Paris, Saturday 8th December 2012.
I’m breathing hard in the cold air, a cloud of vapour swirls in front of me, my footsteps clang and echo on the metal staircase. Sara asks breathlessly “Can we stop here for a moment?”.
“If you want.” I try to make it sound casual, like I’d prefer to carry on, but I’m glad of the stop. Sara changes camera lenses to make the stop more than an embarrassing halt because we’re out of breath and unfit.
I like to think we’re both in reasonable shape, even if we’re not running marathons, but the long staircase up the West leg of the Eiffel tower is hard work. Stairs are always hard work. A family with small children appears, the kids happily bouncing up the stairs, the parents, like us, huffing and puffing as they try to keep their children in sight. I don’t know if the kids are happier with the loud clanging their footsteps make or the red faces of their parents; it doesn’t matter, both are improved by the kids increasing the pace of their stomping ascent.
At the mid-level we wander around the edge, looking at Paris in all compass directions, trying to spot the landmarks we know and work out what the impressive buildings are that we don’t. The sky is overcast and the grey light is not helping to make the equally grey stone houses of Paris any easier to see.
Below us we can see many tour coaches parked all around the tower. The queues have grown since we started our climb, long snakes of people are growing below us, looking from the top like a pointillist picture, each coloured spot a hat or a scarf.
We couldn’t buy access to the very top at the ticket shop below, but overhearing a rumour we queue for ten minutes at a closed kiosk at the mid-level that apparently sells tickets every hour.
The rumour turns out to be true and we soon have tickets and we’re allowed to squeeze into a lift with ten other visitors and the operator, who looks so bored that if she has to squeeze in next to one more oversized tourist she’s going to throw herself off the tower, as much for the change of scene as anything else. Luckily the top is completely enclosed so she’s not able to do so.
In haze we can’t see a lot further than before, but it’s a nice extra view. A break in the clouds allows a single beam of sunlight to slowly pass over the city south east of us and drift as a solid column infront of a few skyscrapers and end on the École Militaire. Having been planned, Paris, like Budapest, is a very flat city. The towers of apartments and office blocks are further away on the outskirts sticking out as towering straight edged alien additions to small the more intricate jumble of apartments in the foreground.
After coming back down we cross the Pont d’lena and go up the stairs between the twin arms of the Palais de Chaillot. We share a pizza for lunch at a little sandwich shop and carry on the the Arc de l’Triomphe.
The traffic around the Arc is as crazy as you would hope. The giant round-about is clogged with cars and buses coming from all sides. Towards the centre of the circulating traffic there appear to be cars that have abandoned the idea of escape, their owners resigned to being caught in the metal ice-flow and now just hoping that they’ll be eventually spat out somewhere. A bus driver leans over his steering wheel, looking dully at the scene before him. You could believe he’s been stuck there for ten years, marooned with his passengers. When he gets back to his life someone’s going to have to explain Twitter, iPhones and a black US president to him.
We carry on into the long mouth of the Champs-Élysées, the wide pavements clogged with Christmas shoppers. Cars try to get in and out of the side streets, but are mostly stuck behind the slow flow of bag carrying pedestrians.
After making it half-way down we get on the Metro at Franklin Roosevelt and head to the Sacré-Coeur back in Montmartre. The walk up the steps to the rise where the basilica sits is hampered by hundreds of touts, some with long chains of Eiffel tower statues, some with coloured threads threatening to make you a friendship band and others still just selling postcards.
From the top of the steps, looking back across Paris, the view is great, even if the most iconic outline, the Eiffel tower, is hidden away to the right. The sun is starting to set and the grey outlines of Paris are bathed in a pink light, subtle pastel shades reflect deceptively warmly off the white stone of the church behind. To the west of the church is a Christmas market, it lives in the same sort of hut as the others I’ve seen, but there are fewer schwenken grills and more crêpe stands, each with giants pots of Nutella bristling collections of sticky handled knives.
We drop back down to the Boulevard de Clinchy through the winding cobbled streets of Montmartre, tourists sat outside in the cold weather around restaurants, many small art shops have paintings on display in the windows, some nice, but many ugly with too much meaning imposed on the tight confines of the canvas.
