PARIS, JEAN-LUC, SHIRAZ
I refocused on a rounded glass of red wine, a tantalising Chinon if I remember correctly. Definitely don’t remember the name of the vineyard though.
Paris was the… first stop in my road movie to rediscover myself – well, London was actually but that didn’t really count as I’d really lived there in the past. It was… how many years ago? Ach, doesn’t matter; anyway, not allowed to tell you yet. It was a sombre but dry March day, I think, as I sat outside an outrageously Parisian-looking café sipping red wine and purposefully scoffing olives – heavily marinated in tarragon, rosemary and chilli, juicy yet pruney. I was reading a critical article on David C’berg’s latest film, which concluded it was immoral or some such crap. Probably hadn’t even seen it. Sorry – I’m the one talking crap, mixing up my Paris stories. I was definitely outside a café eating olives, but it was more like July; yes, it was hot, I remember now. I was actually thumbing through Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’, somewhat pompously, as I recall finishing it the following day. Glad that was clear. A… yes, handsome man was parked across from me flicking through a newspaper, in the broadsheet style. Deepest of dark eyes, reminded me of somebody.
I spent about two months in Paris at that time, rightly deemed a magnificent city: my mind picked out and conjured dramatic shots of the ferric-clad Eiffel Tower, exposed arteries of the Centre Pompidou, Arc de Triomphe resting in imperial arrogance, Place de la Concorde in traffic gridlock. Apart from it being the first stage of my journey, I was there for another reason. I wasn’t consciously aware of the real reason I was there, when I arrived in that fair city, but did after I acquainted myself with mystery man displayed opposite outside this catalysing café.
I stayed at the comfortable but not too expensive ‘Hotel Éluard’ located not far from the École Militaire. It vaunted its attractive early 1900s design: windows like dining tables, decorative rusted iron balconies, lots of red flowers, grey slate roof. I managed to relax well there and in Paris generally, avoiding the busy day-to-day routine of normal mortals. I met this guy again three days later – his name was Jean-Luc – who was eating in the same restaurant as me on Avenue de Suffren, both alone. Perhaps he lived around here? He obviously remembered me from the bar the other day, as the waiter approached knowingly:
“The gentleman over there would like to buy you a glass of wine, would you care to join him?” I accepted and moved tables. I’d already ordered asparagus salad with red peppers, goats’ cheese and basil dressing, followed by tuna steak in a rich tomato sauce. He then ordered the soup – seafood bisque perhaps, or it could have been creamed tomato with garlic and herbs. No, that was the soup we both enjoyed the following night at ‘La Folie’. His main was vegetable and white bean cassoulet (only in Paris). He offered me a large glass of excellent dry white Menetou-Salon; old vines, I thought as I tasted, concentrated and crisp. Went well with the salad. He was impressed by my keen interest in wine, I was impressed by his job – a television producer.
“… I’m working on a programme about European film funding, comparing the progressive attitude of the French and Italians to the lukewarm British government and private sector...” He caught himself and joked: “but that’s a boring work script and I sound like a news presenter!”
“No, it’s OK, it’s interesting; I’m a big film fan.” I was also bowled over by his snazzy apartment on Rue Desaix, trendily close to the Eiffel Tower: clean, spacious, virtually empty. He hadn’t got around to buying much furniture apart from the focus of attention displayed in the centre of the dining room – a silver steel table the size of a bridge bulging with bolts and struts with a thick glass top. One kindred-spirit chair stood awkwardly by its side. I’d also ordered red wine earlier but unfortunately knocked it over, staining his designer-label trousers, which he peeled off and chucked into the washing machine. Double clumsy – almost ruined my chances and arguably the best Aussie Shiraz you could find in Paris.
MANCHESTER, BAR, BEN
My mind returned to Ben arriving at ‘Malloy’, an Irish bar with a twist. Clock: 10.14.
“I’m really sorry, had a bus-mare.”
“C’est pas grave,” I shrugged in the Gallic way. Ben glanced meaningfully over to red-shirt and back to me.
“Anyway, I see you’ve had something to keep yourself occupied with.”
He ordered a Czech beer, I had a Ditburger (bitte).
“Get some crisps as well, but not those disgusting lamb ones,” my voice followed him to the bar.
We talked about nothing in particular – Ben was quite good at that, a refreshing change from the usual arseholes in here. He was another one who’d belong to me, although not just yet; he wasn’t ready at that time. Actually, we were in ‘Charlie’s Bar’ not ‘Malloy’; that was the previous night. We enjoyed a binding mutual relationship: I drew and thrived on his vitality, his energy; he felt he needed my respect, interest in him, company, physical presence. Ben used to get very lonely, very directionless.
