They say that Paris is modernising and changing, but I discovered that the classic, ancient pleasures of Paris are still alive and well…
“Don’t tell my wife, but I have a girlfriend in London and she says the weather is just like this today: very warm and very sunny,” said the man on the table next to us.
He was sat as we were, sipping on a café crème on the sun-drenched terraces of the famous Café du Flore in Paris. The air was thick with cigar smoke and the stench of wealth.
His bald head was perfectly polished, the colour of pale chocolate ice-cream. He wore a denim shirt under a cream blazer and a pair of silver Ray-Ban aviators that blacked out his eyes.
“Are you on your honeymoon?” he asked Sylvie, completely ignoring my presence.
“No, no. We’re just here on holiday for a few nights,” she said with a nervous laugh.
His face grimaced as he took another sip of his coffee. “Practising for the honeymoon then? But four nights is not long enough to test the package. You have to test the package. Sometimes it can look good from outside, but then you find out. You need at least fifteen nights. Fifteen nights consecutively, I mean. Anyone can be good fifteen times in their life, but not everyone can be good fifteen times in a row.”
He stopped to take another sip of coffee. I did the same and wondered whether he was finished or not, unsure if I wanted to hear more. I thought it was just a cliché that Parisians are unfaithful misogynists.
Sylvie was clearly happy that he had turned his gaze to the sun, with a look on his face that told me he was remembering all the times when, in his youth, he had gifted his women with at least fifteen nights of pleasure. Consecutively, of course.
I wanted to hear more.
“So are you from around here?” I said.
“Yes, I am from here, from Paris. I have been here forty years. And I have been with the same wife for forty years.”
He took this, as I’d hoped, as a queue to continue the conversation. But again he ignored me and talked only to Sylvie.
“And what do you do in London?” he asked, his body now turned around entirely to face her.
“I’m a teacher,” said Sylvie, crossing her arms over her chest and dipping her chin whilst looking up at him over her sunglasses.
“And what do you teach?”
“Primary. Little kids.”
His lips tightened as he looked up into the sky as if imagining how anyone could possibly choose to work with children. Stumped and out of his comfort zone, he turned to me.
Again, he was silent, staring into the cloudless sky as his silver Rolex reflected beams of blinding sunlight into my eyes.
I turned away and watched three waiters standing with their white shirts and black waistcoats, spinning silver trays in their hands. Their long white aprons fell all the way to the ground, covering their toes and giving them a Samurai air of grace and authority.
“Creative or applied?” he asked, as if from nowhere.
“Creative. I’m a writer,” I said, squiggling my hand in the air as you would to ask for the bill.
“Yes. I can see that. Of course.”
He stopped for a minute or two to stroke his chin and stare off into the distance.
“Yes, as you get older, the money… the money becomes more important. No money, no honey.”
His face was deadpan. Sylvie and I laughed nervously again: we had no idea how else to respond. I hid behind my coffee cup, knocking half of it back in one sip – any excuse not to speak.
“No. Really. You will see. You will see that it is true.”
His eyes turned to sadness and he fell silent. Suddenly, every flower that fell from the hanging baskets of the cafe walls was the most interesting and only thing I could look at. We had all finished our coffee at this point and the sun was beginning to burn my scalp.
“You hungry? Lunch?” I asked Sylvie.
I asked Monsieur if he knew of any good restaurants nearby. It was more to break the awkward silence than anything else, but he responded with excitement and vigour.
“Yes, what type of food do you want? French? Asian?”
“French,” I said confidently.
“Yes, well, I am more Asian restaurants, but you should ask him,” he said, pointing to the gentleman on the table to the other side of us. “He is the one to ask about the French restaurants!”
The man wore a yellow and blue floral scarf over a blue blazer and smoked a cigar so thick that it looked and smouldered like a stick of dynamite. He shrugged his heavy shoulders and quietly refused the compliment. “Oh non, non, non. Please.”
I tried to work out whether the men were friends, but it was obvious that they had never met before.
