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photo, rue montorgueil, night

Saturday night in Montorgueil.


Paris:– Saturday, 16. October:– When the weather is called 'unstable' by the sky's forecasters and a plan is being made to meet someone, the rendez–vous shouldn't be on an open street corner under a lamp post. It should be in the café on the corner.

A moment of sunshine can turn fast into a half hour of wind–driven rain on a street corner. 'On time' in Paris can always be a half hour later. Always. This isn't a 'rule' but a factor of a complex city where anything can happen. More often than not it does.

Another factor of a rendez–vous is settling on a place for it. No one can memorize the names of allphoto, metro, louvre rivoli the cafés on street corners. Just taking a wild guess that there will be from one to four cafés around any intersection near a Métro stop will probably turn out correct. But if more than one, the rendez–vous is going to need a bit of luck to be successful.

Crossing the Rue de Rivoli.

So it's better to pick a corner with a café that both parties know, and then the half hour this way or that way will take care of itself. As it turns out today, the wait is 25 minutes, and it's not raining yet.

Coming across the Pont Neuf I've seen barges moving upstream three abreast. As they come under the bridges they sound their horns, especially the ones cruising along the right bank – which is usually the downstream route past the islands.

It's another free show in Paris. The barge operators are protesting against the high fuel prices. Their horns sound like they are playing tunes on them. There's a fair audience watching them from the Pont des Arts.

While it's not raining I wait on the sidewalk outside the café. It seems like there are a lot of people around, but a café waiter says all the chairs on the terrace should be occupied. I don't know – it is about 12 degrees and on the western side they would be facing a lively breeze.

The apologies are unnecessary. Within a half hour is right on time here. The problem is where next to go, because the rendez–vous café is not a destination. Montorgueil is nearby and is not the Saturday afternoon of the Rue de Rivoli, where masses of suburban youth are trolling for threads.

North we go on the Rue de Louvre. Starting from the quay the names were Petit–Bourbon, the Rue des Poulies, and Orléans–Saint–Honoré, up to between 1854 and 1880. The Rue d'Orléans–Saint–Honoré started out in the 12th century, becoming the Rue de Nesle, and Catherine de Médicis disappeared some of it with her Hôtel de la Reine, which the city demolished in 1748 in order to build the Halle au Blé.

The Louvre itself was further west. Several centuries' worth of hôtels, going back to 1254, were east of the Louvre. They were bought and sold, enlarged, and rebuilt. Gradually kings took them over and expanded the Louvre, until the present colonnaded face supplanted them all, with Louis XIV emerging the winner in 1664.

These days there are not any fancy 'hôtels' in the street after the Rue de Rivoli, but the round Halle au Blé is still serving the Chambre of Commerce. Just beyond is the Rue Coquillière, which is said to have been 'entirely built' in 1292.

There was a gate in the Philippe–Auguste wall here, called Bohême, because the King of Bohemia lived in the first Hôtel de Nesle, beginning in 1327. Mansart built a hôtel here in 1630 for Charles de L'Aubespine, Marquis de Châteauneuf.

Charles was a diplomat who found himself in disgrace, was imprisoned for ten years, then rehabilitated back to his old job, for the last three years of his life. The last known owner was Aguado, the Marquis de Las Marismas, who left a grand fortune and a lot of paintings.

A bit further on, after the restaurant, Au Pied du Cochon with its Les Halles companions, there's the high flank ofphoto, resto, montorgueil the Saint–Eustache church. This started out as a little chapel named for Sainte–Agnés, built by Jean Allais, who got the tax concession for Les Halles in return for making a loan to Philippe– Auguste. Richelieu and the to–be Madame Pompadour were baptized here.

Café being readied for custom.

Just after the church, Montorgueil starts. It is full of Saturday strollers and shoppers. This street, leading off from Les Halles, dates to the 13th century. It was first called Nicolas–Arrode, after a fellow who lived here in 1217.

