France part Trois: Royale With Cheese

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

a.k.a. Ook Ook, the Lip Cancer Chimp

We got back nearly two weeks ago, so the statute of limitations must surely have expired on these France posts. They’re not very popular, either: not only have comments been light, but I’ve been un-Friended by at least one reader after each one. But, as I’m posting these as much for my own memory as for the general amusement, I’m going to stubbornly continue.

We stayed for much of our time in Paris in Montmartre, the semi-seedy, semi-arty district of the city that’s home to the Moulin Rouge. Montmartre is very cool, picturesque and funky with steep hills and narrow streets. (We had the most amazing chocolate desserts ever made in the history of the universe at a little bar / café there called A Zebra in Montmartre.) The movie Amelie was set there (the neighborhood, not the bar), and that gives you a good idea of the vibe. Except that when filming, the director of Amelie scrubbed every sidewalk and wall and alley clean to give it that sparkly magical realism glow. So picture the movie Amelie under a thin layer of dog shit—that’s Montmartre.

More specifically, we stayed in Place Pigalle. Pigalle has been a sex district since at least the days of the Moulin Rouge, a century ago. (When I mentioned Pigalle to my Dad, who was in Europe with the RCAF in the sixties, he said, “Oh, you mean ‘Pig Alley’!” a little too quickly.) But it doesn’t exactly look like a Toulouse-Latrec painting anymore. Our hotel was dwarfed by giant neon signs on either side flashing ‘SEXODROME’ and ‘LIVE GIRLS PEEP SHOW.’

French smut is so cheerful and up-front, isn’t it? No euphemistic names like “Adult Entertainment” or “Gentleman’s Club” here. (The two places you still hear the word “gentleman” in modern English: on strip clubs and when cops talk to the media about particularly loathsome criminals.) OK, “Sexodrome” sounds a little like an unappetizing Cronenberg film, but I do appreciate its directness. Likewise “Club Supersex,” the name of a Montreal strip bar that every adult male in Boston seems to have heard of. It is interesting, though, that all the signs in Place Pigalle are in English: LIVE GIRLS, PEEP SHOW, and so on. Is this because the clientele are English-speaking tourists, or has English somehow become the international language of smut? I’m reminded that while the English call syphilis “the French disease,” the French, of course, call syphilis “the English disease.” (In Montreal, those signs would of course say LES LIVE GIRLS and LE PEEP SHOW, in deference to Bill 101 and the delicate sensibilities of the Quebecois.)

But if the neighborhood was a bit declassé, our hotel was deluxe. Everything was covered with crushed velvet in purple or crimson. Every wall and every door was upholstered with pillows. Every door knob and light fixture and toilet brush was encrusted with “gold” and “jewels.” In the lobby and the restaurant, they piped in throbbing Euro techno. Grey-haired Scottish ladies tried to make conversation at breakfast as George Michael moaned over a bass track from a German leather club. Our TV was a flat screen, but with a huge and ornate gold “frame” around it as if it was a Renaissance painting—the kind of flat-screen TV that Marie Antoinette might have had. In fact, the whole place had a gorgeous, ridiculous, oversexed Marie-Antoinette-just-before-the-Revolution vibe to it. Let them eat erotic cake!

Best of all, the hotel rooms had names instead of numbers. On the first few floors, these were the names of classically romantic French figures: Renoir, Monet, George Sand, Edith Piaf. But by our floor, they may have been running out: there was the Maurice Chevalier room, then the “John Lenon” [sic] room, then the Madonna room, the Naomi Campbell room, and finally our room: Cindy Crawford.

Cindy Crawford? Sure, I appreciated her Diet Pepsi commercial during puberty, but is she really a timeless icon of romance? But the hotel staff seemed to think they were doing us a great favor by putting us in the Cindy suite. Whenever anyone on the staff heard what room we were in—at the front desk, at breakfast—they would give us a grin and a knowing wink: Ah, la Crawford! Oui, oui! C’est magnifique! At one point I asked the desk clerk for my room key by number rather than name, but he knew the name without checking: “Oh, Cindy Crawford, n’est-ce pas?” What could I do but give him my best “yes, we’re both men of the world, say no more, squire, say no more” smile? And he handed over the room key (avec Cindy’s picture on it, mole and everything), with an honest-to-god French “ONH ONH ONHHHH!”

It was such a perfect moment. I can’t believe they actually say that. It was kind of like it would be to have an Englishman say “Stiff upper lip, wot wot?” to you. Or if you met an American who spontaneously threw his ten-gallon hat in the air, shot it with his Colt, and hollered “yeeeee-haw!”

One of these things is not like the others. Well, maybe two.