To be perfectly honest, I don’t really like the Latin Quarter – but, that said, it is an excellent place to get into some trouble once the sun sets.
For me, the best experience I had in this old region of Paris was on my first day in town. My flatmate Justin was a young American like myself, but he had been living there for two years when I arrived. He struck me as a rather standoffish fellow, but he was apparently impressed by the fact that I was sticking around France for a few months instead of buzzing through for a couple of days like most Americans, so he seemed to make some sort of unspoken commitment to showing me everything he’d come to learn about the city.
We were living to the north on Rue la Fayette, and when we launched out on my first perusal of the city Justin started by taking me south down Rue Saint Denis, which is one of the oldest and most prostitutionally infamous streets in Paris. These days it is less notorious for its streetwalkers and better known for its cafes and markets.
When we came to the river we crossed at one of the bridges and stopped off at Notre Dame, which looms on the island immediately north of the Latin Quarter. The quais along the river are charmingly scenic, lined with curio booths and little carts that sell books. Justin, upon realizing that I was a bibliophile, first suggested that we check out the Shakespeare and Company bookstore that stands at the Quarter’s riverside. While it is not on the same site as the original S & C, it is still a pleasant haven for lovers of the printed word, housing volumes upon volumes of Joyce, Hemingway, Miller, Nin, and too many others to name.
We then made our way to the Boulevard Saint Germain, which is one of Paris’ most visited streets. Justin brought me to one of his favorite of the dozens of restaurants, bars, and cafes where we stopped off to drink a couple of aperitifs and watch the people go by. It was a Tuesday and still early on in the tourist season, so at that point it struck me as a fine place. I would go on to visit the Quarter less and less as it filled up for the summer, but regardless of its sometimes almost garish attempts at corralling in tourists, I still recommend it as a place to sample random foods and enjoy the occasional drink. I will suggest, however, that one might want to attempt staying off the beaten paths of the boulevards Saint Germain and Saint Michelle, and to instead seek out some of the back-alley places that hide a better chance at peace and romance.
Some weeks later I experienced an evening that began as a characteristic night in the Quarter but ended taking a bit of a strange turn. Justin had moved on, and in his place was another American called Jake. We had come across a pair of Dutch girls somewhere along the way who were new in town and who were very specific about wanting to visit the Latin Quarter, so we’d made plans to meet them somewhere or other with the intention of giving them a little tour.
At some point we were wandering along one of the Quarter’s more lively streets, a little cobbled path that is lined with a variety of vaguely themed bars: a more or less Spanish place here, a faux Caribbean joint there, and the like. A good number of the bars have open fronts, and at each of these the host will emerge to accost the passersby with a variety of deals and drink specials. I find many of these bars just a bit silly, so for the most part we ignored the offers, but then one man came out with a deal that seemed too good to pass up. It had something to do with a happy hour where drinks were some ridiculously low price like one euro cocktails that were also buy-one-get-one-free or some inexpensive madness along those lines. Jake and I, being extremely low on finances, took this gift horse without looking in its mouth.
As it turned out, the happy hour was only happening for just about fifteen minutes more. But we, without considering the passage of time, proceeded to order round after round. We were having a roaring good time when Jake happened to ask our waiter if the happy hour was daily. The waiter said, yes, from such hour to such hour, then hurried off. Jake and I exchanged looks. We were dozens of drinks past the named hour.
Jake consulted the menu and found that the majority of our drinks had cost in the neighborhood of fourteen euros. Not only was this unacceptable, it also seemed unsolvable–we simply did not have the money to cover our bill, by any stretch of the mind, and we were not so ungentlemanly as to fess up and ask the girls to pay.
Without alerting the Dutch to the impending situation, Jake and I began to silently go through our options. At some point the girls excused themselves to use the restroom, and once they’d left we began discussing our exit strategy in low tones.
“Tell them we paid the bill while they were in the bathroom then we all just walk out?” Jake ventured.
I shook my head and told him that I’d noticed a back door near the restrooms. Maybe we could escape through that? Jake stood and made his way down the back hall and casually examined the door, then returned.
“No good. It’s chained shut by the handle. What if we…” He nodded over my shoulder. “Here they come.”
The girls returned and we went about talking as if nothing were amiss. We also continued to order drinks, perhaps thinking that to not do so would arouse suspicion. After not long Jake stood and went back to use the restroom, returning after a short while.
Another hour passed and I was getting nervous. I thought that Jake must have been nervous as well as he excused himself to use the restroom with regularity. But whenever he returned he sat and looked at me with a confident, unconcerned grin.
Finally after one of his visits to the back of the bar, he returned to our table and said without sitting, “Well? Let’s move on? I just paid us up.”
I looked at him with confusion as the girls stood and gathered their things.
“Oh,” Jake said in an almost bored tone, “We have to go out the back. It’s sort of a surprise.”
I gave him another look and he held out his hand in a way that only I could see what he was holding: two bolts from a door’s hinges. One of the girls asked about the surprise and Jake said, “I can’t tell you that now or else it wouldn’t be a surprise.”
We all made our way down the back hall, and as we approached the door Jake lifted it separating the hinges and pulled it open backwards. The girls started to say something and Jake said, “No time now. Off we go.” The girls went out first, then me, then Jake. He came out and began walking down the street with quick strides.
“What’s the surprise?” asked one of the girls.
The girls stopped dead as Jake took off sprinting. I glanced at them and then, with a mental shrug, fled after him. When I followed him around a corner after a ways I saw that the Dutch had not followed us.
Jake was stopped up ahead, laughing. “They didn’t like their surprise then?”
I started to ask him something and he laughed again and held out one of the knives that had been set on our table at the bar.
“They popped right out!”
Lead photo credit : Latin Quarter
By Nick Hilden
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