I first went to Paris in the late Sixties. My friend, the late Bilu Sethi, a talented pianist had moved from Delhi to Paris to study under a world-famous teacher called Nadia Boulanger and he was to give his first public concert.
I had just finished at university, hadn’t found a job, had pretensions to being a “writer” and lived with my then girlfriend, the late Mala Sen on very few pounds a week. She was employed on a low salary in Soho’s “Saree Centre” one of the rare Indian shops of the time, now been converted, as has everything else on Gerrard street, into a Chinese restaurant. I earned some money walking dogs, cleaning flats and even modelling nude (yes, you may well ask why did they want You — no Aishwarya Rai — and was it a Monster-Model class?) for an arts class run by a rich amateur called “Peter the Painter”.
It was by saving the 15 shillings he paid me per hour for this sedentary labour that we paid for our trip by coach and ferry to Paris.
We spent out six nights in the studio flat which Bilu shared with his boyfriend. They taught us how to ride on the Metro and use the same ticket over and over again. We were aware that French food was the thing to savour when in Paris but we couldn’t afford it. Bilu concocted meals — baguettes and curry made from French sausages and canned fish.
I didn’t understand the music that he and his colleagues from the Boulanger school played for us at their showcase concert. It was more advanced than Sati and my taste sort of ended at Stravinsky. It sounded to me like trays of discord flung down stone staircases, but then what do I know? (Please note I said “do” not “did” because my taste hasn’t yet caught up with post modern anti-melody)
Yes, we did the tourist bit, staring at the Eiffel and spending a day in the Louvre.
Since then I’ve been to Paris very many times, a few times for fun and a few times for work. And yes, French cuisine was/is exceptionally good, but only at the very expensive end. On a visit last week I was taken to restaurants that left me completely indifferent. It was dragged-together rubbish, tourist-trap stuff and made me wonder whether the French had lost their touch or whether all the French chefs had migrated to being union bosses and the kitchens were now manned or wommaned by Romanian migrant workers.
Talking of Parisian food, my most memorable meal was with eight colleagues from British TV at a restaurant in Montmartre which they said was frequented in a bygone era by Jean Paul Sartre. We were at some European TV bash in Paris and the boss of our Channel chose this restaurant. My colleagues all ordered the beef or lamb or fish. I looked down the menu at the chef’s special offerings and alighted on “pig’s ears and tail”. That’s what I ordered.
The food was served and there was a bit of consternation round the table. “What the hell are you eating? Yuckkkkkk” was the characteristic British reaction.
“Thought I’d see what it was,” I said, turning over with my fork the bony pieces which resembled, more than anything, the Indian delicacy of goat’s trotters — “paya”. While the rest of the company was still revolted or mildly amused and watching to see if I would actually eat the stuff or had just asked for it in a meretricious fit, the chef and his assistant in full regalia of aprons and hat emerged from the kitchen to shake my hand.
“We wanted to congratulate the taste of the English client who has complimented us by choosing the rare speciality of the house,” the chef said in French with the Maitre translating, with a solemn and appreciative countenance.
Years later when one of my colleagues recalled our trip and boasted about the restaurant I was inclined to say “I bet you can’t remember what you ate that night but can remember what I ordered.” Such are the notorious, adventurous aids to petty memories. And yes, I did enjoy the meal but won’t try to cook the same at home. “Paya” in beans, as we Parsis make it, will be as far as I go.
But enough of cuisine. Paris this last week was overcome with a plague of smog. It was reputed to be toxic and, prompted by this knowledge, I began to notice that great numbers of the citizens I encountered on the Metro were sniffing audibly as they breathed. Through a logic I could not fathom, the health minister declared that for a few days while the toxic smog lasted all transport in the city would be ticketless and free. I did ask some French students to explain why the ministry was by this measure encouraging more crowding on Metro trains and on the trams and buses. Surely that would exacerbate the sniffles epidemic? I didn’t get an answer but enjoyed the free rides.
Talking of free rides, every potential visitor to Paris knows that going up the Eiffel Tower is the best way to get a panoramic view of the city. I have been guided by impoverished students, to a discovery, which trumps the Eiffel. Here’s the secret: get to the very centrally-placed Opera House and to the boulevard behind it on which there are whole city blocks occupied by the biggest shop in the world, the Galleries Lafayette.
On the same road, one block ahead is another massive department store called Printemps. At one corner of this shop a lift takes one to the eighth floor and then an escalator at the end of the luggage department takes one to the terrace bar from which one has the most magnificent 360 degree view — and you don’t even have to buy a coffee.