Some years later Marguerite Stock, who had her second 'maison de rendez–vous' in this street, employed Mlle. Lange, the future Comtesse du Barry – which eventually earned Madame Stock the nickname of the 'petite comtesse.'

Now the street is tidily paved and access is restricted so strollers can window shop and drive baby buggies in peace. No longer visible is the auberge Au Compas d'Or, founded in 1510, and demolished in 1925. There is a fair amount of new paint everywhere, now exceeding old paint.

Finally, after getting a paper, we are installed in one of the many cafés. The service is brisk, it is mostly full and the door is still open from summer. I keep my coat on and attach my glasses to read the instructions for the digital camera, which I am supposed to decipher. These are short and incomprehensible.

Not much happens until the batteries are exchanged. Then it works, but it will probably eat batteriesphoto, shoppers on montorgueil like the proverbial petits pains. Luckily there is a 35mm camera as a backup, for recording a coming trip to Africa. And, even better, the café is good even if the air in the 'salle' is overly fresh.

Night has slipped into the street but there are hardly fewer people about. Just by taking any random street west – the Rue Bachaumont or the exotic–sounding Rue Mandar – past a club with a live blues band, we find the diagonal Rue Montmartre.

Horses were banned, and then cars went.

Almost directly across there is one of the restaurants I looked up in an old guide before coming out. The place still exists. It looks like a circus – and it looked pretty funky in 1960 when it was called something different from today's Le Tambour.

It has a decor consisting of Parisian street icons. Stools at the bar look like the old red and yellow bus stop signs. The menus are written on blackboards bigger than necessary, and they are handed around to each table. The tables are close together and the place isn't big. If we've done anything right, it is to have gotten here while there's a choice of tables.

Meat, fish, salads, desserts, and the house wine comes in a bottle. If you leave half, you pay for the half you don't leave. A couple at the next table are served their main dishes ultra quickly. The food steams. I keep my coat on.

They are fast eaters. While the waiter is hauling off the billboard–sized blackboard the adjoining couple have been served with mounds of chocolate. One, a dinner plate full of Profiteroles like tennis balls in a lake of chocolate, the other, a huge slab of fluffy chocolate pretending to be cake, swimming in chocolate sauce. Liquid sin.

Do they shoot, get up and leave? Or are they hoisted away? Either way, they are quickly replaced by a hungry couple from the army standing by the bar and trailing out to the street. This is a popular place, for the 25 to 40 crowd, with ample appetites and no need for a lot of ready cash.

I take off my coat. Body heat can do wonders for a Paris restaurant where everybody's elbow is in everybody's else's soup. Looking at my own plate when it comes, I wonder if I'll become too overtired to eat it all. By listening a lot and bearing down, the plate gradually appears.

Forty bites later I can't believe I ate the whole thing except for some green weeds. Forty bites later I am prettyphoto, cafe centre ville sure I can do without the chocolate, even if it doesn't have to be chewed. Hoist up, and out, past the folks still lined up with starvation.

A place for an all–afternoon café.

It is cool outside and the Rue de Montmartre is quiet. All the restaurants, medium and small, in the Rue Tiquetonne are full of people eating and drinking and being served and talking and laughing. It must be why there are so many places to eat – because there's people to eat in them. And not a star, a spoon, or chef's toque in sight.

The ideal move is to find a café to have a final shot but my compass is missing a bearing I realize by the time I see the traffic whizzing by in the Boulevard de Sébastopol, with not an open café in sight.

Backtrack to Etienne Marcel, only to find the cafés there closed or out of business. If you are in the 25 to 40 age group you'll march that extra 200 metres, but we opt for the Métro instead. One goes north and the other south, to where Paris sits in front of TVs behind the shutters or blue curtains on Saturday nights.

That was it. Over five hours of conversation, in two cafés and one restaurant, with one big meal. It all adds up to have been a successful rendez–vous, capped with a drumroll, without rain.

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