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Poster featuring Christiane Weber, “La Goulue” (1891), Toulouse Lautrec
Coming of age
After nearly 50 years in France, at age 70, I’m really no longer into climbing the Eiffel Tower or sailing down the Seine river on the “fly boats”, but when an American friend visiting Paris insists on my sharing her birthday celebration by accompanying her to the Moulin Rouge, it’s really difficult to say “no”. The evening started by a quick and cheap stand-up, paper and plastic dinner at the Monoprix, Boulevard St Michel in the Latin Quarter, near where I went to school back in the ‘60s, then whisked us off to the famous cabaret at the foot of Montmartre, in Pigalle’s red light district.
When we arrived, there were two lines out front of the music hall, one for those who had reservations and one for those who didn’t. We did, and as we stood in line watching the 850 dinner-show attendees file past us out of the front door, I couldn’t help wondering if the entire Japanese population was in the City of Lights or if there were still a few non Francophiles left back in the Land of the Rising Sun? All looking like they were satisfied with the menu, feathers and strass, the endless Nippon population poured out for over twenty minutes. All just as hastily found their rag-tipped-flagpole holding guides and disappeared happily into the waiting coaches. Maybe the evening wouldn’t be all that bad after all. Once inside the huge three-tiered hall, each white table-clothed table set with a discrete red light, linen napkins and two glasses, we were equally quickly led to our places just next to the stage. The tables were all so close to one another that it took little more than two minutes to learn the life story of the couple at the next table, a fiftyish-looking woman with a Bulgarian accent and her Italian husband.
Le Moulin Rouge, Toulouse Lautrec, oil on canvas 1890
It’s true that Mrs Fifty did most of the talking while her husband acknowledged his wife’s wisdom with an occasional nod of the head, for example when she asked the waiter for two more glasses and some tap water to go with the bottle of champagne. “That’s the way we always drink Champagne in Italy,” she explained, “a glass of champagne and a glass of water. Then you don’t get so drunk.” I supposed this was also Bulgarian wisdom. In any case, my birthday partner had been to Italy more than once and her son was into professional opera. Maybe that was why she asked me to ask the waiter if we could have some water, too.
All in a night’s work
By now our white-jacketed waiter was running frantically up and down the aisles between tables opening bottles of champagne and popping corks into his pockets. Making my way over in his direction, I hesitatingly asked if his colleague “in the black suit”, whom I supposed to be the maître d’ since he was casually chatting with clients at one of the tables and didn’t look all that busy, could possibly get us some water? “Would you do me an outlandish favour,” the waiter replied with a sly grin, “He’ll send me to get the water anyway, but would you mind maybe asking him for me?” Returning a few moments later, with my friend’s pitcher of cold tap water, he added in a whisper, “That gentleman in the black suit I sent you to gets paid three times my salary every evening, just to talk with people.” The lights went down and the black suit showed up in turn, sat down and recorded my friend’s credit card on his little black machine. Apparently that was all he ever got paid to do, besides chatting.
Famous Moulin rouge singer Mistinguett (1875-1956)
The canned music began, the curtain went up, the dancers stepped forward and the Moulin’s feather and flesh-filtered show went on gaily for two hours, more Las Vegas style really than French, but our couple at the next table had obviously never been to Las Vegas and their clapping let us suppose, like the Japanese early in the evening, that they felt that they were largely getting their money’s worth. The dancers’ exchange of smiles, especially among the men, also suggested a certain complicity within the troupe as they jumped up, spun round and did outrageous splits across the stage. I have to say I envied their agility and acrobatic prowess especially considering that it was the second two hour show of the evening and they had to go through those identical antics before an equally vociferous crowd seven long nights a week.
When 1am rolled around, the cancan dancers had made their fourth curtain call, and the lights had come back on, everyone began heading, once again, out into the Paris night. The black suit was still chatting with folks at another table and our white jacketed waiter friend was still there. He smiled as we filed by. I leaned over and whispered in French, “If I were 20 years younger and lost 40 lbs, do you think they maybe they would hire me?” His answer came back straight from the heart, “Most probably they would, but I fear you’d be very quickly disappointed.” I feared he was probably right.
Thanks for the photo of the Lautrec poster to David.