The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 10, No. 3

sidebar: An American in Paris

by Elizabeth McCracken

It amazes me to do the math: over the past three-and-a-half years, my husband and I have lived in Paris off and on for a total of a little over a year. We didn't measure our days there so much in months as in confit duck legs and carafes of plonk. Edward, my husband, is working on a novel that takes place in eighteenth-century Paris, and perhaps that's why it seems like a city of old-fashioned entertainments to me. At any rate, my favorite places in Paris tend to be old-fashioned ones.
     The best way to see the Cirque d'Hiver-Bouglione is to stumble upon it by chance. Polygonal, gaudily elegant, decorated with friezes of circus scenes and two equestrian statues—essentially a tent made out of masonry—it's one of those oddball urban buildings that doesn't seem to belong where it is but couldn't exist anywhere else either. The interior is even better—like a spoiled little French girl's jewelry box, all red velvet and crystal, with twirling ladies at the heart. The building was built as a winter circus quarters in 1852. The resident circus—the eponymous Bouglione troupe—is perfectly fine, with the usual horses and trapeze artists and irksome clowns. Sometimes an irksome clown plays the clarinet, and that's intolerable, a clarinet-playing clown. But a couple of Januaries I've managed to see part of the Festival du Cirque de Demain, which features international young circus acts—clowns and acrobats and not a single threadbare camel or poodle or ostrich, thank God. My objection to animal acts is only partly ethical; mostly it's aesthetic. I get no pleasure from witnessing waggle-tongued dogs wear hats or lions not eat men with waxed chests. At the festival, on the other hand, I've seen adorable girl jugglers from China with unbelievable technical skill, buff Scandinavian contortionists, and, one year, an American woman and Swiss man doing what they called a "vertical tango" on a pole, the sexiest circus act that ever was.
     I'm the kind of dame who'd frequent any establishment called Clown Bar. In this case it's a restaurant a couple of doors down from the Cirque d'Hiver that looks precisely like what a Parisian restaurant next to a circus should, with a turn-of-the-twentieth-century interior, a zinc bar, and vintage circus paraphernalia. The guy behind the bar looks like a retired clown. I don't know if he is. The food is swell, particularly on the liverish, giblety, marrowish side of things.
     There is no English word more beautiful than automata, and no sight more uncanny and moving than the seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and twentieth-century automata in the Théâtre des Automates at le Musée des Arts et Metiers. Manmade birds, manmade monkeys, manmade men—my husband swears that the curator we watched winding the clockwork was a dead ringer for Louis XVI, and you can imagine the poor king—who was an amateur locksmith—fascinated by the machines. Because the mechanisms are so fragile, the museum holds the demonstrations only a handful of times a month.
     Take my word for it: oysters and white wine for breakfast makes one feel agreeably like Balzac. Even better to eat them standing up, in the cold. At le Baron Rouge, near the Marché d'Aligre in the 12th arrondissement, people line up for their oysters in the wintertime and eat them from tables constructed from stacked milk crates, or while leaning on the hoods of parked cars.
     Walking along the various glass-roofed shopping passages that run through Paris, particularly the path they cut from the 9th arrondissement to the 1st, is like entering an antique postcard—picturesque and pale-colored, slightly surreal, occasionally incomprehensible. Some—like the Passage Vivienne—are upscale and beautiful, with dress shops and tearooms, and some—like the Passages des Panoramas, the oldest—are grubbier and full of stamp, postcard, and poster dealers. My favorite is the Passage Jouffroy, home to toy shops and book dealers, a cane maker, a candy shop, and a door leading into the Musée Grévin, Paris's wax museum. The Grévin presents models of contemporary celebrities—Bruce Willis, Charles Aznavour—along with older figures, including a wax Marat, supposedly in the bathtub in which the flesh-and-blood Marat was murdered, overseen by a wax Charlotte Corday, holding the supposed actual knife.
     Once, as I was walking past Jean-Paul Sartre and Picasso in a set conceived to look like a café, I noticed a model I'd never seen before. The plaque identified the figure as Jacques Tati, star and director of M. Hulot's Holiday.
     That's funny, I thought, leaning in and examining his face, that doesn't look like—at which point M. Tati turned to me and tipped his hat, and I screamed at the top of my lungs: he was an actor made up to look as though he were made of wax. Though I knew the Grévin hired people to do this, he still got me as good as I've ever been gotten. That guy deserved every centime he received. "Touché, you fucker," I told him.

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