay scallops, three sautéed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh-picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous area, a pair of lobsters, and a Long Island duck, he might have written a masterpiece.

What worried him most about the the 1940 German takeover: “France represented for me the historical continuity of intelligence and reasonable living."

Four years later, at the liberation of Paris: "
For the first time in my life and probably the last, I have lived for a week in a great city where everybody is happy. Moreover, since this city is Paris, everybody makes this euphoria manifest."

I can only imagine being in Paris at the liberation. I have a picture in Alistair Horne's Seven Ages of Paris of a crowd ducking under sniper fire in front of Notre Dame during the liberation. Although most people hit the deck and a horde ran away from the cathedral, you can see some people still strolling toward the cathedral completely oblivious, as if they were still reeling from a top drawer gigot
d'agneau and half a bottle of St. Emilion.

Paris might go through white flags like mouchoirs, but at least there's someplace in the world one can still go where the popular culture still enshrines "intelligence and reasonable living."

Friday, March 25, 2005

Gingham Girl Baby Girl

"Is there not something to be said for the unexamined life?" A broadside at the bromides of the blabbity blog generation.

Unrelated: is "Orange Claw Hammer" the greatest American folk song?

Sorry for the lack of examined life. Lots of guests this week. But be on the lookout for lots of great stories of adventures with said guests, including being INTERROGATED BY A SPY!!1!





!, !, !

Friday, March 18, 2005

Paris to Baltimore in 4 steps

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Happy St. Patrick's Day

It's a little weird to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in France. Guess I'll pop into one of the Irish pubs for a bit. But if I hear anyone shout I! R! A! in the middle of a song, I'm going home.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Forty springs are little room

I wonder how I will welcome the advent of spring in Paris. Spring in Paris! Whom will I run to? Never knew its warm embrace.

The cafés had their tables out on the street today for the first time. I sat outside. It was cold. It's only 2 weeks from February. It's only 2 weeks till April. April in Paris. I'd never known the charm of.

Tomorrow is the Ides of March. Beware!

Where was I one year ago today? I was walking around Cylburn Arboretum in Baltimore, knowing spring was one week away and just millimeters below the ground. The daffodils were high enough to waggle in the wind, but their trumpets were still in their cases.

Now of my threescore years and ten,
Thirty will not come again...

The crocuses were already out. I prefer the daffodil to the crocus. The crocus is "le cadet," the youngest child. It speaks out of turn. It runs and runs and gets there first, and smiles back at you, but quickly realizes that it has to wait for you, it has wasted its breath. It is beautiful, radiant, and loud, at the expense of its siblings.

The daffodil is "l'aîné," the oldest child. It was once brash, but it has learned to hold its tongue. It reveals itself slowly, but ultimately takes over the landscape. This allows it to see itself, to revel in its own image. (The genus of the daffodil is Narcissus. It sprung up in his place by the spring.)

I remember spring in the Valley of the Daffodils along the St. Mary's River in Historic St. Mary's City. It was as if someone had backed up a dump truck full of liquid daffodil and emptied it into the ravine.

The daffodil is poisonous. It is the flower of death announcing the season of new life. Do not taunt Happy Fun Daffodil.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Remembrance of Things Passed

A.L. had me very intrigued with Le Coin de Verre. First, their number wasn't in the phone book. Second, it was a restaurant known for its wine, not its food. What exactly was this place?

We met A.L. at Colonel Fabien metro and headed south on Avenue Claude Vellefaux. It was a wide boulevard, but it became more dark and desolate as we walked south. We eventually made a sharp right on one of those tight corners where the buildings look like tall slices of cheesecake. The door to Le Coin de Verre was locked and the curtains were pulled. It looked like the restaurant had shut down months ago. A.L. rang a buzzer. After about 45 seconds--long enough to burnish the restaurant's cachet at the expense of our patience--the hostess opened the door and let us in.

