Paris is always a good idea.
I got the idea last March. I called Karen Bakos to tell her I was returning to Brighton to work on my show for the Brighton Fringe and Edinburgh. It seemed silly to go home mid-June only to return end of July. “I would really love to go to Paris while I am on that side of the pond,” I said. “Would you like to go?”
“I am going there in September,” she said and paused. “But I can always go there twice.”
And so we made the plan. Karen and Mitch (her husband) could only travel on weekends so we found a weekend when I wasn’t doing shows and they could get away. I had no idea how I would be able to pay for the trip, but I knew I had to go and this is why: I am very conscious of time these days. My eightieth birthday is this October and there are so many, many things I need to do before I leave this earth. My friends are popping off like champagne corks and I know that before I go bloopy, I need to experience a bit of the life I was too afraid to try when I was young and far more able, (financially and physically, that is.)
A word about the Bakos’s: I discovered Karen in Pacifica at A GRAPE IN THE FOG. She was born just outside of Cleveland and although she hates it when I say this, Ohio people share a common moral base and a common outlook on what is important in life, especially those who managed to escape that Midwestern mentality that is so smothering…so stifling…so not either of us.
Her husband Mitch is also from Ohio, many years younger than she and just as sensitive to humanity and alive to possibilities. I cannot explain the affinity we have developed but it is there and it is stronger than almost any friendship I have formed since I moved to California. We do not see one another that much, but when we do, we really LIKE each other.
When Mitch got a super job offer in Swindon, the two decided to move from Pacifica and experience another world: a British world. At the time they moved there, less than 2 years ago, I was accelerating my visits to the UK and we knew we would have many opportunities to continue the friendship we had begun. I have to say that since I have known Karen, it is she who takes care of ME although the truth is I am older than her mother. I really do not see what she and Mitch get out of the friendship, but I know that when I am with the two of them I feel very secure and very cared for.
I still recall when she came to my show at Actors Theater in San Francisco and took me to the best place ever for dinner afterwards. I remember her frustration, anger and hysteria when she packed up the house in Pacifica. Mitch was in Swindon, the cat got sick and almost died and her life was in shambles. It was probably the only time I was a help to HER. I came over to the house and helped her pack…and returned with wonderful blouses and odds and ends for the house. She and Mitch both have always given me those little extras I have never been able to afford…and I am sure they have no idea how much all this means to me.
The friendship blossomed with visits to Highworth, where the couple found a renovated schoolhouse, and the two of them coming to Edinburgh and Brighton and London for my shows. We are always in touch and we care a lot about one another. It is interesting because I am a bit of a philosopher and Karen very definitely is not. She doesn’t like to ponder on the deeper meaning of someone waving at me or winking. She is a realist and a pragmatist. Mitch will join me on my meandering through motives, impressions and deeper meanings. SO in reality it is not a conversational friendship (as most of mine are) and yet it is a very strong one. You figure that one out.
And now, the two of them made Paris possible for me. People think I have great courage, but the truth is I get lost and confused in any new situation. If I cannot speak the language, I am so fearful that I just stand in the middle of the road and wish I had a teddy bear. That is why Paris would not have been possible for me without the Bakos’s.
Once we latched on to the idea, our e-mails went back and forth. We selected June 21 -23 for the trip and decided I would return to Highworth for a couple days after the trip. I am comfortable there and it is a good place to recharge what batteries I have left. Karen made the reservations on the Eurostar and got a package deal at an amazingly, wonderful hotel: Hotel Paris Bastille, (although we didn’t know that until we got there) for £300 pounds each IF we shared a room. “Mitch is going too,” she said and I thought, “OMG all THREE of us in one room…Well, why not?”
The truth is that except for a wonderful, morally chaste weekend with Nick Leonard in LA, I have not slept with a man in the room since Rick left me back in 1969. I have no idea if I snore, talk and walk in my sleep or am otherwise offensive…and all I could think was, “Well, I’ll find out soon enough.”
