Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Twisted Vagabondage Tale From Paris

Back when I lived in Paris, one of the comically incongruous things I saw was a most pathetic Pere Noel with a guelle de bois (face of wood = hangover), peeing in the snow with a painful grin, on the legendary Boulevard St. Germain (namedropped ad infinitum in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast). Verily, Father Christmas in France takes some getting used to.

Pere Noel is neither plump nor merry. Yes, he sort of resembles jolly Saint Nick, but he isn’t that fat bastard with a foot-long beard we’re used to seeing at Macy’s. Instead, he's something of a rail-thin rake or roué in a suit reminiscent of a prissy Renaissance bard wowing Le Roi Soleil.

This Santa was obviously drunk as a goat. Still, my friend Annick and her beau managed to run up to the Pere Noel doppelganger and catch this expressionist Norman Rockwell moment on camera. The yellow stream glistened
 in the flash like Silly String ™. We laughed till our hearty Ho-ho-hos echoed thru the night like a Galleries-Lafayette security klaxon.

Wherever you go in the world, they do Christmas differently. For example, Santa’s sidekick in Holland is an obliging fey helper known simply as Black Pete. Still, the Yuletide ornamentation up along the rues in the City of Lights reminded me a little of home. Yet, while my friends and family in New York were dining on turkey and opening gifts, I found myself (like the pale somnambulist played by Conrad Veight in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) absentmindedly purchasing a Bouche de Noel (Christmas Mouth) without knowing what this novelty is or even how you eat it—and unwrapping only endless cartons of Gauloises des Blondes Légeres.

Hence, with everything fermé in the firmament, plus a light snowfall and a significant drop in temp (brrr!), small wonder I ended up drunk in the slightly dodgy section of Barbés Rochechouart, the unofficial Muslim quarter of Paris. I'd once eaten on a cobbled sidestreet there at the sere Restaurant Islam, which featured dry desert fare (damned kebabs and rice pilaf) with absolutely no alcohol.

Nevertheless, I heard in the distance what sounded like unfamiliar Christmas carols and went to investigate.

Boldly striding into the oven whoosh of the brasserie, in the shadow of Montmartre Cathedral (a marzipany masterpiece), I noticed that everyone inside had a slightly ruddy complexion. Meaning: I was the only white guy there. This is cool, I thought, wondering if there were any Algerian pied noirs who could stand me a few.

I was surprised to see some sinister-looking Middle Easterners and Magrebis in loose-fitting blue suits and white djellabas actually drinking biere pression on the slyor maybe it was ginger ale scientifically measured up to a white line on the glass. “Biere, si’il vous plait!”

The vaguely terrifying-looking Arab bartender with a jagged scar on his right cheek sized me up. After trying French then German, he settled on erratic English: “I say: you are not scared to be here?”

“Not at all,” I said casually and carefully. “In America, I’m used to new experiences.” This was during the Gulf War in which France also participated.

“Really, you are first American to ever come in here.”

“I like Barbés.”

One of the female staff smiled at me, a lively young woman with long brown hair who flitted about in her dark chador like a harem fly, then ran out the door. When she returned, she had a small Christmas tree tucked under her arm, which she busily proceeded to set up on the bar.

“For you, our American guest. Happy Christmas!”

She told me she was a Kabil, and that in Algeria (a former French colony), they celebrate Christmas along with Ramadan. I searched my mind for a famous Algerian and came up with, “Albert Camus’s The Stranger is one of my favorite books. I like existentialism.”

“Oh, L’etranger! Just like you!” She then threw back her head, bosoms, and baubles to laugh.

I drank until the evening became fresh and fuzzy as a frozen sorbet. No matter that Arab Rai music wafted in the cigarette haze, rather than “Jingle Bells” or “Frosty the Snowman.” Although the Rai did sound weirdly like all the moaning and ululating singers pounding tomtoms and blowing flat oboes had been punched in their stomachs for blasphemy.

At least, the oriental cacophony somewhat resembled festive party blowers. In the end, what mattered was the Christmas cheer, peace, love, hope, and good will. Stuff like that. Beyond reverie, all I remember is that I woke up the next afternoon sweating cryogenic icicles, to the music of exceedingly irate garbage collectors crashing cans outside my window in the Marais.

Yeah right, thanks for nothing, Santa.

John M. Edwards is a writer and photojournalist. He has traveled five continents with experiences ranging from surviving a ferry sinking off Siam to getting caught in a military coup in Fiji. His writing has appeared in CNN Traveller, Entertainment Weekly,, Condé Nast Traveler, Islands, Matador, World Hum, BootsnAll, and other publications. He received five NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Awards, two TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest) Awards, and three Solas (sponsored by Travelers’ Tales). He edits the Rotten Vacations anthology.