Paris in 1958 was very different from today, from the Paris I know. First of all, it was so very dirty. It was none other than André Malraux, de Gaulle’s guy for everything cultural, who had all the blackened historic façades cleansed, he wanted Paris to be the City of Lights again, the most important operation in urban architecture since Baron Haussmann changed the face of Paris altogether in the 1850s and ’60s, and there was quite some dirt that had laid up since then, believe you me (and by me, I mean my mother, she should know, she did live in Paris in the early 1960s). Second of all, one of my favourite areas, the Marais, was considered a troubled district, it was quite run down in those days, don’t imagine you’d have found any of today’s fashionable cafés and restaurants there, no art galleries, no stylish designer stores, no perfumed air emerging from the Guerlain and Diptyque boutiques, certainly no gays, not even closeted ones, instead you would find a butcher right on Place des Vosges, just like in Jean Delannoy’s 1958 movie “Maigret Sets A Trap”, and a butcher who let you witness his bloody business through his shop windows at that. It was a different time, one might say, I say it was a better time – or more precisely, it was a more authentic time, a time where there was not yet a Louis Vuitton store between the Flore and the Deux Magots to please people suffering from logomania in every possible spot, or otherwise Simone de Beauvoir would have had to look for another place to work and have her p’tit noir. By the way, neither she or Jean-Paul Sartre were very fond of Malraux, trop réac politically, and I think, she might have sensed the side-effects that Malraux’s polishing of Paris would bring. Who knows? Luckily, she died long before the Louis Vuitton people opened their store on Boulevard Saint-Germain.
The Flore. This is the place where Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre worked on their essays, plays and novels, literary milestones that made them rich and famous (well, not really rich, but very, very famous), all while having lots of coffee and even more cigarettes. As for the cigarettes, I cannot say which brand they were smoking and if I would have liked their taste, I’m a Dunhill kind of guy, the blue ones, but as far as the coffee is concerned, gee, no wonder they were so embittered about society. I hate that brew. It’s so nicely presented, the coffee is served in a jug, you got another one for your milk, hot milk on top, you pour and mix it yourself, according to your taste, you get an extra glass of water, so all in all one really can’t complain—but still, I do. This coffee is just awful, it‘s way too strong, it tastes like overdosed Nescafé, strangely bitter, brutal, a simultaneous attack on your taste buds and your stomach, you take one sip and you immediately have to light a cigarette to recover from it—and it takes a lot of time to recover. But that’s actually the only good thing about it, as a convalescent, you spend your time soaking up the atmosphere while watching the passers-by, just as long as it takes to let this wonderful spot called St.Germain-des-Prés sink in really deep. I can do this for hours at a time while that nasty coffee is getting cold. And if you should feel like re-reading “Les Mandarins” or “Les Mots“, there’s a bookshop just next door on Boulevard St.Germain, so you can start right away, right there where it was written.
There’s a photographic error in this photo, the tea box should say Nuit à Versailles, too, not only 277, I mean what kind of information is that anyway, 277, just a stupid number, not even a nice one, but that damn Stelton cork-screw covers that tea’s much more evoking name of a night in Versailles. It’s a very tasty green tea, aromes of peaches, violets, kiwis, orange blossoms, and other yummy stuff that is to transport us to this magical place in France. Actually, just as it happens, I’ve never been to Versailles, however near to Paris, not once, so I’ve no idea whether there are any peach trees and violets in the palace’s gardens or not, kiwis are from New Zealand anyway, so I don’t really trust them, these fancy Dammann brothers. They just tell you n’importe quoi. Versailles, however, has a very culinary sound to me, my parents often visit, but rather the weekly market in the old town of Versailles than the palace itself, my mother always brings home artichokes, organic ones, of course, over the years it has become kind of a family thing to have our artichokes from Versailles, so whenever I see or eat an artichoke, I don’t think of the South of France where they grow but of Versailles, and I’m kind of disappointed that there aren’t any in this blend—but on the other hand, who wants a tea tasting and smelling of artichokes?