AND I am ridiculously modest for a stripper. I shut the bathroom door when I am alone in my house and I have never really LOOKED at my body because it discourages me. I was not sure how I would handle slipping into my t-shirt and snuggie slipper socks with ANYONE in the room and this time I told myself “What the hell.”
Besides, although I didn’t know it when we made the plans, I needed a break from the tension and uncertainty of the last two months in Brighton. Working with Bill has been a frustrating and heady soup of hope, laughter and worry. He is promising a great deal that I would love to happen and not really DOING anything that will make it all real. He is talking about my touring the country, my having a weekly TV show, my creating a hit in Edinburgh…and yet there has been no mention of money. He has invested an immense amount of it however in my show and in creating two pilot TV shows. I believe in him with my heart but my head is very worried. I cannot finance all these trips abroad and I cannot give up Nader and San Francisco without a secure base. We still have not figured out how to cut out 15 minutes of the current show we have created to 45 minutes. We still haven’t talked about what to do to promote it and get people to come see it much less interest the press. Yet, in my heart, I believe Bill is right and we will somehow make this work.
That is why by the time the trip to Paris came around, I was ready for it. I needed to get away from all the worry that was souring the beautiful time I am having in Brighton…because that I am. I love the friends I have made, the people I meet, the comedy I am doing in London and Brighton…life is surprisingly exciting these days.
Everything about this trip seemed meant to be. The night before, I went out for dinner with Danny Horwood who is becoming my Jewish daddy. We had a divine and delicious meal at Morocco’s, an Italian place in Hove after we visited a couple whose daughter was turning 21. They were in the process of building their house and it was gorgeous inside but a shambles outside. They wanted Danny to create a tent on the patio for them to have their party. It turned out that the couple’s daughter worked on Britain’s Got Talent the year I was on it and she must have known me. I have yet to hear back from them but that was an amazing coincidence. We got home at a reasonable hour for a change and I got to bed before 2 in the morning. Danny assured me that if I write Bill and explain my concerns he will go with me to lock in the commitments I need to continue.
The Euro star is a train that goes under the English Channel and gets to Paris in 2 hours and 15 minutes non-stop. Our train left at 1:30 so Karen and I arranged that I would meet her and Mitch at 12:30. The train I needed to take to get to St. Pancras was at 11:07 so I decided to wake up at 9:30(OMG) intending to walk to the station.
I woke up without an alarm Friday morning, packed and there was a knock on the door. Clare had decided to take my bag down the three flights of stairs for me and drive me to the station!!! What a luxury! My routine when I travel is to take down the bag first and then my coat and purse since I don’t want to risk falling down the steps. This time: whoosh!!…..down the steps, in the car , at the station in less than 10 minutes.
I caught an earlier train (because I could. AND I still had time for coffee and a croissant). Roz, the train station customer service angel wasn’t there; but Ian, the guy she trained WAS!!! He took me to the train and got someone to meet me at St. Pancras so I wouldn’t wander around that gorgeous station all by myself trying to find Eurostar. The St. Pancras railway station is considered the finest station in the country. It is filled with interesting restaurants and shops, high-ceilinged, modern with FREE loos that flush automatically and flash a red light when they are occupied. You don’t get that at the older stations. The man who met me parked me at a posh coffee cafe and I waited for Karen and Mitch to arrive.
When they got there, Mitch took my bag, we went to a restaurant for a bit of food (I wanted a Mademoiselle…which is a toasted cheese sandwich with mushrooms and tomatoes, but all they I had was Monsieur which is a toasted cheese sandwich with ham and cheese. I decided now is as good a time as any to let go of all my eating hang ups and I gobbled it up.
From that moment on, all I had to do was follow Mitch and I got to wherever we meant to go. We got on the train, settled in and Mitch got us our first (of way too many) bottles of wine. We arrived in Paris at 4:45 Paris time, and thanks to Mitch who is very clever we got on the Metro arrived at our hotel and called Karel who told us to come over to his place as soon as we could….and we did.
