Friday, April 27, 2007

Kurt in Paris (Part 1)

PARIS Part 1

If I don’t sit down and do this regularly, I am never going to remember what I’ve done and whom I have met and what I have seen, and all the other things that ought to go into a diary.
So, since today Thursday is a bit grey I think I shall take some time out ‘at home’ and write a little. Its almost an excuse for not going out wandering, but I have done a heap of wandering these last weeks and I don’t feel the desire or the need quite so much right now.

So, back to Tuesday.
After a couple of hours wandering round le 14eme, investigating the whereabouts of those utter necessities of French life – the andouilette (found), les tripes lyonnases (not found), l’epoisses cheese (bought) and les espadrilles (not yet) – I made rendez-vous with Christophe at lunchtime. He is absolutely overwhelmed with work – writing books, articles, reviews, not to forget preparing for the four musical productions he is directing on stages around France before the end of the year – but he cannot help himself, he seems never to turn down any sort of a job, while still leading a very merry social life. Which means that in the few years since he bewailed to me his inability to get his career off the ground, he has established himself nicely in a large number of the areas of the Parisian and French theatre and journalistic world. Actors and theatre directors now bob gently at the knees when they see him coming. Well, some of them. But soon it will be all. As I sussed long ago, he is a young man on the move. And I am very pleased, when we meet people here, to acknowledge him as ‘mon heritier français’.

Anyway, lunchtime rendezvous at the bistro Le Chineur. Christophe is a fixture there (breakfast, lunch and all and any rendezvous) and I am already becoming one. Not the least because it has WiFi and I can thus keep more or less in contact with anyone who is an xtra client, and occasionally with the rest of the world as well. With your coffee (Chris) or beer (me) you get a little card with a number. You light up your computer, praying that you haven’t forgotten to recharge the battery during the night, tap in a code number from the card, and voila! Internet for free. Well, not quite free with beer at 3.90 (NZ$7.50) a small glass. I can see why one who lives his life in bistros (a very natural habit in France which, should I drop anchor in this country for a while, would doubtless be mine) can easily spend his budget week by week without any extravagance! And I don’t even think of those who lunch AND dine …

Anyway Tuesday we lunched: Chris and I and Berenice who, I discover, is not a caniche (poodle) but a bichon (which I think we would also classify under poodle but is, it seems, different). Berenice has an enormous talent for a yearling. She captivates even the most unlikely allcomers. I would say that three of every four patrons of Le Chineur who passed by our table stopped to pat her nose or scratch her neck, or seated themselves next to us merely for the pleasure of watching her beg on her hind legs for attention. Which she inevitably gets. Mehdi, the barman at Le Chineur makes the most enormous fuss of her, and when I decided to snap her and Chris in their ‘natural habitat’, her self-appointed ‘godfather’ snuck behind the window and joined in the photo.

Lunch lasted, as French lunches do, after which Chris had a meeting at the headquarters of the magazine Têtu for which he is chief entertainment correspondent. Têtu is a vast, glossy, classy, rather serious magazine which has the style of Vogue about it. It is in fact the most successful and best selling magazine of its kind in Europe. Its kind? It is gay publication. Well, all I can say is, there must be a large gay French-reading publication around with money to spend (the thing is definitely not cheap) .. and I mean ‘reading’, for Têtu is definitely branched towards articles – political (especially on the eve of the election here), social, interviews intended to be slightly genteelly ‘with it’ – rather than the usual gay magazine’s ummm illustrations. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t have plenty of alluring photos for those who fancy the under-30 male (and female), but it staunchly favours politics and arts over nudity (of which there is none at all). Given its title (which means ‘stubborn’) I imagine it was once a crusading gay rights paper which has now become seriously gentrified. Now, for however many euros it costs, the middle class gay can pretend he is still crusading while in fact living that comfortable, acceptable kind of life that the activists of today find less than acceptable. Tant pis for me. Because. of course, that’s where I fit in. And I have already come to gently verbal blows with one ‘activist’ who thinks all gay men should dress up as Zarah Leander and flap their wrists. Yawn.
Anyway, as part of his climb to the top (next step, same job with a major paper which isn’t gay-based), Chris writes extremely clever and witty monthly reviews and articles for this bon chic-bon genre paper, and wins therefrom a little money and rather a lot of respect.

