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Oh, damn, what’s the next song? What comes after La Goualante du pauvre Jean, what, damn it? I know it. I know the whole album, or used to, in order. One of those stupid “Piaf’s Greatest Hits” collections, or something like, the one an untraveled friend, longing to be an expat in Paris—with a glass of wine in front of him and a paperback Gide stuffed into the pocket of his corduroy jacket as he lounged in a café—played around the clock and wall to wall as far as I could ever tell. It was always on when I visited, or anyone else did, but I drew the line at letting him bring it to my place. I’d offer him Rameau or Couperin, even Nana Mouskouri—but they made no impression on him, and I never thought their music was much good anyway. I can’t get the name of the next song as the little sparrow sings me down the night-time street.
I picked up the music twenty-five metres upstream from the open window, and if I didn’t dance to the chirpy tune about poor John whom women didn’t love, I certainly picked up my pace. Right under the window au premier, the music is a little louder than I like, but there are no sounds of a party. That’s odd. Parisians don’t tend to blast their neighbors or total strangers with their music and then ask, puzzled from top to bottom, Oh, don’t you like Rod Stewart or Serge Gainsbourg or whoever is the object of their musical affection. Parties are different, or the exception here, which makes sense. If the music is loud enough, no one can really hear, and it doesn’t matter what you say. Understood, here and the world around. I park myself against the wall a few steps past the open window waiting to hear the next song, the one I can’t remember and don’t even have on the tip of my tongue.
No luck. The anonymous DJ in the apartment one floor up is not playing All Piaf All The Time. The next singer on his playlist, I think, is Aznavour, his voice, like cornichons or brined olives, an acquired taste, but good finally going down. In the next forty minutes or so I hear—I’m pretty sure, but I didn’t grow up with this music and I’m from another generation—Trenet, Patachou (smoother than Piaf and with breasts, too), Montand, Brassens the folksy subversive, Lemarque, Vaucaire who sang poetry, and probably another half dozen whom I just don’t know, but whose songs sound familiar enough from the Parisian soundtrack. Not such bad luck after all.
It’s kind of wonderful, a few years into the new century, to hear these men and women, all born during the first world war or within a few steps fore and aft of it, who sang Paris, especially in the years beginning just after the next war, the more horrible one for Europe, and sang about love, broken hearts, missed opportunities, ragamuffin princesses, about optimism, autumn leaves, hard times, and about the city itself, sometimes one street or park or bridge at a time.
And all credit to the DJ, too. He’s picked his songs carefully, bringing the tempo up a few songs at a time, then bringing it down again just as neatly, crests and troughs of song, serenading me, himself, of course, and for all I know no one else. There’s no one but me in the street, only a few lights still on here and there, and not another open window. He’s playing for himself, for the pleasure, for Paris? Who knows? But he’s playing.
I wonder if you put together a disk or a tape of Ella and Frank, of Tony Bennett, Lee Wylie, Nat Cole, Judy Garland, Louis Prima, and Sarah Vaughan, would it be the same, have the same effect on me tonight or on a night at home in a dark street or anywhere else? The voices, I think, would be better and the words wittier because they’d be singing Porter and Gershwin, not Prévert and Michel Legrand, but the singers’ sense of place, of ownership would not be the same. And would the singing, not the words, not the voices, not the music, but the singing be better? Could it? People outside Paris, all over la France profonde, know these songs and, I know, like them, remember them, even those who were born after the singers died. But American singers and songwriters, these great ones and others, didn’t make their names and woo our hearts because they sang over and over about New York or San Francisco or Chicago. It was love or the September of life or somewhere over the rainbow, but who ever knew when or where? It didn’t matter.
Maybe I don’t understand and maybe the DJ upstairs above my head would have something to say about this. Something also to say about these chansons de toujours, so many of them in waltz time and accompanied by an accordion. Imagine that, I’d tell him, that would never work in the States. Why do you think so many French evergreens are waltzes? Why the accordion, but not so often a piano, let alone a sax or brass? What’s this about, the accordion? I mean, who remembers le bal musette? Or, I’d ask, do people from Lyon and Strasbourg feel left out or doesn’t it matter to them? And I could ask him about the song from the Piaf album I can’t for the life of me remember. But the music has stopped after two different versions of Sous le ciel de Paris, and the light goes out. The window stays open as if he wants to let the last strains and drops of music spill out into the street. The rest is not quite silence as long as the music is still there for hearing or imagining.
I start walking again, thinking of the music, the impromptu concert, and still trying to remember the name of the song. Is it L’Accordéoniste? Jesus, talk about fitting like a mortise and tenon, a little too well, dumb—and besides, I know it’s wrong. It doesn’t matter anyhow.
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