Once we struggled through the heavy, red curtains, the hostess led us through the small front dining room to a table in the back next to the fireplace. A.L. said she told him that our table was to be up front, but a group who had reserved the fireplace spot had cancelled last minute.

It was at this point that I became skeptical. It was too perfect. All travelers want to find the hidden gems, to know what only the locals know. It elevates us, it's an ego stroke--we're not tourists, we're Travelers, right? Let the sweaty backpackers follow Lonely Planet off the beaten track, let the jet set be chauffered by Michelin. Here I was with real live French people, sitting down to the best table in a restaurant that most Parisians didn't even know about.

Turns out Le Coin de Verre is not for everyone. If you are looking for a great Parisian restaurant, this isn't the place. Having said that, we had a wonderful time. This is the kind of place that I'd want to find in any city--it does its own thing, and it does it well.

The tables were made of large, uneven slats of wood. The stuffing in the benches was so worn out that you felt you were sitting on a 30-year-old school bus. The fireplace cast a jaundiced light on the chipped plaster walls and years-old flyers for piano nights. Looking around, I felt like a photograph in an old, faded newspaper.

Our server had grey, slightly greasy hair that was slicked back an inch off his head, like he had been out of the shower for 10 minutes. He had Gerard Depardieu's face, and a reserved manner that nonetheless betrayed an ability to be the last one standing at the end of a particularly rowdy night.

The wine list and menu were scribbled on chalkboards that sat on the mantel above the fireplace. The tables were to either side of the fireplace, so it was impossible to see the wine list and the menu. Our server--after raising his eyebrows playfully at the table across from us--spun the wine list around so we could see it. It was probably a millimeter from falling off, but he'd obviously done it hundreds of times before.

A.L. and his friend B. spoke with the server for 5 minutes about which wines to start off with. It wasn't a heated discussion, but they obviously were not in complete agreement. Which seems to be okay over here. A.L. told me later that the server he usually has is much more knowledgeable about wine, and that this guy didn't really know that much.

I asked A.L. what I should order. The menu was extremely limited: mostly "charcuterie" and "fromage" (sausages and cheeses). Very good sausages and cheeses, mind you, just not much else. We decided to get several plates and share them. I got the Salade Savoyarde--lettuce with several sausages and cheeses. Jeremy got the boeuf--a simple dish with beef and rice. A.L. had the saucisson tripe ("tweep").

If you know what tripe sausage is, you just winced. I didn't know. When I asked A.L. what he had ordered, he had difficulty explaining in English. "It zee, ummm...zee middle, zee inside of zee peeg," he said, rubbing his hand over his belly. "Intestines?" I asked. "Yes, zee place zee sheet go before eet come out."

Remember, we're sharing these dishes. I figured I could try it. After all, I had already eaten the horsemeat hamburgers A.L. had prepared "in my honor" a few weeks back. I mean, all body parts are gross when you think about it; doesn't cooking change everything? Once it's cooked, it looks different, smells different, tastes different.

A.L. cut me a slice of tripe and put it on my plate. I took a bite. Hmm. Pungent, real quick to the nose. Bitter, certainly. There's one flavor, sort of mustardy, standing out from the others...can't quite put my finger on it. Don't think I've ever eaten it before, though I've certainly smelled it plenty of times. I took another bite.

Yup. Shit. Definitely. Can't say for sure, because I've never eaten it. I thought that element would cook out of it. I was wrong. My mind drifted back several days to Ireland. Jeremy and I were standing in an old graveyard out in the middle of nowhere. A horrible stench came over us. We looked over into the field behind us and saw a farmer on a tractor spraying manure. We were directly downwind from him. I wondered what bottle of wine we should have brought to Ireland to best match that aroma. The Languedoc I held in my hand would have been sympa, I thought.