The hotel was a glorious surprise. It was a three star hotel (which is two stars more than I am accustomed to) We were expecting the bare minimum accommodation and instead we were put in room 601 with a gorgeous view of the city. I had my own bed next to my own bathroom WITH A TUB and Karen and Mitch got the bigger bed (or course) with their own bathroom. We unpacked and got ready to find Karel Beer.
Will and Debby Durst had told me about Karel 4 years ago because he books really professional comedy in Paris. We spoke when he was in Edinburgh in 2008 and we could not meet because he was leaving the next day and I had two or three shows to do that night. Although I know now that he was up until 5 in the morning so I could have found him, that was the year of the non-stop rain and I was not masochistic enough to slosh anywhere after my third comedy gig at The Meadows that night. That was my year at The Argyle when I was running hither and thither and had no time to do so much as take a dump (something I rarely do in Edinburgh anyway). Karel put me on his mailing list and every now and again when I was crossing the pond I would answer one of his e-mails and hope he would consider letting me open for one of his shows.
He never answered.
However, this year Mikel Simic was going to spend a few days in Paris and I thought they would be a good match (they were not). I gave Mikel Karel’s contact information and lo and behold they did meet…liked each other but didn’t impress each other which is sad. Now that I know Karel, I know he would go mad for The Black Sea Gentlemen….but hearing Mikel out of context simply doesn’t convey how marvelous an entertainer he is. Very sad because I think a good thing missed happening. However, good things often do miss happening in this frantic world of ours. (and other good things DO happen…keep reading.)
Karel’s gallery is called The Sound Gallery at Quai de Jemmapes 104, Paris 10. It was across the canal and we had to take the Metro to get there but thanks to Mitch and Karen, we found it. I particularly loved the walk to his place from the metro. It has a lot of small interesting shops packed in narrow streets lined with motorcycles and bicycles, little children and dogs. One of the things I noticed about everywhere we went in Paris, is that there were tiny little food shops tucked in between the cafes, the bars and the shops you shop in with lovely produce. I know nothing about the value of the Euro compared to the dollar so I do not know how expensive the food was, but I do know that the drinks and food we bought were not that high. We found the gallery easily enough and I loved it. Thee was a big blue table that we sat at and we all began talking about comedy, stagecraft and about the idiosyncrasies of life …over one bottle then two bottles of wine. I loved one of the paintings in the gallery and the vinyl records Karel had on the wall that were actually paintings relating to their titles. But most of all I loved Karel.
He is another one of these creative men I stumble on that I love being near. He has that wonderfully funny way of taking a topic and expanding on it and making it all sound ridiculous. It is a Jewish sort of humor that is so funny you cannot believe he really said or even thought what he said. Anyway, one of the things I eat up is good conversation and we certainly had that. We also had bread, cheese and too much wine. I am not complaining.
We left the gallery and headed out to Le Danube on Faubourg du Temple where there was the most marvelous sax player Rob Armus who played old-fashioned jazz with his pals and the ladies of the night. As Karel said, “it was la fete de la musique…”
But it was so much more than that. Rob is from Canada; the other musicians were English speaking…or most of them were and the music was irresistible. Karen got up and started dancing and I don’t know whether it was the wine (I was on my 4th glass…but who is counting) or the music but I got up and danced as well. I have to say that night, I found heaven. I danced with young men and old ones and some told me I was wonderful and others just smiled and that was exhilarating. I danced with young girls and old and I know they knew what a bon-bon the evening was for me. I did twosomes and threesomes and best of the best, I danced with Karel in the old, traditional couple kind of way where you dipped and danced and ended with a flourish and a kiss. How long has it been since I had that?
I also sang one of my songs and Karel did a Leonard Cohen kind of riff to another. Evidently alcohol makes everyone a star.
And so the night ended. Ann Morrow Lindbergh says, “Why do we want a beautiful moment to last forever. It is after all, only a moment.”…but that one was my glimpse of something better than my dreams. Just a glimpse but after all, isn’t that enough?