For dinner we find the Au Rendez-Vous des Artists on the corner of Clinchy and Rue des Martyrs. The restaurant has a comfortable self-assured air, it’s almost theatrically French, but you don’t get the impression they’re doing it to impress anyone.
Most of the guests appear to be French, but if they’re local we can’t tell. The two waiters are dressed in careworn black and white, sagging leather wallet pouches hanging around their waists. The younger of the two, when not attending to any customers stands with his hands behind his back looking up at the football showing silently on a TV in the background. The older retreats behind the bar to polish glasses.
Sara orders a gin gimlet as an aperitif, for which the older waiter is called into service. While cocktails are on the menu, it appears by the staff’s reaction that it’s more a matter of completeness, you’re not actually supposed to order them; but after a moment of looking for the shaker at the back of a cupboard the ingredients are mixed, and with loving care poured into a glass. The waiter smiles at his own work, announces it done and gets his younger colleague to serve it. When Sara tastes it and smiles with approval, both the staff, watching intently, smile back and seem just a little bit more relaxed than they were a second ago.
We eat what seems most appropriate from the menu, sharing some escargot as a starter, eaten with the provided specialist tools, then rare steak and frites for the main, all with a small caraffe of red wine. So happy is Sara with her first cocktail that she orders a second, which flatters the older waiter. The second is prepared with even more care than the first, a big grin of pride at his acknowledged skill and craftsmanship sitting on his face.
After slowly finishing our drinks, then sharing a crème brûlée and crème caramel (just to make sure we know the difference) we wander to the Moulin Rouge and join the queue snaking into the waiting area to one side of the main entrance. The bouncer asks us if we have a phone reservation, which we do, but he doesn’t check our names on a list; during the entire evening no-one ever checks that we did make a reservation.
Once the doors open we’re shown to one of the hundred-or-so six-person tables that fan out from the stage, each with a small red shaded lamp marking the end. The inside is almost exactly as we expect, red with touches of gold dangling trim and dimly lit. A score of staff are scurrying around, showing people to their seats and taking payment, but most are hurrying back and forth with coolers, glasses and the bottles of champaign included in each ticket. The corks are twisted out and popped with well practised ease before the champaign is poured, bubbling quickly and foaming, into tall glasses. On our table is another couple and a solitary gent who appears just after the lights go down. He politely refuses his half bottle of champaign, something the waitress refuses to accept, and she opens it anyway leaving it for him should he change his mind.
Then it starts, a two hour spectacle of the most camp, glitzy and sequin covered dancing Sara and I have ever seen or could ever have imagined. The sets and costumes change at a frenetic pace, different after almost every song. The elaborate show reaches its peak somewhere between the chorus girls leading a troupe of tiny ponies around the stage and one of the leading ladies diving into a transparent swimming pool that rises out of the floor to swim with a python. Between the ensemble scenes are occasional variety acts; tumblers, a racing techo music juggler and a mime with a magic suitcase who makes some of the audience act out a little scene.
The show is impressive, but nothing like what Sara and I had imagined. We’d thought of something more burlesque, more titillating. While the dancing girls were mostly topless, any ideas of eroticism vanish after the first ten minutes. The whole show was so over-the-top, so camp in the extreme, but played with a straight face that Sara and I can’t decided if the people putting on the show know how camp it is. We can only assume so, and somehow hope they do: but would it be better if they did or didn’t know?
As the house lights come back up we blink, trying to remove the sparkling colours that have burnt themselves onto our retinas. During the show the solo latecomer to our table vanished, leaving his champaign behind and undrunk. While the crowds press their way out we sit and do the only civilised thing; drink his champaign, while trying to take in what we’ve seen, recounting the most surprising events to each other. What was more unexpected: the ponies or the fluorescent aerial duet? The swimming snake dancer or cast vanishing into the ceiling?
Confused and exhausted we walk back the hotel, through the dark quiet side streets of Paris. Eventually reaching our bed and falling asleep to dreams of ponies dancing the can-can with snakes that can juggle.