My First Night In Paris
James Lipton talks about being a young American in Paris.
As I undertake my fifth blog, the holidays recede into the past. For Kedakai and me, they're a deeply satisfying memory. I hope the same can be said for you.
Now we face the considerably less jolly prospect of winter's long cold grip. Of all the months of the year, I suspect that January and February are the least anticipated and, in the northern hemisphere, the least appreciated, as we await, with growing impatience, the first glimmer of Spring late in March.
As an antidote to these lackluster days I hope you'll accept an excerpt from my book Inside Inside -- which, thanks to tens of thousands of you out there, is enjoying sales that fulfill the publisher's and my wildest hopes.
One of the chapters of the book that has leapt from the pages to the headlines is the account of the rites of passage I underwent as a very young man in Paris. Some of it, I admit, is too scandalous to include, bleeped, or unbleeped, in my blog (I guess you'll just have to read the book), but maybe this account of my first evening in Paris on a cold, wet March night a long time ago may brighten your dark winter as it brightened mine:
On my first night in Paris -- my first night anywhere outside the United States, apart from Windsor, Ontario -- I asked the concierge of the Hotel Duminy to recommend a nearby restaurant, and he pointed me toward Chez Pierre a la Fontaine Gaillon. As I walked there on an early March night, the Paris streets were dark and cold and wet and indescribably beautiful.
When I arrived at Chez Pierre, it was nearly empty. On this first night of a startling new life, I took my place on a banquette, and as I picked up the menu, I hoped the waiter wouldn't notice that my hand was shaking. When I'd ordered dinner in my college French (I would have been more comfortable, and comprehensible, in Latin), I was suddenly confronted with a mysterious creature: my first sommelier.
Desperate not to be perceived as gauche -- or louche! -- I scrutinized the wine list he'd handed me, recognized nothing, put it down and said, as casually and world-wearily as I could, "I think, tonight, I'll just have your vin rouge ordinaire." The sommelier paused for an instant, then nodded and vanished. I was relieved when he reappeared with a red wine en carafe.
I was halfway through my dinner, and beginning to feel French to my fingertips, when the eponymous Pierre showed up and, seeing me -- and seeing through me -- came to my table with a smile to ask if I was enjoying my dinner. I replied smoothly that I was. Glancing at the carafe, he asked what wine I'd ordered, and I committed my first gaffe. "I ordered the vin ordinaire."
He drew himself up. "We don't serve vin ordinaire."
"I -- well, I -- well, that's what I ordered," I sputtered -- exposed as a parvenu on my first night in Paris!
Taking pity on me, he summoned the hovering sommelier with a snap of his fin-gers, and asked for a glass. Filling it from my carafe, he took a sip -- and his face fell. "Oh, monsieur," he exclaimed. "I'm so sorry!"
"This wine," he said, staring at it as he swirled it slowly, "is for certain occasions."
Feeling very uncultivated and American, I asked, "Such as?"
Still staring at the wine with narrowed eyes, he said, "You have just learned that your mother is ill," and directed a questioning glance at me. I shook my head and he resumed the litany. "Your favorite uncle has been arrested for an unspeakable perversion." I shook my head. He continued, on one long, unbroken breath now, glancing at me for each disavowal: "Your rich aunt has died -- and left you out of the will. You've discovered that your mistress is deceiving you." (We were entering uncharted waters; seeing my expression, he veered to a less sophisticated track.) "Your dog has been run over. You've lost your last sou at chemin de fer. You've contracted a venereal disease ...." There were more, but those are the ones that stick in my memory.
Finally he ran out of citations -- or breath. "None of them? Nothing like that?" "No," I said, abandoning a terrible performance, and opting for my only remaining option, honesty. "It's just the opposite. This is my first night in Paris -- in Europe! I've never been so happy in my life!"
His eyes lit up. "Ah!" He snapped his fingers and murmured something to the sommelier, who hurried away and returned in a moment with a bottle of wine, which he opened with a flourish and poured into two new glasses. Pierre sat down at my table. "Now, taste your wine." I took a sip of the first wine. He pushed my water glass to me. "A little water. Now -- this wine." He sipped from his glass as I followed his instructions. It was a thunderbolt. I'd never sampled two tastes side by side. Even to this neophyte, the two wines were now as unlike as syrup and vinegar.
"Which one do you prefer?" Pierre asked.
"This one!" I said, brandishing the new glass.
"Of course," he said, regarding the wine deferentially as he revisited his litany. "Your mother was ill, but you've just learned that she's going to recover. Your favorite uncle has been cleared of all charges, with an apology from the little girl. Your rich aunt has died -- and left you everything! You've got a fabulous new mistress! Your dog has been run over -- but by you in a brand new Citroen. You've made a killing at the racetrack. Your worst enemy has contracted a venereal disease ...."
Pierre remained at my table, and a man who was watching the spectacle with evident amusement from an opposite table got up and joined us. The three of us polished off the favored bottle of wine as the newcomer, who was a Swiss business-man in town for two days, explained that he'd bought two of the best seats for the Folies Bergeres, and had come to Chez Pierre in hope of finding a young woman who might be interested in his company. "But ..." he said, gesturing at the empty restaurant.
Pierre, our genial boniface, genially suggested "notre ami americain." The Swiss concurred, and my first evening in Paris ended at the Folies Bergeres, the charms of which hadn't been so much as hinted at by the posters lining the walls of the Ask Mr. Foster Travel Bureau in Detroit. Clearly, I concluded, Mr. Foster had led a pathetically sheltered existence. In less than twenty-four hours, I had been blooded. A happy New Year, filled with adventures, licit and illicit, to you all.