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Flashes on a dark night in Paris

It’s dark.

It’s rainy.

It’s Paris.

I’m ready to call it quits.

We’ve been here four very long days, and the place is wearing thin.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Paris; it is one of the cities on this planet where I could happily reside.

If I could afford it.

It is also a city where, if you are on a limited budget — money and/or time — the situation can quickly grind you down.

Consider me ground.

It is 11 p.m. Kathy and I are staggering down the treed median on Boulevard de Clichy. We’ve emerged from the Pigalle Metro station unscathed (a feat in itself) after a trip from Place Bastille, and we are making our way to Rue Formentin.

We know when we arrive at the street; there are landmarks. Across Boulevard de Clichy from Rue Formentin is a two-story-high blue neon sign, consisting of a single, two-story-high word— nothing else. The word, which cannot be repeated here, refers to a part of the female anatomy.

At the corner of Boulevard Clichy and Rue Formentin is yet another indication we are home: Le Sex Shoppe. Two well dressed, middle-aged Parisian women are perusing the bondage gear displayed in the windows as we pass by.

Once we make our way around a friendly 6-2 African transvestite, we enter the lobby of our hotel — the Royal Formentin. Kathy notes that the last few yards to the door remind her of Rodin’s Gates of Hell.

Home, at last.

You got it: we are booked in at a hotel in Pigalle, one of the most notorious neighborhoods in Paris, home to the Moulin Rouge, sin center of the City of Lights for more than a century, historic low-end Funville now favored by male Japanese tourists, Sleaze Central of the Gallic world.

We ended up at the Royal Fromentin because Kathy did not trust me to find a lodging establishment. Our last visit to Paris, I obtained rooms at what I thought was a wonderful joint — the Hotel de Nil, near Place Opera. I loved the place: the bathroom was larger than the bedroom, there were huge windows that opened on to a narrow side street off Boulevard Des Italiens, a wizened housekeeper delivered a tray with coffee, hot chocolate, baguettes and croissants each morning promptly at 8.

Kathy disliked the place because she found it “dirty” (in truth, it was a bit rumpled), and she distrusted the North African gentlemen who manned the front desk in the teensy lobby. Why, she wondered, does such a small place need six or seven suspicious-looking guys in the lobby at all hours of the day and night? And why are they exchanging small packages and money?

So, this time around, Kathy took charge.

And did a fine job I might say.

We take the incredibly small elevator to the fourth floor and enter our room. There is a balcony that overlooks Rue Formentin. I open the doors and step out. A crowd of young Parisians are having a party on a balcony across the street, not thirty feet away. A guy is playing a guitar and singing. He sounds like a cat being run over by a bus. The crowd of dark-clad hipsters is well into the wine and the weed, and they are having a rip-roaring good time. A rip-roaring, extremely loud good time.

Until four in the morning.

I am distracted by lightning-like flashes coming from a small window in the knockout in the room next to ours. The window is at eye level. I check it out.

Three folks in the room are having their own party. It does not involve clothes. Two are “partying” while the third takes photos, the flash bathing the room in brilliant white light every two to three seconds — a supernova blazing in a distant, fleshy galaxy.

Yes, Kathy did a fine job.

Fortunately, I bought ear plugs. I am exhausted and fall asleep shortly after my head hits the pillow.

Kathy sleeps only when our neighbors and the folks across the street sleep.

Serves her right.

In the morning, we are off to Charles De Gaulle, to a plane bound for Houston. From Houston, we fly to Denver. From Denver we make our jet-lagged way back to Siberia With a View.

As far as Paris is concerned, the visit can be summed up in short order: too much walking, too much time on the Metro, not enough art, very little good food. Oh, and a bit too much of Pigalle.

We were a click or two off during the entire visit. We got to the Orsay a mere hour before closing — time enough, though, to reinforce my long-held contention that Gauguin was a greater painter than Van Gogh, technically and intellectually, and to rekindle my love for Vuillard. It was raining when we strolled the Marais. We barely avoided a riot near Invalides. We (against my wishes) rode a boat on the Seine and were seated behind a large gentleman who suffered incredible gastric distress. We ended up in line outside St. Chapelle with a family from Colorado (always a treat to discuss home turf, eh?). We spent hours in Metro cars packed with sweaty people who were either texting or sizing us up for a heist. I had a bird deposit a load of unimaginably awful waste on me while I (against my wishes) posed for a photo on the steps at Montmarte.

