Under Cover - Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter

Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)

Chapter 3. Under Cover

ROMAN JOURNALIST: “What was the happiest day of your life?”

MOVIE STAR ANITA EKBERG: “It was a night, darling.”

La Dolce Vita

Even as a boy, I was only at home in the shade.

On picnics, while everyone else raced down the beach and into the surf, I retreated, book in hand, to the shelter of a tree. Other families, hauling coolers filled with beer and sodas, observed me narrowly as they passed. “Poor kid,” they thought. What ailed me, to be deprived of our nation’s greatest blessing? If they had known I avoided it by choice, they’d have thought me out of my mind. An Australian not enjoying sun? Imagine a polar bear in Maui and you’ll grasp the improbability.

The more I resisted, the harder my parents pushed.

“Why aren’t you outside, dear?” my mother asked. Parting the curtains on our front window, she squinted into blue-white sunlight so fierce that, had the solar panel been invented, a few could have powered the entire town. “Always with your nose stuck in a book,” she continued. “You should be playing sport.”

As most sports required me to stand in the sun while someone more motivated flung a ball at my head, the suggestion drove me even deeper into the shadows. Raising my book higher, I returned to whatever alternative universe was sheltering me that week. Soon I was lost again in the deep space of Astounding Science Fiction Magazine, the Vienna of Graham Greene’s The Third Man, or Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, where “the streets were dark with something more than night.” I was home.

To be fair, some of my dissatisfaction was genetic. Our family had a tradition of not quite obeying the rules. During World War II, my father, a pastry cook and baker, owned a shop in King’s Cross, Sydney’s tenderloin, the equivalent of New York’s Greenwich Village, London’s Soho, Berlin’s Reeperbahn. Once the U.S. Navy made our city its base, sailors crowded the streets, looking for a girl, a drink, and a snack—roughly in that order. But while birds and booze were on offer in quantity, they searched in vain for a hot dog or hamburger and positively recoiled from local baked goods: lumpy cookies riddled with raisins, mystery-meat pies, and British-style buns, sticky with frosting.

Dad took action. As each USN ship docked, he could be found loitering outside the Woolloomooloo navy yard with a cabdriver friend. Buttonholing enlisted men wearing the crescent C on their left sleeve that signified a baker or cook, they offered a free ride to the depravities of “The Cross”—preceded by a few glasses of powerful local beer to toast Australian-American relations. Quite soon, the cook, in one of my mother’s aprons, would be at work in our kitchen, demonstrating his recipe for brownies, while my father watched over his shoulder and took notes.

Too young to have seen all this at first hand, I had to rely on anecdotes and a few bits of evidence kicking around the house. One was a shoebox filled with Bakelite plaques from the wartime shop window where they had identified the American-style items on offer: angel food cake, applesauce cake, chocolate chip cookies. Who knew how they tasted—except that they must be heaven?

More permanent keepsakes of those times included a Zippo cigarette lighter, a tarnished silver money clip, and, my favorite, a pair of aviator-style mirror sunglasses. Their steel rims, springy metal earpieces, and large green lenses made me look, I thought, quite dashing, even a little like the masked hero in my favorite American comic book, The Spirit. As I cycled around town wearing them, neighbors stared, particularly after I rode my bike into a couple of lampposts. Following the third such accident, I retired the glasses, since I thought I’d made my point.

In quieter moments, I wondered what exactly was wrong with disliking sun. Sailors didn’t spend their holidays on ocean cruises, and while Arabs tolerated sand, they’d take a shady oasis any day. As King Feisal explains to T. E. Lawrence in the film Lawrence of Arabia, “No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert—and no man needs nothing.” But Lawrence, dismissed by Feisal as “another of those desert-loving English,” isn’t convinced. Asked to suggest something in favor of the desert, he says, “It’s clean.” In his petulant tone, I recognized the righteousness of the parents and teachers who lectured me on the joys of sun.

So when I came to Europe, it was in flight from their belief. I saw myself strolling under Tuscan grape arbors, gondola-gliding down Venetian canals, or punting between Cambridge’s ancient stone walls, dripping and cool. In time, I would experience all of these, and more, until I had almost drunk my fill of shade.

But it wasn’t until I moved to France that I got to know the night.