Saturday, January 15, 2011

No Regrets

Chez Louisette

I'm not a big fan of cultural stereotypes. It seems to me that I know plenty of sophisticated Americans, punctual Mexicans, sloppy Germans, and at least one or two people of Irish decent who don't drink. But at the same time, I can't help but make very simple observations about groups of people as I travel. Two weeks in Paris convinced me that the French like nothing better than to wallow in their French-ness. They revel in it in a thousand different ways. Across the Rhine in Germany, that's not the case. To the extent that one can indulge in cultural stereotypes at all, it's good to keep in mind that these things are in constant flux. But I remember attending several parties in Germany during the year 2001-02, and before we had passed the 9:30 mark, someone would always say with predictable regularity,  "I don't think of myself as a German, I'm really more of a citizen of Europe." I might have responded, "Yeah, but the rest of Europe sees you as a Kraut", but I was far to tactful.

Whatever the Germans might be thinking about their own cultural allegiance, the French have no such reservations. And spending time in the company of a big group of people who are enjoying being themselves is really a lot of fun. I had the opportunity to do just that, a week ago today, when I attended what was billed as the "largest fleamarket in the world!" just north of Paris: Le Marche Aux Puces De Clignancourt. It was really big, but unfortunately, also very cold. My fingers grew numb pawing through bins of wonderful French junk and winding down narrow aisles and alleyways filled with antique glass, china, furniture, 78 rpm recordings, chapeaux, books... After a long morning, I was glad to find a restaurant (Chez Louisette) in a cul de sac across from a curio booth selling Zippo lighters. But it turned out to be more than a meal. It was a mind-blowing experience and lesson in the art of being French.

We entered to a din that almost drowned out an older woman with jet black hair who stood less than six inches to my right, channeling Edith Piaf at the top of her considerable lungs. There wasn't an open seat in the joint, but a group right in front of us got up and offered us their seats. We maneuvered ourselves into position at a four or five meter-long table, jammed with people. Waitresses squeezed by with platters of food that had an obviously strong Alsatian influence. One wore a whistle around her neck which she used to get the attention of any diner who had the temerity to relax and ease their chair back a few centimeters into the narrow pathways between tables.

The woman singing was Manuela, a local legend. But she was followed by other singers who did mostly French favorites with lots of sing-along parts. While performing, each singer was unavoidably jostled by patrons and servers alike as they tried to move through the mass, but none of them seemed fazed in the least by the distraction. After each chanteuse completed her set, she worked the room with a basket for tips. Manuela was particularly effective, encouraging patrons to dig a little deeper, in a goodhearted but strangely firm manner. We stayed for at least four sets and these gals pretty much cleaned us out.

None of the photos that I took come anywhere near close to capturing the energy and intensity of Chez Louisette, but a quick scan of the blogishpere gave me my choice of videos on YouTube. I'll include a couple here, but I think it's a place you really have to visit to understand. I've been in a number of similar situations in Germany over the years, but the German cultural soundtrack isn't songs from the war years; it's mostly stuff like Bad Moon Rising or songs by the Eagles. You might hear a Deutschrock hit from the Wirtschaftwunder years that would trigger the kind of enthusiasm in a Köln Kneipe that I witnessed at Chez Loiusette, but can I imagine a roomful of middle class Germans enjoying an afternoon of Sauerbraten and a rousing chorus of Lili Marlene? Ich don't think so.