Paris Journal #10: Ephemeral France

Au Vin des Rues now

Revisiting the following journal entry almost 15 years later evokes a strong melancholy. Au Vin des Rues is now long gone, its windows soaped over and boarded up, along with dozens of other traditional French bistros — replaced in every Parisian arrondissement by characterless sushi and “concept” restaurants.

It is perhaps a reflection of the changing face of France. Although I wholeheartedly embrace the richness of culture that more recent immigrants have contributed to modern-day France, most of the really traditional French cafes have folded. The few that remain are struggling to hold on in a culture that is no longer interested in the old cafes with their nicotine-stained walls and ceilings, their amber hues the product of decades of tobacco smoke (although the non-smoking laws were one of the relatively recent developments I was ecstatic about).

One of the last, Chez Georges in the 6th arrondissement, is happily still hanging on — a bistro where the bartender still remembers me even after a year or two’s absence, placing my usual glass of Côtes du Rhône on the counter as soon as I enter. Despite struggling to stay afloat amid the flashy postmodern industrial bars down the street that offer cheap happy hour drinks, Georges has managed to maintain its traditional character while still appealing to the young and chic.

I realize my grumpy-old-ladyness here, but I still contend how important it is to retain at least some of the traditional old Paris. There’s no reason why the ancient and the new cannot live peacefully together. After all, this is a city where the medieval walls of the Cluny Museum exist only a stone’s throw from the giant hamster cage that is the Pompidou.

Au Vin des Rues
Au Vin des Rues in better days. Photo: Francois Mori

Paris, 17 October 2003

“Hi, this is Barry, from Santa Fe,” said the unfamiliar voice at the end of the phone line, just as we were about to sit down to dinner at the usual Parisian hour of 20:00. Santa Fe boasts a bevy of Barrys, and I personally know at least three of them. Not to mention another friend, named Bari, to make things even more confusing.

But given that the Barry from Santa Fe whom I know best, my Parisian flat­mate, was standing right in front of me with a bowl full of hot couscous, I figured it was a safe bet that it wasn’t him. Then my thoughts turned to my oenophile friend, Barry from Santa Fe, whom I imagined might have made a spur-­of-­the-­moment trip to France to be here for the wine harvest, though this year he would have been about a month-and-a-half late.

Finally, I recalled that this particular Barry from Santa Fe had sent me an email back in August saying that he and his partner, Diane, would be visiting in October. My first genuine visitors to Paris! I began to ponder which not-to-be missed sights I would advise them to see during their visit.

Although it seems rather odd to me, apparently not everyone enjoys getting truly immersed in the culture of the places to which they travel. For instance, while walking toward the métro the other night, I turned the corner and happened to notice that a particularly large tour bus had stopped along the boulevard, from which a swarm of Chinese visitors alit. As they crossed the street en masse I happened to notice where they were headed for dinner — a Chinese restaurant!

Now, it seems to me that if you go to the trouble of traveling halfway around the world to tour a foreign country you might at least give the regional cuisine a try; and in France, it’s difficult to find a really bad French meal, whereas it’s remarkably easy to find mediocre Chinese food.

So I figured that my friends, being the type who actually like to experience the culture of the country in which they are traveling, would enjoy an evening at a little café in the 14th arrondissement that still retains a small slice of what I think of as the authentic France.

Every Thursday evening, this café goes back decades in time and transforms into an intimate Parisian music hall. The only instrument involved is an accordion, played by a woman with a voice reminiscent of Edith Piaf. Among her repertoire are “Padam, Padam,” “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” and the ever­-popular “La Vie en Rose,” among dozens of others.

As the evening progresses, the café’s patrons begin to join in, and soon the whole place is singing along. There is even a small dog-eared booklet that circulates around, stained with years’ worth of charcuterie platters. In it are the words to nearly every song that might be sung in an evening — in case you don’t know them already, which it seems the majority of the customers do. As the evening wears on, other regulars wander in, looking like French characters sent over from Central Casting.

One tall, grey-­haired, patrician­-looking guy is nicknamed the “Bibliotheque Nationale” because he knows the words to seemingly every communist anthem and revolutionary song ever written. Then there is Henri, a sweet man of 82, nattily dressed, complete with cap and an elegantly-tied silk scarf around his neck, who dances with every woman in the place at some point in the evening, no matter her age.

The owner himself is always behind the bar on these evenings, and could not look more like a French patron if he tried. He sports a long walrus­-style moustache and the ample girth that one associates with jovial restaurateurs. His blue linen shirts are of the type commonly worn by provincial farmers around the turn of the century, and after you have shown up there a couple of times, he treats you like one of the regulars.

No bigger than a large living room, tonight, the café-restaurant was soon completely full. Anyone who wasn’t gathered around a table was standing at the bar or jammed in the doorway, with people spilling out onto the pavement. The music began, and within moments everyone was singing along, and any available area of free floor space was taken up by people dancing.

I had reserved a table for eight because other friends were going to join us; however, by the time the music began, everyone from our group had shown up except my visiting friends. So we gave up one of our chairs to accommodate another customer, a man named Dominique.

A native Parisian, Dominique is a physicist now living in Toulouse, who often returns to Paris for his work. Although he has a flat just down the street from the café, he told us he had never been there before.

He had happened to wander in hoping for a quiet bite to eat, knowing nothing about the usual Thursday evening goings­-on. It turned out to be rather more lively than he had expected, but he seemed delighted to be there, and before long he was singing along with everyone else.

I told Dominique that this sort of thing is never found in America. At least not without a lot of alcohol involved. He replied that it is not found much in France, either. People rarely get together any more to sing or dance he said, as the culture has become increasingly “Americanized.”

In France you can still find little pockets of innocence that rarely exist any more in the Western world. This is one of them, and I hope it remains so for a long time.

My friends from Santa Fe never showed up. But I’m sure others will be visiting soon and I will be able to share this treasured little place with them, too.