By Paul Ben-Itzak Copyright 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak
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Le guerre des grappes, or, We’ve come for your wine and your women
I’d bought the black and white two-piece dashiki with silver embroidery in an African boutique on Divisadero Street in San Francisco (a boutique destined to be succeeded, three decades later, by an organic vegetable market, as Sillicon Valley enterpeneurs replaced the neighborhood’s working-class African-Americans, for whom a $2 tomato was out of reach, and the Church of John Coltrane next-door was supplanted by the Church of Mammon) to wear at the 1992 Black and White Ball, where Sarah, the girlfriend who’d recently broken up with me (“It feels like having sex with my brother”) and I ended the evening in Davies Sympthony Hall doing the mambo to a sweaty, live, septugenarian Tito Puente beating away at the conga drums. Since become my go-to DJ costume, on my first visit to Paris in 2000 the dashiki was the ideal wardrobe for a mobile Halloween party that ended with me sandwiched between two curvy French Algerian sisters flinging their ringlets of blonde hair at me as we grooved to Alpha Blondy’s “Jerusalem”(“You can see Christians, Jews, and Muslims living together and praying: Amen”) in Club Euro, a hole-in-the-wall dive off the Place de la Republique. Zooming across the 19th and 10th arrondissements after picking up another new pal, Bernard (a French-Ivorian who told me that white French people typically don’t regard indigenous French-Africans the same way they do African-Americans), a cruise punctuated by the sisters leaning out of the Peugot window and shouting “boo!” at other motorists, and seeing the Canal Saint-Martin for the first time, I remember thinking, “The Seine sure narrows out here.” Before heading to Club Euro, we’d dined at le Verre Volé, a cave cum bistro specializing in ‘bio’ wines and, as a wine bar avant la lettre, an early outpost of the impending BoBo (Bourgeoisie Bohemian) invasion of the Canal quartier and much of northeastern Paris.
Now on this September evening in 2004 I’d returned to le Verre Volé and was sitting across from Emilie, considerably more done-up than when I’d met her at Pierre’s 40th birthday party near the Place Edith Piaf the week before, the snug jeans replaced by a maroon peasant skirt, her chestnut hair in a stylishly loose bun framing her oval face, giving her the Roman features (in fact, her last name, “Roman,” had been shortened from “Romanoff,” she’d explained, or maybe it was “Romanov,” her regal bearing that night having more in common with the tsar than the legendary Los Angeles restaurant proprietor) of Berthe Morisot when she was modelling as a ballroom dancer for Renoir, as well as Morisot’s probing brown eyes.
“We’ll take the 2002 Cahors, Ulysses,” I told the gangly server-manager with the speckled chin and naked scalp (this was the epoch when Lex Luthor was vying with the 5’clock shadow as the most legible signifier of hipness among 30-something Parisians), picking what seemed to be the best bargain on the otherwise expensive wine menu, but trying to make it seem to my date like my decision was based on oenological rather than monetary considerations.
“No you won’t,” announced Ulysses, shaking his head. “Not with a veal papillette. You want rather the Beaujolais”— which of course was twice the price.
“Thank you, we appreciate the counsel, but we prefer all the same the Cahors.”
After recovering from the invisible screw twisting in his butt and ratcheting up a posture which already seemed inclined to its maximum, and smiling at me indulgently with a complicit side glance at Emilie, Ulysses changed his tactic. “In that case, permit me to serve you the steak instead.” Seeing me hesitate – I was a debutant at this game – he added malicously, “If you like we can serve it with ketchup, if it would make you feel more at home.”
This was more like it: In open warfare, I was in my element. “A), my home is on the rue de Paradis; B), I’m the client, and therefore C, we’ll stick with the Cahors.” Then I finished with the coupe de diplomatic grace: “Steak we can have anywhere, but your veal papilette is sans pareil.”
At this Ulysses executed a demi-pirouette to rival any I’d seen on the stage of the Opera Garnier and marched towards the open kitchen, the smugness on his face nonetheless suspicously increasing. When he returned several minutes later, it was with a bottle of Beaujolais, whose cork he matter-of-factly twisted open before I could protest, avoiding looking at me. I was so taken aback by this maneuvre that he’d already poured a first glass…shrewdly, for Emilie — who so far had been observing our parries with oblique reserve – banking that the superior confidence of a French waiter and the imperiousness of a French date would be too much for a barbarian Yankee to handle at one time. But he hadn’t counted on Emilie’s personal history; her grandfather having fought in the maquis outside Bordeaux, she was more FFI than Vichy. She simply reached across the table, placed her thin fingers around my cravate and straightened it, adjusting her knight’s armor for battle: It wasn’t winning or losing but doing it with aplomb that mattered.
Ulysses valiantly tried to ignore this sign that the invader had successfully poached his woman and dissemble the extra turn of the screw in his butt, barely quavering as he continued to insist, “I think Monsieur and Mademoiselle will not be dissappointed with the Beaujolais.”
My own posture buttressed by Emliie’s benevolent hand around my throat, and notwithstanding that my cheeks were turning more violet than the Beaujolais, I stood up with the replique, “Actually, I think we prefer to find a restaurant where they don’t tell us what to order and understand that the client is always right,” adding, more for my Gwendolyn than for him, “If you like we can pay for the glass you’ve already poured without our consent.”
This concession inadvertently allowed Ulysses to save his dignity by declaring, “If Monsieur is displeased we’d rather not accept his money,” punctuated by a curt, “Au revoir” before he adroitly scooped up the bottle, pivoted on the screw and retreated to the kitchen with his back to us.
Emilie, ever decorous and diplomatic, and after touching my hand and whispering, “One minute,” crossed to Ulysses, touched his arm, and said something to mollify him, the teacher trying to assure that each party to a schoolyard ramble walked away with no hurt feelings.
After dismissing the idea of suggesting we grab something at the Lebanese grill across the street where they cut the schwarma with the precision of a mohel and eating it on the vintage wooden bridge over the canal because it might seem too cheap, I proposed to Emilie, “How about if we try my café d’habitude, le Valmy? C’est tres convivial and it’s not far from here.”
As we hiked up the canal along the Quai Valmy I jumped up on the ledge and attempted to straddle it. Neither slowing her stride nor looking up, Emilie chided me, “I understand that you must feel very tall in this moment, but how can we discuss if I can’t look you in the eyes?”
“Yes Ma’am,” I said, falling into line, but still skipping.
At le Valmy, we were welcomed by Moumou, the manager. The last time I’d seen him was at the birthday celebration for Ta’ar, one of the owners, in the flat above, where the wailing of Cheb Khaled had been seconded by Moumou’s fervent “Yella! Yella!”
“Ca vas Paulo?” he asked, then nodded to Emilie. Next I skipped over to the zinc counter, which the bright-eyed Swiss barista leaned over so I could kiss her cheeks. “Paulo! We usually only see you in the morning; a quoi l’honour?” “Milena, Emilie,” I answered by way of explanation, the latter offering a feeble hand to the former.
After he sat us at a prime table looking out over the canal, where the moonlight had begun to glitter, and handed us the menus, highlighted by an apricot and lamb tajine, Moumou asked, “Something to drink?”
“We’ll take a carafe of the house red, Moumou!” I ordered without looking at the wine list posted on the blackboard behind the counter, adding for Emilie, who couldn’t prevent a wry smile from appearing on her lips, “It’s excellent.”
“Trés bien,” answered Moumou.