Rainy Nights in Paris

Tim Menees lands a flat and plays the blues
Illustrated by Tim Menees Rainy Nights in Paris
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Just after midnight in Paris: The Left Bank boulevard glitters from a downpour. Street lamps, a white “HOTEL” sign at the end of the street by the Seine, a distant sing-​song police siren. It’s mostly deserted. Two young women scoot by, then four guys. A few people slump on a bus. “A demain,” says a guy on his cell. “See you tomorrow.” A car or two. Waiters stack chairs inside brasseries; one nudges a man dozing over a glass of red wine at an outdoor table.

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My God, I’m in a Woody Allen movie — cue the cab and Cole Porter!

But, non. The rain had earlier caught me umbrellaless — but still I had stopped as the city plowed past. The Eiffel Tower was alive, dancing in white lights, La Dame de Fer — The Iron Lady — dressed in sequins. Now, after playing a few songs on the piano at a cave of a bar, I was heading home, “home” being a rental apartment just across the river.

Merci, Josephine and Django

Hemingway and Fitzgerald and the rest of Woody’s expat regulars in “Midnight in Paris” hung out in the City of Light, writing, painting, playing jazz. Some stayed a lifetime; my wife Kay and I hung out for two weeks.

Her book club had just read the “Josephine B.” trilogy, detailing the life of Mme. Bonaparte. I suggested we go to Paris and see what all the fuss was about, assuming she, as family finance officer, would ask “How?” She said, “Great!”

In a moment of hubris, I quickly decided, while listening to French Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, that besides hitting Malmaison and Les Invalides, I would play the blues in Paris. Renting a place can be dicey, as we had learned on vacations in Virginia, England and Ireland. It’s cheaper than hotels; we had cooked our meals, met the locals, and lit fires on damp seaside nights. But pre-​Internet, information came in a blurb and a photo. And we’d had erratic stoves, balky toilets, and planes spraying for mosquitoes at dinnertime. If you’re in a hotel, you can bail; renting, you’re stuck.

Some apartment owners in Paris now only rent long-​term, preferring students (French students must be less destructive than their American cousins). Paris has been cracking down on short-​term rentals. Some 20,00038,000 such apartments lie scattered around town and reduce living space for Parisians, resulting in a recent 20 percent rent increase, according to Reuters. Absentee owners who buy outrageously priced property recoup mortgage payments by renting them short-​term, sometimes violating complicated laws. The short-​term tenants love cheap lodging and feeling part of the city, but locals complain about all the banging in and out with luggage, breaking the elevator, putting trash in the wrong can and partying till dawn when residents have to get up for work.

Several online agencies list apartments throughout Paris with prices ranging from under 500 euros a week for a studio in Montmartre to 2,000 euros a week for a penthouse with a view of the Eiffel Tower and, who knows, maybe a wine cellar and saucy French maid. Ooh la la! Many include interior and exterior photographs. Some have rooftop views, others are tucked into courtyards. Most have Wi-​Fi, and a few toss in free phone calls to the U.S. Several look as if their owners all shop at IKEA.

We nixed flats (1) with tiny bedrooms and one side of the bed smack against the wall, (2) done up in black and red, (3) on the sixth floor with no elevator, (4) with no washer and dryer and (5) with no photos showing views out the windows.

Ours read: “Quiet Apartment with Balcony, Great Location in Le Marais.” What’s not to like? It was listed on www​.vrbo​.com (Vacation Rentals By Owner), which includes user reviews. We put half the two weeks’ rent ($1,100) on plastic, and the manager sent directions and told us to bring the other half in euros and to call when we arrived.

The disappointing Parisians

We landed at Charles De Gaulle Airport at 6 a.m., and I plowed ahead with my French, such as it isn’t. I’d been taking beginning conversational French through the OSHER program at Pitt. I’m “un debutant” (a beginner) but the classes give students the gumption to plunge in with subject and verb and not sound like Tarzan or Tonto: “Paris. Big. Good.”

A huge disappointment about Paris was the Parisians: They were not rude.

We nourish a love/​hate affair with the French because they can be chauvinistic, egocentric, exasperating, arrogant, self-​indulgent, romantic, snotty, artistic and musical. In other words, just like us. They have Paris; we have New York. They have a complicated incomprehensible language; we have English. They have Jerry Lewis; we have Jerry Lewis.

In an earlier poll, Berlin was voted the world’s rudest city, but last year another poll found travelers still rated Parisians the worst as hosts. We, however, found them polite, helpful and a lot of fun. One waiter at a brasserie near the Rodin Museum drifted between bored and grouchy. But most were like Henri, a young engineer hurrying to work with a zillion others at the train station. He stopped, offered his cellphone to call our apartment, and got us through the turnstiles with our luggage and out to a cab stand.

