White Nights - 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 8. White Nights

It’s not a pretty face, I grant you, but underneath its flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character.

OSCAR LEVANT on himself as pianist Adam Cook in the 1951 screenplay of An American in Paris.

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Terrance Gelenter (left) with François, owner of the restaurant Au Bon Saint Pourçain

Not much of importance takes place in Paris without discussion in the cafés, so I made the rounds with the night walk idea. In particular, I consulted Terrance Gelenter.

If I were honest, I’d admit that Terrance has more right to be considered a true expatriate than myself. Having married into a French family, I’m what the locals call métis— part French. Terrance, however, remains unregenerately alien, an outsider and happy to be so.

Resourcefully, he’s turned this ambiguity and love of Paris into a livelihood. He’s Mr. Paris, the go-to guy for every tourist need, from a chauffeur to greet you off the plane at Roissy to … well, he’s never defined the limits of his hospitality skills, but they’re far-reaching.

It had been his idea, five years ago, that I should give literary walks—a suggestion in return for which, originally, he demanded 50 percent of my fee. We terminated this arrangement once people began to approach me directly—which he took as the green light to start leading tours himself. Since then, introducing visitors to flanerie—strolling—has become one of his many meal tickets.

Lately, he’s branched out into singing. A bathroom baritone of modest attainments, he could be heard two nights a week in the lounge of a boutique hotel in the fourteenth arrondissement, mangling the repertoire of Cole Porter and Jerome Kern. His performances made me think of a review that appeared in a British newspaper when Simone Signoret was rash enough to play Lady Macbeth opposite Alec Guinness in 1966. At last, said the critic, a means existed to identify who really wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare. One simply had to post an observer near the grave of each candidate and note which one turned over when Mme. Signoret came onstage.

Terrance was easiest to find on Sunday mornings, when he received his admirers at a table in Café Flore, but I caught up with him midweek on his cell phone.

“Sure, bubeleh.” Even after a decade in France, the Brooklyn in his voice remained as pungent as a kosher pickle. “In fact, let’s have lunch.”

I couldn’t hide my surprise. “You’re buying me lunch?”

“Who said ‘buy’? We go dutch.”

He suggested La Petite Perigourdine, on rue des Écoles, the street that runs through the Sorbonne university district. Cafés around universities are usually cheap, and this one lived up to that tradition with a modest prix fixe lunch.

Even at noon, most tables were full. By the door, a rack of varnished pigeonholes held rolled napkins, a survival from the days when regulars used the same napkin all week and stored it in a pigeonhole until it accumulated enough stains to be worth washing. This practice shocked some visitors to France during the belle époque. One was Lord Curzon, former viceroy of India. When an aide explained that not every diner could expect a fresh napkin with each meal, his lordship exclaimed, “Can there be such poverty?”

Terrance was already installed at a table by the wall, where a large window gave an unparalleled view of pedestrians toiling up and down the steep slope of rue des Carmes. As I watched, a short skirt and some pretty legs in high heels appeared on the right-hand side of the big window and moved down to the left. A few seconds later, a pair of hips in skin-tight jeans appeared on the left and, muscles tensing under the denim, progressed to the right.

I slipped into the banquette opposite him. No need to ask why this place appealed.

“I hear they serve food here as well,” I said. He tore himself away from his private beauty parade.

“I’m studying the menu.”

“So I see. The French have a word for you.”

He waggled his eyebrows à la Groucho Marx. “Adorable? Séduisant?”

“Try again.”

While the French vocabulary is smaller than that of English, it loads certain words with additional meaning.

The one I had in mind for Terrance was roué.

It means, literally, “wheeled,” and recalls the medieval method of execution which tied the criminal to a wagon wheel in the public square while his bones were broken one by one with an iron bar. As such horrors died out, a roué came to mean a criminal who deserved such treatment, then, in time, any man who behaved badly, particularly with women: what they called in Edwardian England a “bounder” or a “cad.” Even after the French widened their dictionary of seduction to include tombeur (a serial seducer who, Casanova-like, induces women to fall—tomber—for him), and dragueur (someone who dredges or trawls in search of sex), roué survived to define the man who indulges in all three, but unashamedly, and with a little style. It suited Terrance perfectly.

Just then the waiter arrived, and we switched subjects while we ordered, and waited for our confit de canard aux pommes de terres à l’anglaise. A couple of tables away, some Americans were struggling to order lunch. While they puzzled over the menu, the waiter stood by, order pad in hand, staring over their heads and all but tapping his foot in exasperation. The fact that patrons sit while waiters stand gives the latter an automatic superiority. What if diners stood to order, or the waiter sat down at the table to take it? The idea was so revolutionary it would probably bring down the government.

“Night walks?” Terrance said as I explained my plan. “You mean like a nuit blanche?”

“Not exactly …”

From June 11 to July 2, around Saint Petersburg in northwestern Russia, the sun remains just below the horizon all night long, bathing the world’s most northerly city in pearly luminescence. Locals call these belye nochi—white nights. Though similar conditions produce the same effect across Scandinavia, where it’s called “the midnight sun,” only in Saint Petersburg do such nights induce that introspection bordering on despair which inspired Dostoyevsky to write an entire book about it.

Nothing so drastic takes place during the continental summer, but the French, undeterred, fell in love with the concept, applying it to any night made sleepless by restlessness. La nuit blanche joined le weekend, le striptease, and le hamburger among foreign terms rebranded as French.

“I don’t know,” Gelenter mused. “Couldn’t it be dangerous?”

“Oh, you mean what happened to Delanoë.”

In 2001, Paris’s then-mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, designated either the first Saturday or the first Sunday of October as an official nuit blanche. Cafés and clubs were urged to stay open, and musicians and performers to give shows in the streets. He held open house at the Hôtel de Ville for anyone who cared to drop by. This became an annual event, even after an out-of-work computer technician turned up at the town hall in 2002 and, announcing he didn’t like either homosexuals or politicians—Delanoë was both—stabbed him, fortunately without fatal result. After that, the mayor, while no less hospitable, traveled with a bodyguard.

Very few people ask me about the risks of Paris streets, and, to tell the truth, they’re negligible. It is a brave thief who tries a holdup when every gendarme carries a pistol and all are trained in martial arts. Our apartment has been burgled, but cambrioleurs seldom steal books or paintings, and we are obviously not the kind of people who leave diamond bracelets lying about. The greatest risk is pickpocketing, which has reached almost industrial proportions on the métro, thanks to an influx of gifted operators from eastern Europe who prefer to collect aid from the prosperous west by direct means rather than going through the bureaucracy of Strasbourg.

But Gelenter wasn’t talking about robbery.

“What about the streets? You don’t want to walk about on those at night. The cobbles are murder.”

He was right. Older streets offer gaps just waiting to trap a heel. And staircases were often uneven and poorly lit. In old age, the actress Arletty became almost blind. She recruited young actor François Périer to guide her on formal occasions. Notorious for her language, the star of Les Enfants du Paradis gave Périer a hard time. On one of their first outings, when he murmured, “Steps ahead,” she snapped, “Steps up or steps down, asshole?”

Though Terrance and I continued discussing night walks over a couple of coffees and a sorbet, the moment “between the pear and the cheese,” where, traditionally, the French deal with business, passed without a conclusion. There were simply too many wheres, hows, and for whoms to counterbalance the why nots.

My last memory as I left the café was of Terrance lingering over a second express, his attention riveted by the passing parade of rue des Carmes—a man at peace with the world.