Needless to say, while he was have his tetu-a-tetu summit meeting (I made a French pun, please notice!), I was otherwise employed, and I took the chance to have a good wander around the nearby Cemetery of Montparnasse. Fascinating. Beautiful, as few cemeteries are (its up there for me with Waverley, Sydney). There is a list at the gate, pointing to where what they think are the famous people are buried. I, of course, had views abut the list, but most of the visitors were there for just a handful of people: Sartre and Simone de Beavoir, Samuel Becket, Man Ray and the like. I strode purposefully past those trendy tombs in search of Chabrier (composer: see ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF THE MUSICAL THEATRE by Gänzl) whom I duly found and photographed and, alas, without success, Adolphe Crémieux, who is part of a nice story I have prepared for VICTORIAN VOCALISTS. Should it ever happen. Alas, the Jewish part of the cemetery (well, it was once, but the people of Israel seem to have spread too all parts in recent years) was crowded and ill-indexed and unless he is part of the ‘Famille Cremieu-Loa’, I failed. In the end, the only other photo I took was of what is undoubtedly the most vulgar grave in the place, one which by its lack of taste stands out shockingly alongside one of the main alleys of the cemetery. It is the grave of Sylvia Lopez, the glamorous – and apparently adorable -- early wife of the extremely vulgar (and not adorable) composer of LA BELLE DE CADIX (see also my book) and so many other operettes, who died of cancer aged 26.
Amongst the other graves was another which was clearly meant, in a rather less vulgar way, also to catch attention. It is a grave for two men. One has dates 1958-2004 (I think), the other has dates 1956-2039. And on the side, in French and English, ‘Not Dead Yet’. I wonder who they are/were, and what is the story behind the curious inscription. Does the survivor of the couple plan to top himself in 2039, should he last so long? Maybe Christophe can find an article in this! Anyway, in such a truly dignified cemetery as Montparnasse, where so many great and grand (not to forget rich) folk of the last centuries lie in their magnificent tombs, a touch of humour was the last thing I expected. Well, give or take the Lopez thing.

For dinner, it was decided we would have a meal chez Christophe and Pierre. Yes, it is Pierre. And I really knew that. For ‘Mon Jules’ is a time-honoured French slang expression which means simply ‘my bloke’. Pierre, if I haven’t mentioned it before, has a most impressive job. He is the secretary (ie chief executive) to the French Institute of Arts and Sciences, which as far as I can work out is one of the five divisions of the Institut francais. Wow! Unfortunately this means that he works all hours that God gives, so I probably shan’t see a great deal of him during my stay, which is a shame.

Anyway, Chris, from another brief period at his writing-machine, I, from a quick wash and brush up plus a brief sieste, and Pierre, direct from his office, all met up at Le Chineur to celebrate together the beginning of the evening, before walking the dozen doors down to 182 rue Alesia. I thought it was to be just we three, but no, odd numbers are apparently not permitted. We were to be joined by a fourth. One Pierre Philippe, a longtime and successful author, novelist, film-writer, poet cum lyricist and homme du theatre. He was, it seemed, hastening to join us at Le Chineur by taxi.
It was I who spotted the taxi pull up, and a very broad back in one of those very theatrical raincoats (you know, long, flared, big collar .. normally with obligatory accompaniment the dashing broad-brimmed hat of which I forget the name) bed through the window to pay the chauffeur.

Enter Pierre Philippe. He simply filled the door. A big, broad man in every way, and with a personality to match. And with twenty-three yards of the latest Parisian film and theatre gossip at his fingertips. Not to mention an incomparable fund of tales of the past. Also a way of recounting it and them which is totally engrossing, even if some of the time you don’t have the faintest idea who the people are about whom he is talking. He is, it appears, THE French expert on the music-hall and – from what I gathered -- he had just been asked that day by the French TV channel Arte (yes, they have a public channel for the arts here) to host a new series on the still hugely popular French music hall of last century. Anyway, he is one of those exuberant vital people who quite simply cast a spell, and I don’t mind admitting that I fell under it (even in French!) in about two minutes flat.

Two facts. Pierre, after a few glasses of wine (all round), when the subject of ‘heritiers’ came up – and I suspect he too has lined up Chris as his for music-hall! – predicted his own not too distant end in what I suspected to be rather artful fashion. When I made the right ‘non-non’ noises, he informed me that he was old enough to be my father. Well, technically maybe. It appears that this joyous YOUNG whirlwind is 75.
I am sorry I didn’t have my camera, so you’ll have to believe me on this one. When he first entered the bar, I gave Chris a very sharp look. A very suspicious look. An ‘are you up to something’ look. For Pierre Philippe is in many ways a heightened, brightly coloured and vastly enlargened (he is surely over six feet with matching shoulders and .. well, yes, a sort of matching bon vivant waistline), version of .. Ian. Chris promises me he had no arriere-pensee, and in fact had never seen a picture of Ian. All the same, until we had all had a few glasses of wine and got to know each other a little better I felt just a wee bit uncomfortable. But the wine and the spell the man casts soon cured that, and a vastly enjoyable evening was had by all before – amazing fact, it was I, with Chris’s night-time writing session in memory, plus my own need of sleep, broke up the party round 11pm and wandered home the hundred metres or two to the Rue de Gergovie.

Chris wrote until 3.30am, sent off his copy and duly slept until 10am. By which time I was somewhere way down the Boulevard Pasteur heading for a touristic glimpse of the brilliant gold dome of Les Invalides and – in the other direction – what looked like the matchstick construction of Le Tour Eiffel, in the middle distance somewhere past the end of Boulevard Maréchal Saxe’. I also tried to pre-suss out the details of the Gare Montparnasse where I am due to meet Jack Dowie in a day or two .. but failed miserably. Chris as promised to lead me to the right part of this vast, messy triple station when the time comes.

