My wife Kathy and I have come here to ease my trauma at officially becoming what we call a senior. I know I am a senior because the Canadian government will now send me money. They call it–gulp!–the old age pension. Kathy so far appears to forgive me for being old, but then again, we are in Paris where just about everything is forgivable, even age.
We are staying in a one bedroom apartment on the colorfully named Rue des Deux-Ponts on the Ile Saint-Louis. The windows are of stained glass, the ceilings high and beamed, the lampshades a mustard-color, casting the apartment in an amber light suggesting the ghosts of the belle époque might be lurking in the shadows.
I have been coming to Paris in search variously (according to my age and mood) inspiration, enlightenment, good food, and a good time for over thirty years. I lived here for a time in order to write a not-very-good French movie titled Jesuit Joe for the blue-eyed son of an Arab billionaire (you can’t make this stuff up).
Kathy lived in Paris for two years, loves the city even more than I do, and speaks fluent French. Wandering around with her is always a treat since she sees things I never see, remembers streets and restaurants I never remember, and generally corrects my faulty French.
It is rainy and misty in Paris at this time of the year so we escape to the Paris Opera or the Palais Garnier as it is more formally known, Charles Garnier’s masterwork whose gilded opulence leaves a first-time visitor slack-jawed, and nearly drowns out the thinner pleasures of a ballet called Le Parc .
Later, we crowd inside Café de Flore, an old Hemingway haunt that’s been situated on a corner of Boulevard Saint-Germain since 1885. This Saturday afternoon, the waiters can’t move, you can’t move, the air is warm, the windows steaming.
Outside, cobblestone streets are slick and wet the way they should be when you are walking the boulevards gloomily contemplating a life lived–what? Fully? Isn’t it too early for this kind of review?
But then you are old, aren’t you, with less ahead and much more behind. Easier to look back these days then it is to see forward. The future, even in Paris, is more opaque than the windows at the Café de Flore on a rain-whipped Saturday.
Everything is fine now, you tell yourself, but there are dark tunnels ahead, and the reality is that no matter how hard you try to defeat it, old age has arrived and all you are going to do from here on in is become older and less healthy.
At a time like this I can’t help but think of the actor Henry Fonda. I interviewed him when he was sixty-five, and he looked terrific: still movie star lean and lithe and handsome. This was a guy who didn’t smoke, drank a single Scotch after a stage performance, and arrived at the Mayo Clinic every year for a week-long checkup.
Yet when I interviewed him again five years later, Fonda had been transformed into an old man, gray and wan and suffering various heath problems. A few years after that second interview, he was gone at the age of 77.
Thankfully, at least for now, Paris doesn’t allow much time for thoughts of mortality. We are in town with my pal Alan Markfield and his delightful wife, Christine Lalande. Alan and I met in Israel thirty-five years ago, young guys on the loose in the Holy Land, Markfield the ambitious photographer, Base the freelance magazine writer waiting around Eilat, hoping Tony Curtis might talk to him (Tony finally arrived astride, no kidding, a white stallion. You really can’t make this stuff up).
Since Israel, Alan and I have shared adventures around the world: we snorkeled in the Red Sea; ate the dog meat in China (okay, we tried the dog meat in China); stood in a snow drift in Barkerville, British Columbia; shot two movies together in Toronto.
He has dragged me out of more than one bar, and in the dead of night when I was single, he often served as the calming, reasoning voice on the phone as one relationship or another skidded into disaster. We even lived together for a couple of years in Beverly Hills, before Christine came along and took him away from me.
I’ve watched Alan develop from a struggling freelancer into one of the most successful stills photographers in the movie business. He has shot the still pictures for everything from Elf to Bond movies, to Escape Plan and the latest X-Men movie.
We’ve seen each other through a lifetime of marriages, divorces, and deaths. So here we are in Paris, the Boys together again, their poor wives forced to listen to oft-told stories dragged from the mists of time and retold, occasionally with something approaching accuracy..
On New Year’s Eve, we gather at L’Arpège, the Michelin three-star restaurant on Rue de Varenne, recommended to Christine by–not to drop names here–the actress Kathy Bates with whom Christine has worked on the TV series, American Horror Story.
The chef, Alain Passard, is regarded among the top five French chefs working today. He concentrates on vegetables grown in his own biodynamic vegetable gardens, and he has banned red meat, perhaps knowing that an aging Canadian who no longer reacts well to it, was on his way to the restaurant.
Passard emerges from his kitchen to warmly greet the evening’s guests, and then hurries back to oversee a New Year’s menu that includes Gratin d’oignon doux à la truffle noir (sliced onions with shaved black truffle), Velouté et crème souflée au Speck (a vegetable soup), Grand Rôtisserie d’heritage (a capon) and Pêche côttièr lotte (Monkfish).
The meal is not a meal but an epic production running over four hours, complete with a warm-hearted, witty cast of servers, midnight kisses all around, Chef Passard reappearing at the stroke of twelve to wish all his guests a “bonne année.”
Never mind that the cost of the evening is enough to make even a now officially old guy who sometimes (erroneously) believes he has seen it all, gasp, we float from L’Arpège after one o’clock having experienced one of the great meals of a lifetime, into a waiting taxi that transports us through rain-slicked Paris streets, still thick with celebrants unwilling to give up.
I hold tight to the woman I love so much, lost in ageless Paris, full of great food and good cheer, feeling, perhaps for the last time, forever young.