“Yeah, I did,” he confirmed he’d seen the programme on Prokofiev last night. “The music was tops,” said in a throw-away, nasal Manc kind of way.
“Stirring,” I agreed. He created a face taking the piss out of my pretension and went on...
“But not as funny as Paul M on ‘Have you got news for me’ afterwards!” Said personality was on a roll on this particular show, I had to admit, even if it was a repeated repeat of an old one. With Prokofiev still reverberating, we decided to go and see ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the Palace the following week. No doubt fortified by the fact that we’d recently seen, and had our socks utterly knocked off by, the loud, gorgeous and furiously paced Baz L film-version.
I noticed, just like that, my beer was only 5% alcohol – I’d assumed it was stronger for some reason – as I peeled the label off the empty bottle and gave it the last rites. Then I ordered a half-bottle of red, probably Spanish from those Med aromas, and toasted Ben’s health. The deep liquid clung to the glass as I held it up. I drank and savoured. My eyes instinctively wandered across to red-shirt, still alone, looking very bored. I decided to invite him to join us, because he reminded me of somebody I used to know. In truth, no, I didn’t ask him until about two hours later and to come with us to a different bar. The Navarra Reserva was dark and smoky.
BARCELONA, ALEX, CAESAR
‘Club 8 Degrees West’ was dark and smoky. I was staring aimlessly at my drink, a seen-better-days Rioja. I’d ended up here, very trendy apparently, having flowed with friends down Carrer de Santaló.
“Are you alright?” Fernando seemed concerned, but probably only because his girlfriend Mercedes had gone to the toilet and was taking ages. That was unfair, I was fond of Fernando and we became good friends in that glorious year I spent in Barcelona, Spain’s sexiest city (allegedly). I was probably just bored because I hadn’t scored. Yet.
“Yeah I’m grand, just a bit pissed.” I could smell roasted garlic on my breath – it seemed likely to stay with me for several years – derived from the world’s strongest dressing on a Caesar salad consumed earlier in ‘Los Inmortales’; a restaurant like any other on the other side of Muntaner, I believe. It was delicious though. Fernando and Mercedes had lobster – a little extravagant I thought, then again he was paying. The fish I ate with gusto was exquisite: perfectly cooked, very fresh, delicate herbs, lots of lemon juice. I couldn’t remember which particular fish, yet another Spanish word I didn’t know and Fernando had no idea of the English. It didn’t matter, as I preferred to speak Spanish, mostly, which annoyed the locals – took me a while to suss out Catalan (think Portuguese-French cross, what it sounded like at least). Besides, I could live with the mystery fish.
On another note, why was I steaming and disturbed that night? Half-cut I could cope with, not both: I felt tired, drained of energy. Mercedes unexpectedly dragged me onto the dance floor; I hadn’t noticed her subtle return. She was a scream, always determined to have a good time and make sure everyone else did as well. Nice little nothing you’re almost wearing, as Sean once said in an earlier Bond, back when they could just about get away with it. I suddenly felt refreshed to the anthemic crescendos of ‘Encore une fois’ (not again surely). It was tropical-hot and humid-sweaty on the floor, and I felt trapped in slow motion. That young man does keep bumping into me, it’s not just me? Gorgeous dark eyes: looked almost North African, so black magic and alluring. So I flirted a little back, we danced a while longer. His name was Alex; he was actually Portuguese but had lived in Barcelona for a few years. He was a wannabe actor but surprisingly seemed a touch nervous and, reluctantly leaving, said:
“I’m with friends. I should see where they are.”
“Come over later and have a glass of wine with us,” I suggested in my suggestive way. His, erm, situation appeared somewhat unclear, as I soon discovered while going to the loo ten minutes later. Alex was there arguing with somebody, presumably one of his friends – a jealous boyfriend or an over-protective best mate? I wasn’t interested in this little tiff – I sensed he’d already decided to join me.
The following evening was still and breathless yet buzzing and manic with cars and people. Alex and I ducked off the main flow on La Rambla – a solid sea of bobbing heads and loitering heels lined by locals selling birds in cages and touristy shite – heading to a restaurant in the Barri Gòtic. I never remember the name of that restaurant, strangely, as we ate there often enough, but I could vividly recall the menu and wine list. Something like ‘Nación Morena’. The seriously chilled Brut Nature Cava didn’t last long, although the mousse on the wine did. Like atoms, a thin layer of bubbles rested on the surface; a constant stream of tiny glass balls rising to replace the balloons that had burst, disappearing with their nutty bready aroma into the air. I sniffed and approved of the fruity yet slightly earthy smell, watching the bubbles and Alex’s reflection within them.