As far as food was concerned, Paris (and the South of France, for that matter) was disappointing. The problem: cost. To get anything moderately interesting, one has to fork over some serious Euros. Otherwise, the fare is ordinary, even mundane. The days when bistro fare was excellent, affordable and readily available seem to be gone. The choice: big bucks or big letdown.

There is a trend during our stay in Paris: A leathery crepe with ham, cheese and a fried egg, lackluster onion gratinee, regrettable gorgonzola ravioli with “truffles” and a garlic cream sauce, a 10:30 p.m. dinner with average ouefs mayonnaise and the worst escalope de veau imaginable. I am not against killing the calf, but if it is going to be abused following its demise, let it live and let it grow.

Two experiences salvage the visit.

First: we get together with our friend, Aurelie. Long ago, she lived with us as a high school exchange student, and we’ve traipsed around Paris with her once before. Now she is married and she, her husband, Sebastian, and their 7-year-old twins, Zoe and Lila, meet us at a cafe at Chatelet for coffee and a pastry. The Centre Pompidou is but a block away, and it is free day at one of my favorite museums. The girls are beyond excited at the prospect of seeing some Picassos (yes, 7-year-olds study such things in French schools … and like it), so we zipped to the Pompidou and spent the morning wandering the rooms on the second floor.

We go to a cafe at Les Halles for the only excellent lunch we find in Paris. Kathy, Aurelie and I each have an outstanding Croque Madame with a green salad, Sebastian orders a Thai herb chicken salad, and Zoe and Lila chow down on fish and chips.

We make our way back to the Pompidou and spend the first part of the afternoon with the contemporary collection (proving, once again, that mediocrity knows no national boundaries when cowardly simps mind the cultural gates).

Aurelie and Sebastian invite Kathy and me to their apartment for dinner. We while away the interim in the Marais and at Place de Vosges then make our way to a neighborhood near Pere Lachaise. We visited Pere Lachaise the day before; Kathy had to see Jim Morrison’s grave (replete with all manner of hippie geegaws), and I successfully located the resting place of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, my favorite phenomenologist. As cemeteries go, this one is a dandy.

Before dinner: a Chablis. Aurelie prepares a superb and simple green curry with scallop and shrimp. The diver scallops are same-day fresh, with coral attached, the shrimp sweet and huge, the sea-born goodies swimming in a coconut milk-based green curry, kissed with lemongrass, basil and garlic. The curry is served with jasmine rice and more Chablis is poured. After dinner: an excellent red with a selection of Sebastian’s favorite cheeses. Pastries end what is, hands down, the best meal we’ve eaten in Paris.

The next evening, the only decent dinner at a Paris restaurant — at a small joint on a side street in Clichy, Bistro Tintinagle. I start with a rabbit terrine, served with pickles, pearl onions, tomato and mustard. Kathy has a cheese quiche with lardons. We both order the bavette with shallots, a five-mustard sauce, and frites. I enjoy a Gigondas and Kathy sips a Cotes du Rhone. For dessert: tarte citron.

We waddle out into the night and head down Boulevard Clichy. Crowds spill out of bars onto the sidewalks; guys festooned with heavy jewelry hiss at us from dark doorways.

Le Sex Shoppe beckons on the corner; we are almost home.

I will manage to dredge some positive memories from this trip to Paris.

I will duplicate the croque madame.

First up: make a thick béchamel. Melt a handful of grated Gruyere and a fistful of grated Parmesan into the sauce, add a bit of salt, pepper and ground nutmeg (just a touch).

Next up: Two slices of good bread, buttered. Stick them under the broiler, buttered side up and toast. Smear one of the slices with stoneground mustard, slap on a couple thin slices of Black Forest ham and some slices of Gruyere Pop under the broiler until the cheese melts and starts to bubble. Slap second slice of bread on, top with a thick layer of the béchamel and sprinkle with grated Parmesan.

Finish off under the broiler until the béchamel and cheese start to brown.

While the sandwich is under the flame, fry an egg, sunnyside up with plenty of oozy yolk. Flop the ova on the pile, break yolk and enjoy.

This will bring back a pleasant memory.

I am sure, too, when I next smell a Thai curry, I will remember a splendid day and evening with Aurelie, Sebastian, Zoe and Lila.

On the other hand, if someone uses the flash on a camera …

This story was posted on September 13, 2012.