We left the bar while everyone else was talking and smoking outside and tried to find a cab. Evidently, cabs only stop at taxi stands and the cab drivers are in a hurry on their way to something more important than the tourist and waving on the corner. They say the first thing that strikes you in Paris is a taxi and I can see why. Mitch however was their match and he finally waved someone down who took us back to the hotel at 3 am. Karen and Mitch were exhausted; I was drunk and very happy.
Karen swears she cannot sleep and is up and awake by 6 am but on both mornings I woke up while both were asleep, crept into my bathroom to wash and dress and went downstairs to wait for them in the lobby. . On Saturday, we got started at something like noon. We walked over to the Café de Paris where Mitch and Karen ate breakfast and I had coffee and a croissant. Then we made our way across a big turnabout with The Opera House on one side, a tall impressive statue to Juliet and then a long promenade where artists display and sell their work. Karen found lots and lots to buy and I found even more to make me wonder at the creativity and breadth of the human spirit. I was moved by many of the paintings but the crafts were even more impressive…lovely, whimsical, original and very Parisian. There was an overzealous photographer Jean Manueline de Noronha who warped and modified photos only by moving the camera. He was very proud that he did not use any special lens to achieve his most unusual results. I asked him how long he had been doing this kind of work photography and he said, ”Only a year. I turned 50 and decided I wanted to do something different with my life. In France, as soon as you are 45, you are dead.”
Tell me about it.
“What did you do before?” I asked.
“I was a carpet salesman,” he said.
Karel says that when a buyer attempts to bargain with an art dealer, the seller says, “I am not a carpet salesman.” Well. This man was.
When we finished browsing through one line of tents we went to a lovely cafe across the street for wine and cheese. I ate, I drank; I went to find the Ladies Room. And, like everything on this delightful trip, it was an experience.
A word about English plumbing facilities: The toilets do not flush; the water is never hot, and they look like they are an afterthought tucked away up (or down) 10 flights of stairs around the corner from the broom closet. The hand dryers never do the job and they stink of disinfectant and God only knows what else.
In France, the toilets are conveniently located with modern two-option flush buttons, the water is hot, the dryers dry and there are towels just in case. AND they are attractive places to be.
I get the feeling that the French are very sensitive to beauty in every phase of life. They live graciously. They serve meals that are as tasteful to the eye as they are delicious to eat; the streets are clean and every room I entered looked decorated as opposed to haphazard furniture put anywhere. One feels that it is important to live in loveliness…and style is as important as function. It is an elegance that is so often lost in the hustle and bustle of American life. I can see why Americans and Canadians would want to live in a place where charm is its own excuse for being… where a pretty dress is an event and an embrace can light up an evening. In Paris, being human demands attention to details …those tiny little touches that make life a pleasant experience.
After we all were wined, fed, and relieved, we wandered down the second row of tents and then over to Victor Hugo’s residence. His home borders a park and the park is lined with galleries and here is where I was transported into an artistic miasma of color, light and shape. I was fascinated with the way the artists worked with figures emerging from a mist of color; the statues that mold a human figure into something that reflects the anguished soul within. My eyes literally drank in the use of paint and paper to record human angst…our need to be recognized as real; to be more than what we see on a TV screen…. We are all just flesh and blood…human beings filled with the very flaws that make us marvelous. I saw that in those galleries and I was transported. Mitch and Karen indulged me because they are the kind human beings they are and at last, we returned to the hotel after a stop for hot chocolate and coffee and a little Parisian people watching.
We called Karel and managed to reach him while we were having our coffees and chocolates. We invited him to dinner because (and this was MY big moment) I decided to use my 150 Euros I earned in Germany to buy everyone drinks and dinner. I was really careful not to buy any gifts or spend anything because I wanted to be certain I had enough money. I also wanted us to go to a restaurant that wasn’t the local tourist attraction; something not written up in guidebooks and sure enough Karel found us the perfect place. He took us to Chez Maurice a la Bourgogne on the Rue des Vinaigriers. It was a small intimate place with tables almost on top of one another and really good food. We met Karel at the gallery and finished off that last bottle of wine. He gave me one of his CD’s and I am thrilled. I will play it over and over and remember the night when someone held me in his arms as if I were twenty and we dahnced and dahnced and dahnced some more.
