Montreuil is an eastern suburb of Paris, the city which does not grow. Years ago, they drew a circle, defined everything inside it as Paris, and everything outside as "banlieu," or suburb. This hasn't kept the suburbs from expanding, but Montreuil is close enough in that at one point I was walking down the street in a straight line and kept entering and leaving Paris.
It's also home to the Instants Chavirés, a small but wonderful performance space on a back street whose name translates as "overturned lawsuits," for which there must be a reason. And it was there I was headed after arrival, on time, at the Gare du Nord, or, rather, to its offices. Although the Instants weren't promoting Carl's concert on Monday night, they were providing the space for Satoko, the actual promoter, to present the show, and they were kind enough to offer us three small rooms, each with two beds, which are used to put up performers on the floor above the office.
I wasn't sure where to go as I stepped off the train at the Metro station Robespierre, but as I was walking down the platform to the exit, someone called my name. It was Carl and another guy, Charles, a musician who played the avant-garde circuit and had been sent to the airport to fetch him, winding up on the same train as me. Good thing, too, because I never would have found the place myself, even with the map they'd provided. Nor would I have had a clue how to arouse someone within.
Soon, we were in our rooms, and the next question was getting some dinner. Montreuil's Rue de Paris, which we were right off of, was a string of döner kebab and halal lamburger places, but I wanted French food, and was determined to introduce Carl, all of whose pieces are named after restaurants, to my favorite place in Paris, Chez Paul. The weather had broken, and it was raining intermittently, and Carl seemed sure I didn't know where I was going, but this place is like a beacon in my mind, and after making sure we were headed the right way down the rue de Charonne, we eventually got there.
Not reserving is not a good idea at Chez Paul, incidentally, even though they've added a huge downstairs room since I was there in January. It took about 15 minutes for a table to clear, and maybe I'm flattering myself, but I think the reason we were told to wait and others were turned away was because the lady behind the bar recognized me. Great duck wing rillettes, great rabbit terrine, and great pieces of beef with accompanying potatoes -- Parisian comfort food -- awaited us, along with a fine bottle of Bordeaux at a reasonable price. Man, I thought, I was going to have fun on this trip! I was, fortunately, blissfully unaware that it was the last but one edible meal I'd have the entire week.
The next day, we awoke at about the same time, scored croissants at the bakery across the street, and I made strong coffee. After it hit, we headed off to the Gare du Nord to pick up the rental car, since I'd been unable to arrange a more convenient pickup place. Thus began an extremely frustrating day: we arrived at Europcar only to discover that I'd forgotten my passport and Carl had forgotten his license. By this time it was time to head to Charles de Gaulle airport to pick up the first of Carl's accompanying musicians, Min Xiao-Fen, who plays the pipa, a Chinese lute. Fortunately, the train to CDG leaves from the Gare du Nord. Unfortunately, we got on the wrong one, because the signboard was busted. Off in the middle of nowhere at the end of the line -- and not even at the station, but out in a yard -- we were discovered by a train worker who told us how to get on a train back to the junction where we could get on the right train. Carl was very worried we'd be late, but it looked to me like there was plenty of time.
There was: Xiao-Fen's plane was three hours late. Carl handed me the cell phone and told me to wait at the airport, which was jammed with Americans undergoing the ultra-strict security check that American airlines, and no others, demand. I have never seen lines like that at an airport. I sat in the deserted smoking section and read every word in the Herald Tribune, then sauntered around the eating area looking for something edible. I'd actually had a wonderful meal at CDG once, but it must have been another terminal, so I went to the cafeteria and got the grease-and-salt plate, aka charcuterie, When I emerged and walked back to the arrivals board, Xiao-Fen's plane had miraculously picked up 30 minutes, and before long, we were headed towards the Metro, on our way to meet Carl at the Europcar place.
The one non-idiotic moment of the whole pre-concert period happened when I, a Westerner with an Asian woman, met a Westerner with an Asian woman and a baby, and they asked me if we were headed into Paris. I said yes, and they gave us two Paris Visit tickets, good for unlimited Metro travel. Ordinarily, these aren't considered a very good investment, but they'll take you to CDG -- which is a 7-Euro trip -- and to Montreuil, so I was very happy to have them. They'd nipped in for a look at the city between planes, and were flying out.
Then came the comedy of errors. I had the cell phone and was expecting to hear from Carl, but it remained silent. We got to Gare du Nord, and he wasn't at Europcar. We called the Instances, and they told us he was out to lunch at a kebab place. We told them we were at the Gare du Nord, and Xiao-Fen decided to have a sandwich. About 30 minutes later, I called Instances again, and they said they didn't know where he was. Well, where he was was at Europcar, waiting for us, but we didn't think to look there because Xiao-Fen was tired and wanted to go to the house. So we did, found no Carl, and, checking my watch, I saw I had to go get our second musician, Yumiko Tanaka. So I turned on my heel, got the Paris Visit ticket from Xiao-Fen, and went back, this time to CDG 1, which involves taking an unmarked shuttle bus from the Metro station. Yumiko's plane had already landed, but the passengers took forever getting into the terminal. By 6 or so we were in Montreuil, and I was already exhausted. Carl, though, was livid: where had I been? He'd waited three hours at Europcar and finally rented the thing himself! As it turned out, much later we found that there was some weird problem relating to calling the cell phone from a regular phone, but at this point, we didn't know that.
The Instances people had decided that it'd be a treat to have a real home-cooked meal, so we had polenta, some sort of eggplant thing, and hard-cooked pork chops. Also present was the opening act, a Greek guy living in Barcelona, who performed in a tent, for some reason. At least the wine was okay.
And Carl's solo concert went very well. He improvises, using samples and software he's written, but, unlike many laptop performer-composers, he's musical. Which is not to say catchy, hummable melodies, but there's an immersion in sound and a sense of structure -- which may be entirely illusory -- that's deeply engaging. At some times, the sounds are easier to take than at others, but he's been doing this, one way or another, for a couple of decades, and the experience shows. Yet, like most laptop performer-composers, he's most frequently heard in tiny rooms like the Instances, where there were about 30 people in the audience, and makes his money teaching at a technical university near Nagoya, in Japan.
The van was parked near the office. The next day, we'd drive to Strasbourg, all the way across France to the German border.
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God, Chez Paul. It's been two years, but that warm goat-cheese salad served by those tawny angels of the Maghreb.... I feel like un loup.
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