Back when I lived in Paris, one of the most comically incongruous things I saw as a temporary expat was a pathetic Pere Noel with a guelle de bois (“face of wood” = hangover) peeing in the snow, with an excessively painful grin, on the legendary Boulevard St. Germain (namedropped ad infinitum in Hemingway’s elegy to the “Lost Generation”: A Moveable Feast).
Verily, “Father Christmas” in France takes some getting used to.
But hey! Ici, Pere Noel is neither plump nor merry. Yes, he sort of resembles Jolly Saint Nick, except he isn’t that fat bastard with a foot-long beard we’re used to seeing at Macy’s; instead he is something of a rail-thin rake or roué in a tailored red suit reminiscent of a prissy Renaissance bard wowing Le Roi Soleil.
This Santa was obviously always drunk as a goat. Still my friend Annick and her beau, the gendarme, managed to run up to the Pere Noel doppelganger and catch this expressionist Norman Rockwell moment on camera, the yellow stream glistening in the flash like Silly String ™. We laughed first and best, our hearty “Ho-ho-ho”s echoing through the night like a Galleries-Lafayette security klaxon.
Wherever you go in the world they do Christmas differently. In Holland, for example, Santa’s sidekick is an obliging fey helper known simply as “Black Pete.” Still, with all the Yuletide ornamentation up along the rues, the City of Lights reminded me a little of home. But while my friends and family in New York were dining on turkey and opening prezzies, I found myself like the pale somnambulist played by Conrad Veight in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari absentmindedly purchasing a “Bouche de Noel” (Christmas Mouth)—without knowing what this, er, “novelty” is or even how you eat it—and unwrapping only endless cartons of Gauloises des Blondes Legeres.
Hence, with everything fermé in the firmament, and a light snowfall, and a significant drop in temp (brrr!), small wonder I ended up drunk in the slightly dodgy section of Barbés Rochechouart, the unofficial Muslim quarter of Paris. A while back on a cobbled sidestreet, I had eaten at the sere “Restaurant Islam,” which featured dry desert fare (only damned kebabs and rice pilaf)–and absolutely no alcohol. Un, what? In the distance I thought I heard the sound of unfamiliar Christmas carols.
I went to investigate.
Boldly striding into the oven whoosh of the brasserie, in the shadow of marvelous Montmartre Cathedral (a mammoth marzipany masterpiece), I noticed that everyone inside had a slightly swarthy complexion. Meaning: I was the only white guy there. Hey, this is cool! I thought, wondering if there were any Algerian pied noirs (I love that term) who could stand me a few.
I was surprised to see a few people, sinister-looking Middle Easterners and Magrebis in loose-fitting blue suits and white djellabas, actually drinking biere pression on the sly, or maybe it was ginger ale, scientifically measured up to a white line on the glass.
“Biere, si’il vous plait!”
The vaguely terrifying-looking Arab bartender, with a jagged lightning-shaped scar on his right cheek, sized me up, and after trying French, then German, he settled on erratic English: “I say: you are not scared to be here?”
“Not at all,” I said casually, carefully. “In America I’m used to new experiences.” This was right during the worst of the Gulf War, after all, in which incidentally France also participated.
“Really, you are first American to ever come in here.”
“I like Barbés.”
One of the female staff smiled at me, a lively young woman with long brown hair who flitted about in her dark chador like a harem fly, then ran out the door. When she returned, she had a small Christmas tree tucked under her arm, which she busily proceeded to set up on the bar.
“For you, our American guest,” she said. “Happy Christmas!”
She told me she was “Kabil,” and that in Algeria (a former French colony) they celebrated both Christmas and Ramadan. I searched my mind for a famous Algerian and came up with, “Albert Camus’s The Stranger is one of my favorite books. I like existentialism.”
“Oh, L’etranger! Just like you!” The Kabil woman, bosoms baubles, threw back her head and laughed.
I drank until the evening got as fresh and fuzzy as a frozen sorbet. No matter that the Arab pop music called “Rai” wafting in the cigarette haze didn’t remotely resemble “Jingle Bells” or “Frosty the Snowman.” In fact Rai sounded weirdly like all the moaning and ululating singers, pounding tomtoms and blowing flat oboes, had been punched in their stomachs for blasphemy.
But at least the “Oriental” cacophony did indeed sound vaguely like festive party blowers!
After all, in the end what mattered was Christmas cheer, peace, love, hope, and good will. Stuff like that. Beyond reverie, all I remember is I woke up with a painful start the next afternoon, sweating cryogenic icicles, to the exceedingly irate garbage collectors energetically crashing cans outside my window in the Marais. Yeah right, thanks for nothing, Santa. “Imbeciles!!!!!!!”