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Nothing Was Stirring

photo: bienvenu au champ de mars

Only where we were was dark and dim.

On Christmas Eve

Paris:– Thursday, 25. December:– Daddy Warbucks phoned after he knew I'd be awake, to offer a Christmas Eve dinner. He said, "We'll rendez–vous at the Rendez–Vous at 8:15. He added that this was not to be confused with a plain 'rendez–vous' at some other place, like in front of the Café Daguerre.

Fog filled the cemetery long before it got dark and the guardians were rambling around in it blowing their closing–time whistles. The Tour Montparnasse disappeared, lights and all. Earlier, I checked out the holiday mass times at the Saint–Pierre de Montrouge church, and had even gone over to the Notre–Dame de Travail to find out their show times.

Little Orphan Annie went along for this traipse around the quiet 14th arrondissement. For thephoto: rue grenelle, night sake of brevity, for the occasion, henceforth to be referred to as Miss Fizz. For a snack we had some foie gras, which was pretty much like richly flavored butter that melts in the mouth. To offset all this yin, we had some yang olives too.

Going down to Denfert beside the cemetery we did not particularly notice that Chez Papa was closed, or that there was little traffic circulating, or that we were the only people in the street, and it was very quiet.

Little stirred in the streets on Christmas Eve.

Near the bus stop at Denfert that we saw the Café Rendez-Vous was closed. I have never seen it closed before. The Indiana place across Leclerc was closed too, and so was the McDo. Daddy Warbucks emerged on time from the mist. He said, "We could go to a place near the Panthéon that was open when I passed it."

He said this after taking a look at the closed Italian place he intended for us. He didn't give the Chinese place next to it a second glance. I suggested the Jardins de Contini on the avenue, because it had got me out of one of these 'closed' situations before – was it last Christmas Eve? Miss Fizz wanted to try the big Café Zever at Alésia.

Daddy Warbucks did not give the green neons of the open Jardins de Contini one glance as we went past, nor the Hippo steak joint a block further along past the open cinema. At Alésia, the Zever was 98 percent closed and would probably finish off the remaining two percent in 15 minutes. We dropped into the Métro and discussed which stop would be best for all the restaurants between Saint–Sulpice and Saint–Germain.

At the Raspail stop I said that if we had read the 'Eves' column in Metropole, we could decide to get off at Vavin at try our luck on the Boulevard Montparnasse. We rode on. Some character at the other end of the nearly empty Métro wagon was already well into his Christmas Eve drink.

The compromise was Saint–Germain–des–Prés Métro stop. Next to no traffic and next to no people were on the boulevard. There were lights on in the Deux–Magots café, but theyphoto: passage vero dodat weren't bright. Nothing was open in the Rue des Ciseaux, and nothing and no people in the maze of the Rue Princesse, Guisarde or Canettes, where there are about 30 restaurants.

Unrelated photo of a well-kept 'passage.'

In the shuttered silence and under the orange street lights, Daddy Warbucks went to reconnoitre the Rues des Canettes. Half a block away, indistinct – is he waving? Has he found something? Nothing. No smells of anything cooking, no signs, no lights, and no other wandering souls. It wasn't cold. We could search forever, almost in comfort.

Beside the Marché Saint–Germain one café was open, in the Rue Lobineau, but Daddy Warbucks only gave its menu a passing glance. The big Carrefour de l'Odéon was deserted, and so was the Rue Monsier–le–Prince leading out of it. The Polidor, closed too. In the Rue de Racine, all closed, all dark.

No pedestrians or traffic on the broad Boulevard Saint–Michel, so no need to wait for the green man signal. Nothing moving except other traffic signals winking on and off up and down the wide boulevard. Eerie, dim, orange streelights, red, green signals, silence, emptiness.

From the corner of the Rue des Ecoles, lights ahead. The Champo cinema as a lighthouse, with nobody waiting to see any movie. Closer, the Brasserie Balzar seemed to be open. Would there be a place for us here this Christmas Eve?

Closer yet, through the windows, lights, diners, tablecloths, waiters. At the door, greeted by a suit with a substantial moustache. "Table pour trois?" 'Of course, right this way. Give us your coats.' Warmth, good smells, tablecloth whiter than white, dark wood, brass rails, flowers and greenery, sounds, bottles, glasses, conversations.

Daddy Warbucks leaned back, surveyed the restaurant with satisfaction. We won, it's all ours. The search was worth it. This is our Christmas Eve. "Order whatever you want! I won the Loto!"

Except for escargots, we skipped everything on the day's holiday menu, to have 'whatever we wanted.' The waiter, black and whitephoto: buche de noel with tie, and skillfully substituting glasses, knives, forks, to suit our orders. Neatly sweeping up bread crumbs after the first course, refilling the glasses with the wine from the correct side. Six plates replaced with six fresh plates.

Luxo Büche de Noël – are there ever enough of them?

Not a wish unfulfilled, instantly. Comfortable because the next table remained unoccupied, although the room was nearly full. Diners left, but a few new ones followed us in. It never got loud, there was enough of everything and time – we were the only shift.

The story. This Brasserie Balzar was the Latin Quartier restaurant saved by its regular customers from a take–over by the Flo Group. They protested, they held meetings. The waiter confirmed that he was one of two of the original crew to stay on. It happened ten years ago, it happened in 1998, and I thought it was last spring – or was it the spring before?

We had the desserts. They were wonderful, like they often are the best thing a restaurant has. We declined cafés. I don't know why because we were unlikely to find any anywhere else. But who knows? We found this place. Anything is possible.

At the cash desk I ask for the restaurant's card. It is a postcard, and it looks a lot like the postcard done for La Coupole. 'Yes,' they have a Web site. It is the one for the Flo Group. On Chinese New Year Eve, if you feel like it, you can dine in a sort of French brasserie in Beijing. Note the date, Wednesday, 21 January. What's the real story?

When the dinner was good and over we put our coats back on. Outside, the Musée Cluny lit up like a renaissance Christmas cake. Walk back on the Rue Saint–Jacques? Not quite, and go up the Rue de la Sorbonne instead, changing into the Rue Victor–Cousin, left in Gay–Lussac, and right into Saint–Jacques.

No taxis, no buses, no sounds of Christmas Eve from the homes we pass. Opposite the church – "You don't have to go to Rome to see a Roman church," says Daddy Warbucks. And turn around and look back at it from the Boulevard Saint–Michel. Then pass an open Closerie des Lilas, surrounded by its fence of green firs.

Across the Boulevard Montparnasse, peering in an apartment entry, there is a tree and a Santa Claus andphoto: dennis in mirror excited kids and adults. Further along, in the Rue Boissonade, a Korean chapel is letting its members go, excited kids and their parents. Some of them getting in their Korean-made cars.

With a slight bend at the Boulevard Raspail, the Rue Boissonade becomes the Rue Schlœcher on the other side. There are stories in this street beside the cemetery, some old and others recent.

This cheery scene happened 24 hours later.

The building on the corner of the Rue Boulard has its top floor lit up outside like a movie set. The street decorations further down Boulard are on for their own amusement. But there are none along the south side of the cemetery, and Chez Papa is still closed. If a tree fell here, it might as well do it in a forest far away.

The streetlights are still orange, lighting a long, empty street. The fog has lifted, and the Tour Montparnasse has all of its lights on like a big candlestick. It is no longer Christmas Eve. We have walked together through empty Paris, into Christmas Day, and we saw Santa Claus handing out gifts.

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