It was a dim Sunday in winter, when you rise in the afternoon and the day is already dead, but then you take a walk into the darkening evening to make something of the day. It was cold and in Paris and there was a market on not far down the main street. I had arranged to meet Nina there. It was not planned but she lived close to me and I suggested for her to come down. She was free so we took a stroll to the market and walked a little in stale conversation and we had a warm mint tea. They often served a dark, sweet mint tea at the market, with many North Africans, or French with this heritage, living in the city. I liked the tea but I thought at the time that it could have been hotter, and we sat drinking it on one of the wooden benches in the middle of the crowds. It was very busy and I was hanging from the night before, feeling tired and sagged, and I could see that the light was dying. Nina’s eyes were looking at me suggestively and then around the crowds. She looked beautiful but bored.
We did not stay there long. We spoke softly and with many pauses and it was sad because we had little to say to each other. I liked her well enough, she was a sweet girl. But she did not let her walls down with me, she kept her eyes sharp and her smile was not relaxed, and I felt I could not know her. Maybe she felt the same was missing in me. She once reached for my hand and I took hers but it did not feel warm in mine. I think she wanted me to be calm in the cold of the day, but I was tense and I wanted to walk on, out of the market and back towards the neighbourhood. It must have been around six, but I do not remember the darkness of night, maybe because the street lights had been so strong.
We walked back down towards the street crossing. Her figure was tall and slender, and she had a light step. I had some reading to do that evening but it could of course have been postponed, it was not so important that I could not have spent the Sunday with her and walked and had a glass or two on one of the terraces. But the excuse arose in my mind like the soft scratch of a fingernail. I felt I did not want to spend the evening with her, that I did not particularly want to get to my books either but that their importance was enough to just touch the surface of priority. I looked at her and she smiled and she was very pretty. And yet I felt the need to be alone and it didn’t quite add up. It was one of those sad and strange little holes to find oneself in, living a moment that has the mark of a possible beauty and yet feels unsatisfactory, and from which you suddenly look for some kind of escape. I liked Nina, but she reached out for my hand and I only wanted to be alone and not with her. I took her hand but it was cold and it did not grow warmer in the grip of my fingers.
After all, I thought, it was only one Sunday in that dark country that was something like January, and the next day would be a new week and, fortunately, only slightly different from this one. I told Nina that I didn’t have all evening so we agreed I would walk her some of the way home. It was past my street and down towards Montparnasse, through large uncharming roads. It would of course have been nice to love her, I thought, but I didn’t love her, and that was that. We reached the corner of the road that would take her back home, and it was a good point to say goodbye. We kissed goodbye and made some sort of plans to be in touch, as you always do at the moment of goodbye. It always feels incomplete without a new commitment, because we hate goodbyes anyway and they serve little purpose. We kissed and I caressed the fore of her arm, and then she turned and I didn’t delay to turn back into my street and onto the asphalt, alone.
And once alone the Sunday had a new air and it was free again, and the time made it so that I felt better than I had felt when I had woken up into the afternoon. I felt good and hungry. Suddenly there was no reason to already be within the close walls of the small room that was my home for a brief time.
I had just entered the back end of the shopping street that lay perpendicular to my Avenue. It is a long pedestrian shopping street in the 14th arrondissement, and the front end is busy like a market with butchers and bread and lots of little shops. It is very nice and expensive and has all that you need and little that you can afford. After that first block at the front end the street is less busy, but not less interesting. Towards the back end, there are fewer shops but there are cafes that are less crowded and there is a good beer bar where I had been many times. I had been there once with Elliot, when he had visited, and he had very much enjoyed it. They had a strong Delirium on tap for a fiver at happy hour, and that always got you going in the early evening. Another time I had sat at the bar with Lena for an hour, and after that hour and two drinks I thought I loved her and I told my neighbour Jean about it when I saw him. Of course I did not love her but it was fun to believe so for a moment, and Jean listened and gave me a glass of port and the advice that only 80 years of a lifetime can give you.
Anyway, this back-end of the street was interesting and less predictable, and I was only 500 metres from home but I knew that the closer I would get the less I might be surprised. Then to my left I saw a little café, one I had never noticed, it was a “chez” something but I now fail to remember the name. In any case it was an Arab name, and they had a sign outside that said they did falafels. So I decided I would sit at the bar and have a falafel and delay my books at home by just a moment, because in those hours on a Sunday I thought I just might find something. At the time I did not know what that something was supposed to be, the content of a future blog post perhaps. But in that space of road between Nina and my bed there was a little room for experience, and I decided I would find it in Chez Falafel.