Midday, rendez-vous . where else? .. at Le Chineur, where I had my beer and its free WiFi before we continued on across the road to a different bistro. Why this unfaithfulness? Because Bistrot the second had … andouillette on its luncheon menu. Now andouillette is a southern dish, and in the south they are hearty eaters. The plate of food – the wonderful tripe sausage (and it was wonderful), some dauphinoise potatoes and a green salad filled a large plate in true New Zealand fashion. Thank goodness I had not ordered anything else. I’m afraid some potato and much salad got left. The audibly southern lady who served us was almost offended, and drolly taken aback that I refused dessert, coffee and indeed anything else. And, thus, I got my first andouilette in years, and it was all I had remembered.

Since, amongst the revelry and chatter of the previous night, I had forgotten to bring the époisses, this was stage one of my French Musts.

The afternoon, Chris had a double job on and, since it was theatre, I decided to go along for the ride. The doubleness came from the fact that (a) he was to be there as a critic, but (b) this was a competition and he was also part of the Jury.
The Paris Gay and Lesbian Festival of Theatre in a tiny room-theatre (‘Théâtre Coté-Cour) quarter of Paris into which I have never ventured. And probably won’t often again.
Now, as you know, specifically Gay events are not really my thing. However, one should not have a closed mind, and although I refused to take in such well-known pieces as Kiss of the Spiderwoman and The Tears of Petra Kant which have been dragged through theatres round the world for too many years, I was quite agreeable to taking in a new piece or two. Chris warned me that they were unlikely to be much good, but I’d rather something new and less good than take a fresh ride on some warhorse. At least people are trying.
So we tube-trundled out to the other side of Paris (metro: Parmentier, and don’t ask me where it is), and to the tiny auditorium which reminded me of nothing less than the old Elmwood Playhouse, Christchurch, NZ, where I took my own first steps as a rather bad actor 45 years ago.
The second play for the afternoon (four plays a day, in 2 hour slots … plays are shorter, thank goodness, than they used to be, in the 21st century) was a comedy entitled Son mec à moi. The title is untranslateable really, because of the French masculine and feminine thing, but basically its Her (or His) boyfriend for me. Executive lady with two gay ‘best friends’ (one traditional camp, the other middle-class professional) finds her boyfriend has walked out on her. Because of a man. It turns out to be, of course, our middle class professional.. but that is just the beginning. The action (?) goes on for 1 ½ hours. Which was a shame, because the beginning of the play was fair, the middle excellent, and the rest pretty poor stuff. And anyway, it was just another variation on the kind of tiresome tale with the kind of tiresome characters that have been far too often used in the theatre over the past few decades. The actors were fair enough (although it took me a scene or two to get attuned to the rapid, colloquial French), but in the end the whole thing was only saved by one hilarious scene of about 10 minutes in the middle. Still, all in all, it was better than I’d expected, and Chris too.
While Spiderwoman was on we popped into a neighbouring bistro for some light refreshment (and an escape from the perpetual journalists who, in what I found a rather incestuous way, kept wanting to interview Chris), returning for the 8pm show. This one was a drama. A drama about AIDS by a 25 year-old neophyte Parisian. Oh dear. This was clearly going to be a bit of a trial. And no fin at all. But the organisers of the festival were enthusiastic, the house was almost full (lots of women, which I thought was good, if odd) so I smiled, nodded and hoped I would be able to have a doze in mid-play.
DOZE?! Nothing could have been less likely. The two handed play turned out to be superbly written, taut and exciting, and even though it was built round a message (‘don’t have unprotected sex or you could get AIDS’) the message never interfered with the drama. If I say it was about a young man who kidnaps the fellow who, in what he avers was his only ever homosexual encounter, infected him – resulting in the death of his wife – and … Well, again it sounds decidedly overused as a plot. But the quality of the writing made you think you’d never heard anything of the kind before, and one of the two very young actors was quite simply powerful beyond belief. The play lasts only 1h 20. Just as well. I cannot see how he could have kept up the pitch of emotion that he projected for any longer without collapsing. I saw him afterwards (he cant be more than 20 years of age) and indeed he looked wiped out.
So, all in all, the day in the theatre turned out to be a rather amazing surprise. And, as a result, I’m going to go back for day two (just one play this time) today. And… to vote.

After the show I met some of the local actors .. actors of my vintage who remembered Singin’ n the Rain, Barnum and, of course, Ziegfeld and the time when I came to cast in France..

And then home. Christophe to write, and me… to bed with a novel on the wartime music hall by Monsieur Pierre Philippe…
Sigh. I get by in spoken French pretty well, but the moment we get into ‘proper’ writing the words I don’t know turn up page after page. Still, Pierre isn’t quite as impenetrable as Chris can be when he gets into his dictionary language, and I am enjoying the book a lot. And even learning a bit!

Well, Its nearly midday. Time to head for Le Chineur and luncheon. I have decided that it is not possible to do luncheon AND dinner in one day without blowing up to the size of ... of … Pierre Philippe, so I think luncheon is probably a good bet. Especially when we have evening theatre (6-8pm today, very civilised),,
And I shall do my WiFi and check out on all your letters…
And the little Chinese lady who is waiting to clean my room will be happy too,,

So, off I go into a mixture of the known and the unknown once more…

Until soon

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