observations and opinion
An August night in Paris, the windows open to catch the faint breeze. Tom Waits was on the stereo -“Better off without a Wife” – the anthem of a man, like me then, determined to find virtue in failure. We played him the way you do, over and over, like one of those temporary traditions for people who spend many evenings together drinking. I was the perfect tourist, if not the perfect house guest: I brought food and wine back home with me most of the time (I think, I hope) but most likely consumed more than I contributed.
My hosts were young, in their first jobs after school – he worked in the burbs, she did something somewhere downtown. Marc was wiry and tan, black haired and sharp, from the south of France; Karen was curvy and pale, rose-cheeked and sweet, an English girl in love with Paris and in love with a French boy. Their apartment was one flight up, somewhere in the 13th, in a different world of stairwells and door buzzers and tiny cars jammed along the curb.
This sweltering evening, Karen was tucked away in her bedroom with a crazy English girl, who was raining tears about the latest guy to break her heart. In the living room at this late hour were the three men: Marc, myself and some other Canadian guy, Tom. We were doing serious damage to a bottle of vodka, and to ourselves.
Like the English girl weeping in the bedroom, Tom had his own heartbreak. In his travels he had fallen in love with a Polish girl; she had gone back home but wanted to be with him. He wanted to be with her but she couldn’t leave Poland, due to the totalitarian travel restrictions of the late Cold War. Here in 1987 long distance communication meant one of two things: letters or phone calls. And phone calls were expensive. Unable to see the beloved Polish girl or even to hear her voice, Tom was doing what lonely lovers have done for ten thousand years: he drank and he talked about her. We listened – and we drank too.
Whatever we had started out slugging back, eventually ran out. We faced the choice of sending someone out into the hot Parisian night to find alcohol, or winding up the evening in a civilized fashion. Tom spared us either by going to his luggage. Although he could not spirit Hanna out of Poland, he had been able to exit with something slightly less precious but easier to hide: Polish vodka. And not just any Polish vodka, but a magic elixir: Zubrowka.
Tom explained that this was “Bison grass” vodka, surprising me with the idea that bison roamed the fields of Poland (they don’t, apparently having been hunted to extinction in the early 20th century. Leaving a lot of bison grass behind, I guess). He gave us to believe that sneaking this stuff across the Iron Curtain was akin to hiding microfilm of a Soviet rocket factory, which in combination with the fact that it was the mysterious Polish Hanna who had packed it, lent the bottle extra romance.
The vodka also came with a warning from Tom: this was intense, a liquor not for the faint of heart. This made the stuff irresistible of course. Marc brought a mitt full of small glasses in from the kitchen and the Zubrowka was uncorked (or whatever, I don’t remember that part very clearly now). I downed my shot fast, slamming the glass down on the table. I felt a firey golden heat glow through my chest, but remained composed, unflinching. My companions nodded approval of my manliness, which made the Zubrowka taste even better.
Marc was next. He tilted his head back and inhaled the small glass of odd-colored liquid. It went down fast and as it did, his eyes opened a little wider. He wasn’t going to cough after my performance of course. He closed his eyes, put the glass down gently on the table and spoke:
“Le petit Jésus en culotte de velours!”
“Le petit Jésus en culotte de velours!!” he repeated, telling us that this was a profane expression, not one his mother would like to hear. It translated literally as “Little Jesus in velvet shorts!” I had an immediate mental image of little boy Jesus, uncomfortably stuffed into a white shirt, with a bow at his neck, wearing bright green velvet pants, cuffed at the knee. You had to laugh. And we did. But as ridiculous as the expression was, you knew at once what it meant.
“Man, that’s fucking smooth!”
You can look it up. There are more polite translations, but none so apt as smooth.
And man, it was. We downed some more. It is important to remember that this was no ordinary vodka, but bison grass water, smuggled into freedom by a man whose heart was left behind in Poland, with a girl he could only hope to see again. This was special booze, my friend.
It was around this time when The Plans came out. I should be careful talking about The Plans. My host Marc, was not just your typically good-looking French guy sharing an apartment with his creamily gorgeous English girlfriend. He was also a rocket scientist. That’s not a metaphor for smart, it’s a literal statement: he was a rocket scientist. He spent his days doing drawings for a rocket that would keep France in the space race. The guy did French rocket science.
And for reasons unknown or once known but lost, that night Marc needed to show us something. He pulled a cardboard tube out from somewhere and out of it slid a large piece of paper, blueprints. Unrolling it across the table, pinning down the corners with vodka glasses, Marc showed us The Plans. A vast array of blue lines, intersecting in a thousand places, riddled with numbers and words. This was the rocket that would take a Frenchman into space. Or maybe a French satellite.
Marc started to explain it to us, but this was unnecessary. Heavily fueled with vodka from both sides of the Iron Curtain, my brain had been converted into a magic instrument for the reading of blueprints. I can still remember tracing a finger along some lines and explaining, most likely in English but also possibly at this point in the evening, in my own form of French, how the marvelous rocket would ignite and fly off into space. And I can still remember that I was right, or so my host said. And I can still remember the following morning, having no recollection whatsoever of what The Plans showed. Nor could I tell you now. For mine was a fleeting glimpse into rocket science, before the vodka wore off and the steel doors of my mind shut fast forever, locking me out of the inner sanctum.
That night in Paris, like every other night, dissolved like sugar cubes in champagne. Tom went his way. The crazy English girl kept coming over. I spent my remaining days in town roaming the unlikely corners of Paris, ugly office buildings and rabbit-warren streets, staying out so late one night that the Metro had stopped and I had to walk across Paris as the sunlight slowly began to leak into the sky. One of the greatest nights. My journal was always at hand and I scribbled out notes, thoughts, ideas, pictures of scenes, like some mad painter trying to exhaust his muse before she left him. I’m not sure that I wrote down anything memorable at all about Paris; some day I will have to look in the notebooks and see.
My last nights in Paris were at the apartment. We drank, we dunked paper bags full of old baguette into water and then warmed them in the oven, to make cheeseburgers at midnight. One night Marc cured the crazy English girl’s rash with a foot massage (miraculous, but I’m a living witness). I think the English girl was pretty, when she wasn’t crying, but it was hard to know; all I could see was the craziness. I don’t remember her name. I knew it then but, like so much that has passed since those days and nights, I don’t know it anymore.
Did the crazy English girl calm down, realize that she should go home to her parents and finish college? Is she a Barrister now, defending pharmacists for licensing infractions? Did Karen really love Paris enough to love Marc, or love Marc enough to love Paris? Did he love her at all, or was it just the rocket that he adored? Did any of them ever reach liftoff?
And did Tom find Hanna? Did he smuggle her across the Iron Curtain? Are they married now? Do they reminisce about their months apart and their reunion? Or does Tom just pour out a Zubrowka now and then to remember the girl he loved, but could never have? I didn’t know and still don’t.
All I know is, when I hear Ella Fitzgerald sing, I think ” le petit Jésus en culotte de velours! ” She was that smooth, man.