“Well, what food do you want? French?” he finally said.
“Yes, French,” I said.
“Classic French? A bistro?”
“Yes, that would be perfect.”
He pointed to a few streets across the road and gave us directions that I did not really understand but pretended I did.
“It is a very good restaurant. I can say this because I eat there every day for lunch. I would not recommend a place unless I eat there.”
He put his cigar down in the ashtray and told me he would write down the address on his business card.
“But my writing it is very bad, eh,” he said.
He handed it over to me and wedged the cigar back in between his teeth. We stood up and thanked both men for their time and for the recommendation.
“Non, non. Please,” said the cigar man, “I will see you there later. Give them the card, eh, they will understand.”
We crossed the street and headed off in roughly the direction we had been pointed in.
“I’m sure that guy who gave us the recommendation is a celebrity,” said Sylvie.
“I know, and the other guy seemed to know exactly who he was. And did you see that cigar!”
We read his business card. It said, Gilles Cohen-Solal, Editions Heloise d’Ormesson, and he had written Chez Fernand 13 rue Guisande 75006 – 014353 6147 across the top of it. It struck me that he had known the exact address and phone number from memory.
“Are we really going to eat there?” said Sylvie. “Won’t it be awkward if he turns up?”
“Come on, we’d be crazy not to take this recommendation, and look, I just found him on Google. He’s some kind of famous publisher. I think he owns a publishing company or something. Look, there are cartoon drawings of him with his cigar. He’s some kind of icon!”
We found the restaurant. It was small and unassuming on a backstreet nestled amongst a number of superior looking places. But the menu looked reasonable and the red and white chequered table cloths seduced me in through the doors.
“Bonjour! Pour deux?”
We were squeezed into a little alcove in the window with views of the street.
“It feels so different being on the inside looking out,” I said, swept away by the romance of it all.
The waitress brought over a couple of menus and dragged a metre-tall blackboard that had the plats du jour scribbled all over it.
“We met someone who recommended you to us,” I said, “and he told me to give you this card. He said you would understand…”
She leaned over to look at it. “Argh, Gilles! Oui, he will be here in five minutes.”
She walked away and I overheard her talking in French to another waiter, the name Gilles being the only word I understood. She walked back over to us with two glasses of champagne and plonked them down on our table with a big, warm smile.
“Did we just meet a famous person at Café du Flore and get free champagne at a little backstreet bistro – in Paris?” I asked Sylvie in total disbelief.
“I think so!”
We ordered bœuf bourguignon and carpaccio de saumon, with un pichet de chardonnay, and watched the restaurant fill up with groups of businessmen in suits and colourful scarves.
The beef was delicate and rich and served with soft potatoes in a red wine gravy. The salmon was fresh and light, drizzled with a light and creamy white sauce.
True enough, Gilles turned up with a younger man and was the only customer who was greeted with two kisses. The waitress pulled out a table to allow him to slot in behind it before pushing it back into position. Gilles was joined by another younger woman and a young boy, and their food and drinks were delivered promptly.
I noticed him looking around the room and I gave a little wave to catch his attention.
“Good?” he said whilst waving from across the room.
“Excellent, thank you very much!” I said.
Sylvie and I drank our wine and tasted each other’s food, feeling smug and happy and warm from the wine and sense of privilege. The waitress asked if we wanted dessert and we ordered a cheese plate to share.
There was blue cheese, three types of brie and a dark, sweet, nutty cheese that we both fought over, served with another basket of bread. We ate out of greed and could barely move in our seats.
“Would you like dessert?” asked the waitress.
“No, we have eaten enough, thank you!” I said playfully.
I will never forget the look of astonishment on her face, as if we were the only people to have ever left the restaurant without eating dessert.
We waved goodbye to Gilles and stumbled out into the street, the cool breeze and clear light reigniting our energy, the sense of adventure pushing us onward like a tidal wave.
“Where shall we go now?” asked Sylvie.
“I don’t know,” I said, still dazed from the whole experience.
“How about Paris?”