Unfortunately, the person to my left was also eating tripe. I had passed him some of my sausage earlier, so I didn't think he'd offer me any tripe now. I dug into my normal sausage--oh, sweet relief! But after turning my head away for a moment, I looked down to see my other neighbor had dumped a little bit on my plate. How kind!

It went down with more difficulty this time. This time, I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. I did not want to eat it. Not at all. But for some reason, I felt like I had to. Maybe I thought I'd acquire the taste. After all, A.L. and his friend were tearing through theirs the way I might tear through a pepperoni pizza. I took a bite.


Never again.

The rest of the evening was wonderful, though. Lots of great bottles of wine, a plate of several cheeses (including an outstanding comté), and great banter. And the price! Each person had a full plate of his own, as well as sharing several good bottles of wine, a plate of charcuterie, and a plate of cheese. Not to mention a small glass of delicious 1979 armagnac as a digestif. All this for 27 euros. No wonder no one knows about it. If I found something like that in Baltimore, I might not tell anyone.


Jeremy left for the States Monday morning. He got out just in time. Everyone has been sick around here lately. I'm not surprised. The weather has been awful--hovering between 20 and 40 degrees with alternating snow, sleet, wind, and rain. I've heard it's the worst winter in 35 years. Ah, well. If spring in Paris is as wonderful as everyone says, perhaps this is just a way for Nature to make us earn it.

Anyway, Monday morning I woke up feeling like I had a basketball inside my head and someone had been standing on my chest all night. The pharmacies here can dispense stronger drugs without a prescription, so hopefully I'll feel better soon. But this is one of the nastiest colds I've ever had.

I think my friend A.L. had the same thing last week. He was very excited to take Jeremy, me, and some of his friends to a restaurant called "Le Coin de Verre" two Fridays ago. But he wrote early in the week saying he had "mal a la gorge." Jeremy and I had just made plans to go to Ireland, so we agreed to postpone the dinner. I didn't expect we'd reschedule, but A.L. was very excited about this restaurant. He's a wine buff (even more so than most French), and this restaurant gets good bottles from all over the country and sells them at the same rate as the stores.

Last weekend, Jeremy and I met up with A.L. and his friends in front of the Colonel Fabien metro station and walked down to Le Coin de Verre...

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The City of Tacky Lights

My hometown paper takes a swipe at Paris in today's edition. In its quest to land the 2012 games, Paris has put up an extremely tacky "Ville Candidate" sign on some of its most beautiful landmarks: Assemblee Nationale, Hotel de Ville, and even the Eiffel Tower. Even the buses are in on it--I'm looking out my window right now at a bus with two little white "Paris 2012" flags sticking out from the front like rabbit ears.

As many charms as Paris has, when she gets something wrong she gets it spectacularly wrong. Look at Paris from the top of the Arc de Triomphe, or Place de la Concorde, and it's the most beautiful city in the world. Look down the Seine from one of the western bridges, and all you'll see is tacky, faded neon lighting up the other bridges.

I met up with a friend of a friend yesterday for coffee, and in trying to describe what is so alluring about Paris, this idea of the exception proving the rule is as close as we could get. Because the city is so beautiful, anything ugly is going to stick out like a sore thumb.

The funniest part about the Olympic bid is that the unions have planned a major strike in protest of proposed changes to the 35-hour workweek for March 10: the day the Olympic committee will be in town to evaluate Paris's capability to handle the games.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

My thoughts be bloody, or be nuttin' wiznorth!

Abbott and Costello. Abelard and Heloise. Astaire and Rogers. Ella and Louis. Peanut Butter and Jelly. Simon and Garfunkel. Gin and Tonic.

Gizoogle and Shakespeare.

Craic house

Jeremy and I celebrated our thirtieth birthdays in Ireland this past weekend. We spent most of Sunday at Fallon's Bar and Lounge in Clonaslee, a little village in the Irish midlands where my great-great grandmother lived before she and her husband left for America in 1848. It was an unforgettable night: brilliant, brilliant craic.