We arrived at the apartment at 9 a.m., quietly taking the stairs, worn and rutted, but charmingly worn and rutted. Our one-​bedroom was on the second floor of an old building in the ancient Jewish quarter turned gay neighborhood. Sacha Finkelsztayn’s bakery sat among trendy shops, bars, restaurants and galleries. We were a five-​minute walk to the Seine and the Centre Pompidou, and 10 to the Ile de la Cité.

A young woman met us and showed us around the fully equipped apartment, with kitchen, living/​dining room, bath, large bedroom with firm bed (a huge plus), and balcony across the front. When we’d arrived, the outdoor restaurant at the end of our block-​long street was still closed, its chairs stacked outside, its chef busy in the second-​floor kitchen. After a nap we awoke to faint jibberjabber. Like a movie segue, the cafe — voila! — had instantly come alive.

Le Tennessee bar

It’s Monday night. I reach Le Tennessee Bar a little after 8 p.m. for my first gig. I’m soaked from the downpour. My hair is dripping, my sports coat’s wet, and my shirt is clinging to my chest.

It’s a tiny joint on a tiny street, sitting behind a red facade and a line of bicycles. A few guys are standing around having a smoke. Down in the cave below street level, someone tunes a guitar, and James is setting up shop. He’s an expat from L.A., with intense eyes and curly blond hair poking out from under a porkpie hat. He plays in a local rock band, speaks some French and runs Monday night’s open mic. He says, “You gonna play? Cool!”

Many Paris clubs are in caves (cellars) because there’s nowhere else to put them. I found Le Tennessee via a blog written by Canadian Brad Spurgeon about open mics and Paris jam sessions. By day he covers Formula One auto racing for The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune; by night he plays guitar and tracks down open mics around the world. It’s hard to sling a keyboard over your back, so I emailed him and he quickly named three clubs with pianos. Le Tennessee’s cellar is done up in red with a tiny stage at one end, a long table with a bench on the other, plus side alcove with cave art, African masks, balalaika and globe. Sofas and chairs are bunched together. James perches by the stage and runs a small mixing board.

The place fills with musicians, friends, fans, whites and blacks, young and, uh, older. I’m wedged onto the rear bench, across from newlyweds my age, she from L.A., he from London. James locks in on us like a cop. “Who’s gonna play?” Hands go up. He scans the room and points: “OK, you, then you and you and… you.” To me: “And you.” To a kid in the alcove. “And you.” To us again: “You’ll all get a chance, so calm the (bleep) down.” He calls up a local singer and announces, “Live from Ceylon, recording star.…”

The kid on guitar is good. He’s not from Ceylon and we’re not at Karaoke Nite at the No-​Tell Motel lounge. This is Paris. I’m thinking: You got yourself into this. I’ll play some blues in Paris. I’ll play some jazz in New York City. Sure, you will.

Now two singer-​songwriters follow (James: “Live from Johannesburg…”) then a young fellow from L.A. (“Direct from Tokyo…”) on the piano and singing two originals. He’s also good. A local trio (“All the way from Nashville!”) plays upbeat French songs. The kid from L.A. backs a pal who belts out an original, and like the guy-​girl duo that follows, sings boldly, head back and confident. A guitar player (“Direct from Moscow!”) backs a young woman singing smoky Peggy Lee. James zeroes in on me. As I move the mic to the piano, he says, “Where are you from again?” He swings around to the audience and announces, “Welcome Tim from Pittsburgh!” (Pittsburgh must sound exotic enough…)

I limit my intro to “Bon soir” and do “St. Louis Blues,” “Blues in the Night” and “T for Texas.” I’m just enough Aging Yank to hold most of the crowd’s attention. The newlyweds ask if I know any Jerry Lee Lewis. Yes, I do. All piano players know a little Jerry Lee Lewis. At the street-​level part of the bar, I grab a 5-​euro beer and strike up a chat with a young, nice-​looking tall guy with dreads in a ponytail. I ask if he’s a musician.

Oui. Guitar.

Quelle type de musique?” What kind of music? I have no idea what I’m talking about. He says in French, “All kinds including Ray Charles.” He and a buddy are going to play “What’d I Say” and asks if I want to sit in.

Oui. Bien sur! Heck, yeah!

Half a dozen musicians are having a smoke out on the street. I tell them my wife and I are renting an apartment for two weeks. One asks me something I don’t understand. That’s the problem learning a new language: Get out a sentence and the locals assume you are fluent. He could have asked, “Do you believe in ghosts?” A French girl in black says in English, “I’m sorry but you cannot drink beer on the street.”