The Chez Maurice had been in the same family for over 100 years and the menu was full of pork and beef and believe it or not chicken gizzards!!!! That is what I ordered and the others had steak. We knocked off some quiche, soup, a couple bottles of wine and dessert and I PAID FOR IT ALL and still had 50 Euros left. I felt very good about myself at this point…and was beginning to get to that wonderful place where you don’t know you are drunk but life looks beautiful as a rainbow, you are seventeen and a very nice world beckons.
Off we went to The Chair de Poule for country music (!) that I just loved. (It must be the Ohio in me….it certainly isn’t the Jew) Karen insists I was so drunk I just sat and nodded and smiled. But I think I did that because the music was wonderful and the people lovely. I was dying to dance but I couldn’t get up there and be the only one…even all that alcohol didn’t give me that kind of courage. An Irish guy named Terry kept asking to buy me a drink but I knew my liver could handle no more. Everyone treated me like I was special and I was drunk enough to believe it. Karen, Karel and Mitch were outside most of the time smoking, talking and drinking and Karen insists that she spent my remaining 50 Euros on drinks for them. At 2 a.m. the music stopped and Steve, the owner of the bar asked if I wanted to sing. I was in a haze by that time and I said “Sure, if you can play my CD.”
I sang Granny’s Gone Wild, launched into Spandex is a Girls Best Friend (they did not know what spandex is!) and then the medley I haven’t sung in 4 years came on and I kept singing. However, I forgot the words somewhere near WHERE THE BOYS ARE and Karel saved the performance by doing his silly, clever riffing to the music. What with forgetting all the words and doing a smattering of comedy that bombed, I learned a lesson I must not forget: Never ever do your comedy when you are plastered. It does not give a good impression. Karel said I was very nice but he would not ever book me because it would be a disaster and judging by the mess I made that night, he is absolutely right. Steve said I must come back and do a show and that is my new goal. 2014: I will learn French; I will do a show at Steve’s bar and I will dahnce…not a bad star to chase.
We got home at 4 a.m. and since we were leaving at 4:49 p.m. the next day on the Euro star, we decided to get up and out by 11 to go to see the Monet Water Lilies and the exhibit of the Italian Impressionists at the Musée de l’Orangerie. We stopped for a quick breakfast and then stood in line at the museum. Mitch as always, paid our admission and it was a lovely, lovely afternoon. We got the metro back to the hotel, picked up our bags and went to the train station for lunch. I told Karen I would pay for the lunch with my remaining money and she said, ”NO. I used your 50 Euros for our drinks last night.“
I said “No, you didn’t. There are still 50 Euros in the envelope.”
I was right and she still is miffed. “I KNOW that envelope was empty last night,” she said.
I am willing to bet someone put another 50 in there, but no matter. I had money, paid for the lunch and all was well. What I remember most about that meal is that I got a Caesar salad with bacon and a hard boiled egg on it!!!
The train left at 4:49 and we finally got to Highworth at about 8. We went over to the local bar for dinner but they had stopped serving food so we chatted and I had THE best hot chocolate ever with Baileys and marshmallows and we ate Chinese take away.
The next day, I got caught up with my e-mails and started this blog. Mitch helped me reorganize the computer and promised to show me how to get coffee Break French on the computer and start a video blog. He also gave me back 150 pounds because he said he and Karen knew how tight money is for me. (that means I can pay my way in Dublin!!!) That is next on the list….and what along long list it is. So much to do…so many places to see.
Wednesday I got the train to Paddington, met Karen Rosie, my funny woman angel to talk about Edinburgh and then met Kerry Norman my first real gay love for a divine dinner at Il Posto. Home on the train by 11 and in my little room in Clare’s loft snug and cozy and still glowing.
Paris!!! It is indeed a magnificent feast for the senses, the psyche and the heart.