I walked in and sat on a stool at the bar, and immediately noticed several things. One was that the bar room was tiny, with no space to move. The second was that, indeed, it was full of people standing and drinking. Particularly, there seemed to be a group of middle aged men who appeared to be regulars, all nursing little glasses of red wine filled to the brim. Somehow their little glasses were balanced in their hands as they were elbowed against one another in the little room, and I edged past them to find a seat but we remained very packed in the space. The third and most peculiar thing I noticed was that there was an adjacent room, separated from the first by a set of glass doors, so you could see into it. In that room there were some men with jazz instruments, apparently preparing them for a performance. It was a small and simple, somehow dirty little café, and yet there was to be a jazz show in the next room. It is difficult to describe now, but it was an especially unlikely place for jazz. Not that jazz should only be played in a smoky speakeasy or cocktail bar or the whatever, but that the image of these drinking gentlemen and the rugged bar and the jazz next to them was funny. It was certainly curious and I ordered my falafel and a beer.
I realized that some of the men were speaking English, and sounded like Brits. There was one in particular, a man around sixty with a good head of long grey hair. He was very talkative and held his empty glass in one hand and in the other supported himself on a cane. He was chatting to another younger man who was saying next to nothing and looking somewhat spaced out. His glass was also empty. But I caught the caned man’s eye and we began talking. He was forward and asked me about myself, and I said I studied politics and this was followed by the usual segue into how it was an “interesting time to be studying politics”. This was uninteresting but then the man with the cane began voicing his thoughts on the state of things, and he was articulate and had a few things to say about the upcoming Dutch elections when I said that I was Dutch. It became more interesting still when I managed to turn the conversation onto himself.
He spoke of what I understood was the neighborhood expat life: how himself, a journalist, and other foreigners like him that had settled in Paris would meet every night in one of the bars on that street and have a few drinks and chat. They were in the falafel café that night as was usual on a Sunday, because the Naguere, which was 20 metres toward the front end of the road, was closed. “But come to the Naguere at 7 p.m. on a weeknight and you’ll find everybody there” he said with great animation. I was unsure who everybody was, but I guessed he meant his entourage, a mixed group of French and English men who all seemed jovial and a little drunk and, to be fair to them, very decent company.
The man with the cane introduced himself as Ed. “And tonight they’ve got jazz on in the other room,” Ed said, pointing through the glass doors. He motioned to the barman in a familiar way to pour him another glass of wine into the small cup. He then pointed at a Frenchman older than himself, who was with the group, “He, François, didn’t want to come initially. I had told him “Il y a du jazz”, but he remained unconvinced. He said to me “Du jazz, oui, mais y aura-t-il de la tarte aux pommes?”” Ed laughed. It was a warm, true kind of laugh. “You could put that into a novel and they wouldn’t believe you!”
I was amused. François did in fact look like the sort of man who would want a tarte aux pommes over the jazz show. I wouldn’t know how to describe that look, except that he was nearly seventy and had a wrinkled and critical face, a face that knew precisely what it wants. Ed was a nice man and I enjoyed talking to him. He said he had been a journalist in London for a long time, and that he was now trying to permanently stay in Paris. He had bought a little studio down the road and was going to write a book. He passed me his card, and told me to contact him, we could grab another drink sometime. The crowd was moving out, maybe on to another bar, maybe home. I had finished my dinner and my glass was empty. He said it had been good to meet me. It was my pleasure, I said, and it had been. He said he would be away until May for some months, but then after that we could be in touch. He was an interesting man and I didn’t tell him that my time in Paris was finishing in May. I would probably not see him again and, as it turned out, I didn’t.
When I was home I looked him up, his card had the stamp of the Guardian and the Observer. It turned out the man was Ed Vulliamy, a reasonably well-known journalist in Britain who had been an important war reporter in the 1990s. He had won a series of very prestigious awards for work on the War in Bosnia, being the first to uncover the atrocities committed there in some of the camps. Vulliamy was the first to gain access to the Omarska camp which triggered UN, among other, investigations into the conflict’s war crimes. He was also the first journalist since the Nuremberg Trials to testify at a tribunal for international war crimes, namely in the trials of Karadzic and Mladic among others. Since then he had done interesting work on drug trafficking between Mexico and the US.
I was amazed to have met the man, and I certainly felt like having further conversation with him. Maybe our paths would cross again. I wondered if he had genuinely found me interesting, or if he might have just been bored with his own crowd that night or if he had had some too many of those little glasses of red. In any case, it didn’t matter. It had been a memorable night and I placed it carefully into the deep file of my peculiar moments. I then kicked myself for not discovering these neighborhood circles earlier. Every street and square is somehow the host to a small cast of regular characters, and this one had consistently evaded me in the 6 months that I had been walking its pavement. It takes some small amount of luck perhaps, and one’s opening up to a spontaneous stop or the whimsical decision for a falafel.
I was alone again in the four walls of my home-room, and I opened the books with little enthusiasm. Then it was time for bed and I sat for a moment longer at the desk by the window, and looked out towards Montparnasse and the lights of the neighbourhood. It was late but there was still some noise of the evening, and as I looked I wondered about what might have been going on down in the streets, without me.