Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Downtown Girls

Isn’t it strange how little minor changes to your ambiances can make you feel a million miles away from home? For me, I’m much more affected by the little changes in my environment than the big ones. Be it the bright, neon lights and roadside vendors selling crepes or the choking traffic and an overfilled bar, Bastille is still my home.  Oh no, do not take me, as a history enthusiast for it is not the historical significance of Bastille that made me fall in love with it. But, it was the warm, friendly people, who do NOT dress like runway models and love their cheap cocktails that welcomed me into the circle and showered me with the rare feeling of belonging.

Bastille is the symbol of French revolution and one of most renowned tourist spots of Paris. King Luis XIV used the fort out here as a prison once but what now remains are the moderately priced restaurants, charity shops, cheap boutiques and a lively music scene. My favourite hangout in this home away from home was the huge bar, Le Red House. Conquered by a stately bull’s skull hanging over the bar, Le Red House had the vibe of a Texan tavern right in the heart of Bastille. The clientele here was neither uber-stylish nor shabby farmers: the crowd was vibrant, young, sprightly and loud. The silver lining at Red House was the happy hour from 5pm to 8pm which charged €5 a pint and €6 for house cocktails, prepared with class liquors. My favourite was the Red House Flambeau mixed to perfection with bourbon, apricot brandy, spicy syrup, lemon and ginger.

That night the importance of my usual booth at the Red house and the savoury taste of my Flambeau truly dawned on me. It was the night that I was invited for dinner at a swanky place in Avenue Matignon. This was going to my debut in the elite circle and I wasn’t sure if I had dressed the part. In my blue shimmer dress and black high heels, I waited for Caroline to come and guide me in this dauntingly beautiful restaurant called Le Berkeley. Le Berkeley was the royalty amongst all restaurants. I had done my research and I knew it well that right from Duchess of Windsor to the modern-day billionaires, all have had made their presence here.

I saw my former colleague Caroline from far away and I knew I was underdressed even in my  €50 dress. She looked angelic in her white Jean Paul Gautier dress and her gold Manolo Blahniks. She hugged me awkwardly and took me by my hand, into the most overstated place I have ever been. What was so lavish about it? The purple and gold tapestry made it look regal and sophisticated no doubt and the ambiance was romantic, but I certainly didn’t see the hoopla that people always made of it. What worse, were the patrons there. Did they seem plastic just to me or did all rich, Parisians looked like this? They spoke in softest murmurs and laughed as if the sky would fall down at slightest sound of a hearty laughter. While breathing in this ‘uptown’ air, I seated down with a party of five at our reserved table. And, thus began the longest night of my life.

As all of them studied the complicated menu intently, my eyes roamed on the right hand side of the page, scouting for the lowest price. Now, do not judge me as a cheap tartlet, but €250 for a meal? I am sorry, but that is just not how I am wired. After a quick calculation of my monthly budget in my head, I opted for the shrimp sautéed with Thai herbs with sautéed baby veg. I had no idea what wine would complement my food so I stuck to the usual, Bougrier Rose d'Anjou. Talks about politics, economics, overseas travels, books and literature flew around the table and all I could contribute with was my crooked smile and rightly-timed nods. I was a reader too, but not of the classics as these polished people were. I knew who Albert Camus was but had no clue about his style of writing, Does that make me uncivilized? I think it did from the point of view of my suave fellow diners.

I think the powder rooms in such restaurants are made for people like me. Whenever downtown people start feeling too embarrassed, this is where they come to escape humiliation for a few minutes. They come here, soak in the luxury of the space, take a lungful of lavender scented air, shoot a look at themselves— sometimes of mercy and sometimes of patience, as though telling themselves, “Hold on. Just a few minutes more and you will be out of this stifling place.” I too, entered with the same agenda. I needed a break from the haughty circus and came to the powder room for a respite. After a quick touch up of my make up, I sat down a while at the comfortable armchair in the corner and I heard someone say in a child-like voice, “Is this your first time out here, too?”

I looked around and I saw a girl of no more than 18. She looked beautiful with her red, rosebud mouth. Her faux chiffon shift dress assured me that I had finally found someone from planet earth in this stately place haunted by plastic people.
    “Hi I am Jenna. I am from the states. And, yes this is my first time in this dreadful place,” I say.

I could see a genuine wave of relief washing over the girl’s face as she chirped, “Hey. I am Angela from Canada and this is my first time too out here. You have no idea how awkward I am feeling in this place. It is so suffocating, isn’t it? Or is it just me feeling this way?”

I let out a robust laugh as a woman of the plastic clan in her mid-thirties shot me a disgusted look. I ignored it without feeling embarrassed.
  “You are not the only one, babe. I hate such places too. I do not why I convinced myself to splurge and come here of all the places. I have been counting hours to get out of here,” I assure her.

In that moment of relief of finding someone that echoes my thoughts, I realized the importance of people. People who you relate to. People with whom you belong. People who have the same question as you. People that sing the same song.

Angela and I bid goodbye to our uptown friends without waiting for desserts and headed down to Le Red House at Bastille where the crowd was lively and loud. The pitcher of delicious Flambeau made us forget our night of overtly sophistication as we talked about our hometowns,  work and interests into the wee hours of morning.