France never warmed my heart so much as the time I almost spent Christmas in England.
It was December 1987, the shortest days of the year, and I was overseas visiting an American pal who worked in Cambridge for the literary magazine Granta. As the holidays approached, we typically had made no plans. Freed of responsibility to be with our families, we began wondering whether it might be fun to put as little effort as possible into Christmas, maybe find a pub with a roaring fire and and a TV and decent food.
Don’t get your hopes up, said our buddies at the magazine. The English stay home at Christmas, we were informed. They pull up the drawbridges and leave strangers outside the castle in the cold. A few crummy places might be open if we were lucky, but we might not be.
Had my friend been the domestic sort who stocked the fridge for such emergencies, we might have managed. But he wasn’t. It was anchovy paste and stale crackers, or nothing.
So we decided to fly to Paris on Christmas Eve. In the taxi to the London train that afternoon, I saw what our friends had warned us about. The stores of Cambridge were already dark, the streets empty, the curtains being drawn on the row houses. The English are an insular people to begin with, and the holiday season only offered further excuse for their privacy, sanctifying it. An oppressive chill seemed to be speeding us out of the country.
By the time we boarded our evening flight, it felt as if we were jumping on the last chopper out of Saigon.
From the sky over France, our decision immediately looked like the right one. The carpet of lights below glowed bright; brighter still as our taxi entered Paris. Once we rounded the Étoile and were rolling along the Champs-Élysées, past cafés and restaurants not only open but overflowing, we were giddy with self-congratulation about our wisdom and forethought. “Great call” became our refrain throughout the night.
Television over the Christmas holidays in the U.S. means another replay of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” while in Paris they broadcast “Blue Velvet.”
Stops in a couple of bars were followed by a late meal of steak and mussels. At around midnight we strolled over to Notre Dame to join the cheery throngs for midnight mass. Our ritual duty of holiness satisfied after half an hour in the scented gothic air, there were more stops in bars. Gratitude about where we were, even more than alcohol, fueled our meanderings. I was a drink
or two away from emulating Rétif de la Bretonne, the 19th-century chronicler of Paris de nuit, ready to wander the city until dawn.
But at about 3 a.m. we ran out of gas and headed back to our hotel near the Panthéon. Taking the key from the sleepy desk clerk, we walked up the stairs and found ourselves caught in that state of dangerous silliness that can strike the overtired, laughing and shooshing each other for making too much noise at too late an hour, admonitions that only induced more laughter.
This mood abruptly ended as we reached the landing of one floor and began to turn up the next staircase. Through the door facing us came a man’s booming voice.
“Where’s my Bourbon?” he shouted.
A woman in meeker tones was trying to mollify him.
“Can’t you fucking remember anything?” he shouted again.
We froze and listened. In our foggy state of mind this violent exchange between an unseen man and woman was to say the least disorienting. I was ready to bolt down the stairs and alert the front desk about a crime in progress. Other scraps of aggressive dialogue came through the door. Then my friend began to laugh.
“Blue Velvet,” he whispered. The voices began repeating more lines from David Lynch’s erotic thriller. Crouched on the stairs, we were not unlike the Kyle MacLachlan character in the movie—reluctant, afraid, fascinated voyeurs.
To this day my friend and I are not sure if the voices were from the actual soundtrack of the movie and belonged to Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini. Or whether, as it seemed to us at the time, we were overhearing a couple reenacting scenes in our hotel as a comic-kinky ritual. Either case was spooky enough to send us racing up to our room and double-locking the door.
What a city, we marveled to each other in reviewing the evening from our beds. It didn’t matter that our steaks had been fatty and overpriced. No better than the food in England. We had escaped gloom and privation and would wake up in a place where food and warmth were available down the street. Television over the Christmas holidays in the U.S. means another replay of It’s a Wonderful Life, while in Paris they broadcast Blue Velvet. Or people act it out.
(This is not a cinematic tradition I have emulated as a more grown-up adult. My stepchildren and I prefer to watch The Big Lebowski on Christmas Eve. Then again, the French, when they stray from religious orthodoxy, always tend to go to extremes.)
The next afternoon, Christmas Day, after a three-course meal in a hotel, my friend and I took a train to Versailles and stayed so late in the gardens, we were locked inside. But that’s another story.
Vive la France et Joyeux Noël!