It’s strange that all of my favourite teas are named after some men of nobility, English and Russian aristocrats like Earl Grey and Prince Vladimir, both obviously with a penchant for citrus fruits, agrumes, as the French call them, in fact, bergamot is quite elegant an aroma, especially when compared to the bitter-sweet smoke than infuses your air when brewing a lapsang souchong, no Mediterranean orchards come to mind, you’re rather transported to some opium den in 1920s Shanghai, quite depraved a situation, you wanted nothing but tea and refreshment and suddenly you’re an outcast looking for oblivion, although I’m suddenly remembering a rather smokey blend by Twinings named Prince of Wales, but as there were also opium dens that mirrored the finest to be found in China, with luxurious trappings and female attendants—why not to HRH The Prince of Wales? And then there’s that Frenchman Mirabeau, a count involved in numerous scandals before and after 1789, he rooted for both king and revolution, nobody ever knew whose side he was ever really on—knowing this, it’s amazing he died of natural causes. Liquorice and lychee in Mariage Frères’ Mirabeau blend reflect quite accordingly his ambiguity: a down to earth character as long as the earth is done in chinoiserie.
The Galaries Lafayette in Paris are worth a visit even when you’re not interested in their goods as the mere architecture of this holy grail of shopping is amazing, Belle Époque splendour of the finest sort—the cupola alone is a sight and made into a very bad movie with Romy Schneider and Michel Ronet which I implore you to never watch, but I digress. The Galeries Lafayette in Berlin, however, are not, not even when you’re interested in any of their goods. And if I hadn’t needed Choderlos de Laclos’ Liaisons Dangereuses La Pléiade edition from its French book section so very badly, I never would have made into that area of Berlin. On my way back home, waiting for traffic to give me a slight chance to cross the street, I glanced to the right, up Behrenstraße, a street of no particular interest, not like Französische Straße, the street I had crossed just before with Berlin’s most prestigious restaurant, the Borchardt, you find yourself dining with Angela Merkel there, but I digress again, anyway, at the end of Behrenstraße, you see a wonderful cathedral from 1773 that looks like a giant pudding, at least to me, a German pudding, some kind of vanilla flavoured panna cotta, not to be confused with anything English like black pudding, can’t stand that one, however traditional, anyway, St. Hedwig’s Cathedral is a gorgeous church, beautifully restored, and once you stand in front of it, and the Hotel de Rome just next to it, every bit as prestigious as Borchardt’s, you suddenly are surrounded by historic grandeur, Berlin’s great palaces of wisdom and entertainment, Humboldt University, its Faculty of Law, and the Staatsoper, the oldest of Berlin’s three opera houses. And truth be told, in the end, I was quite happy with my trip to the Galeries Lafayette.
Last night, I was watching Jean Gabin going through another man’s wardrobe, he was playing Maigret of course, so the indiscretion was work related, it was done in fine style, with the utmost calm, actually, everything Jean Gabin does is so wonderfully calm, so composed and tranquil, as if his entire being was a neverending stream of contemplation, and while he was inspecting the clothes of one of his suspects, Jean Desailly’s, as of course I was watching Maigret tend un piège from 1958, he uncovered the label of one of the suits, some fine tailoring by – no, not by Prada or Brioni or Zegna, but by Bernheim & Fils – a tailor whose shop was on rue de la Boétie. This scene struck me, but why? The wardrobe belonged to some Parisian interior architect, these were the 1950s, our times’ fashion victims weren’t even born yet, of course this man had his suits tailor made. Suddenly, I felt very poor, poor in style, my suits are all mass produced bullshit, however prestigious the labels, and while I continued watching Maigret meddling in this guy’s life, I felt like putting on my white Charvet shirt, the only thing in my wardrobe that might have a chance to find a fellow counterpart in that fine French murderer’s wardrobe.