At the window of my suite in the Citadines hotel, I yawned and looked out across the square at clutches of elderly Parisians huddling in fear as gangs of shouting, spitting teenagers slouched by. They call it a suite because in a sort of alcove off the bedroom there’s a sink with a hotplate next to it, in case you want to whip up a quick Lobster Thermidore. This absolutely adequate hotel, kindly provided by a local jazz club, was situated in what used to be Les Halles, Paris’ central food market until as late as the 1960s, reportedly mind-boggling in size and variety. All of Paris did its shopping here, from the chefs at the city’s most lavish gastronomic palaces, to visiting musicians cooking lobster in their hotel rooms. The most mouthwatering descriptions I’ve read are in Emile Zola’s wonderful The Belly of Paris, but Les Halles shows up in all sorts of Parisian books and movies. Block after block, stall after tantalising stall, a chaotic cacophonous maze; bawling purveyors tempting a discerning public with every animal, vegetable, and mineral you could hope to stick in your mouth– mountains of oysters, seductive pig’s heads, flocks of ducks, rabbits, fish, vegetables … Now it’s a Westfield shopping centre, which is probably just what we deserve.
You’ve got to love Paris, don’t you. I mean, you literally have to. It’s a given. But I don’t know… between you and me, this trip I might not have been as head-over-heels as I’m supposed to be. Maybe the lingering effects of a never-ending pandemic are wearing the old girl down, just like the rest of us– that combination of straight-backed, demure, majestic elegance, and louche, stylish depravation must be a hard one to maintain, and today she seems to be being knocked around by roving youths and deafening neon commercialism. There’s a harshness in the streets I don’t remember. Then again, I was out of my mind with jet lag and anxiety, so don’t listen to me.
Le Duc des Lombards is a venerable old jazz club that I first encountered in about 2005. Puffed up with naive, youthful ambition, I dropped off my home-made demo CD and waited impatiently for a call. And here I was, a mere fifteen years later, with my name up in chalk. Three storeys below street level, the Duc’s greenroom is a cold stone cellar, ancient bones and skulls buried in the walls behind a thin layer of plaster– mostly musicians still waiting to get paid. Between sets we huddled down there, wrapped in our threadbare coats, greedily gnawing on lobes of foie gras, until the manager summoned us for the next show. Unsteady on the winding, narrow, stone stairs, we wended our way upward, weapons in hand, breaching the surface as a smattering of applause met our introduction. We took to the stage, a desperate, drunken, crazy-eyed band of jazz pirates, and blew and pounded and thwacked until the skeletons in the walls broke out and began dancing and copulating with a warm, receptive audience.
A few doors down the rue des Lombards– even in low season, a heaving confusion of Irish pubs, tourist clip joints, and a surprising number of combination crepe and shawarma restaurants– is the Sunside jazz club, and the venue for last-night drinks. Musicians finishing gigs around the neighbourhood descended on the Sunside bar, and over countless beers, in an increasingly indecipherable mix of French and English, lifelong friendships were made and destroyed, gigs were booked and forgotten, love affairs embarked upon and abandoned… Until suddenly I found myself outside, alone on the silent, deserted rue… I thought I could hear the party continuing inside, but the shutters were down and the lights were off. A sheet of newspaper blew past my feet and a distant church bell clanged… I shrugged and set off on the two block stumble to my hotel, tearfully singing… I Love Paris in the Springtime…
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