Down in the cavern, a 20-​something black fellow is singing Bill Withers: “…Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone…” After another regular plays The Doors’ “The End,” the kid in dreads and a white fellow in a vest grab guitars and call me up. The kid says something like, “We’re not doing ‘What’d I say’ but you’ll be OK.” After that song, whatever it was, I ask if they know Django’s “Minor Swing” and we plunge in. The few patrons still hanging out, perhaps tired of sitting all night, jump up and dance.

As James wraps up a mic cord, he says, “I didn’t know if you could hang with these guys,” and invites me back the following Monday.

You bet — after I play at a couple other spots such as The Swan. I think I’ll play some jazz in Paris. Sidney Bechet, Josephine Baker, Miles Davis and me. Hubris.

October when it drizzles

We kept orange juice in our apartment’s fridge, but the truth is, we didn’t cook one meal. We ate toast and croissants and jam for breakfast. For dinner, we grabbed a bite at a bistro or picked up quiche to go.

We grew proprietary toward our apartment and felt as if we were as much a part of the neighborhood as the family upstairs and the woman running a bed-​and-​bath boutique below — even though we weren’t. One night we met a couple from Kansas City at a local bistro and said, “Come over to our place for a glass of wine.” Our place. We sat on our balcony, ate cake and killed a 4-​euro Bordeaux.

The rain returned. “I love Paris in October when it drizzles…” I drank coffee and read, with no inner voice nagging, “Get out and sightsee!” Hotel rooms close in, apartments not so much. Drizzle or no, we poked along the city’s side streets and sidewalks as wide as this magazine. We took trains to Giverny and Normandy, and when I had no luck making reservations in English, I made them on the French National Railways’ Web site, in French, looking up words like suprimer (“delete”) and not landing us on a train to Trieste.

Alas, I didn’t get to the other bars Spurgeon listed — late hours, distance, foul weather. On my way to Le Tennessee the following Monday, I poked my head into one jazz place (in a cellar) near our apartment, but it was a beginners’ session.

This time I open my three-​song set with “My Blue Heaven” then give way to a couple from the States who sing country-​western, a singer-​songwriter from Houston, and a Russian kid who mangles the piano, then I return to accompany a young Parisian fellow on guitar who sings “People Are Strange.” The Doors again. Perhaps they are a big deal here because Jim Morrison is buried in the city’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

In the crowd is a sculptor from Philadelphia who lives and works in Paris. Brad Spurgeon. James. The Houston girl staying another two months to perform and write music.

Expats and the arts. The beat goes on.

Le Police et “Georges Clooney”

Saturday, 5:30 a.m., and Paris is still asleep. A light snaps on in a garret, the sky turns pink, a girl with an iPod hurries by, the lights come on in the cafe kitchen, a bell tolls and…

…the Police Nationale move in.

Five cops stand at the end of our street, young guys with rifles and a policewoman leading a serious canine. This is not Inspector Clouseau. A radio squawks. Are they part of the city’s annual all-​night bash Blanche Nuit (White Night)?

No. They are towing cars.

I sip coffee and watch from the balcony. One resembles George Clooney with a cold. As a cop strings up red-​and-​white police tape, Georges spots me and after blowing his nose asks (I’m guessing) if any of the cars are mine.

Moi: “Non, monsieur, nous sommes arrive hier. Nous louons cette appartement.” (We arrived yesterday. We’re renting this apartment.)

Georges: “Ah. Americain?”

He gives me a thumbs-​up as a tow truck hauls off a Renault.

I go for croissants, and when I return Georges is loudly chewing out a balding 40-​ish guy, probably one of the owners.

By midnight rain has soaked Blanche Nuit and a party thumps away in the flat above with girls singing to CDs. It’s the only noise we heard from our neighbors. On the street below, the police tape sags to the sidewalk and all the parked cars are back.

Renting in Paris

If you are planning to rent short-​term, be aware of the recent legal wrangling which may still be in flux. Next time, we will make sure any rental agency is not risking a possible 25,000-euro fine. Below are six websites, besides VRBO, that we bookmarked during our search for the perfect Parisian pied-​à-​terre:

gogobot​.com, lodgis​.com, parisat​ti​tude​.com, paris​stay​.com, paris​s​weet​home​.com, tri​pad​vi​sor​.com

Tim Menees

Tim drew political cartoons for the Pittsburgh Post-​Gazette for nearly 30 years. His work appeared in national newspapers, newsmagazines and on network television. He also paints and has drawn comic strips, written and illustrated a column and feature stories, and written one-​act plays. And, he plays in a blues-​zydeco band: piano and, uh… accordion.

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