SARTRE-ORIAL

Jane Corn­well re­calls a brief en­counter with a well-dressed philoso­pher on the streets of Paris

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - Ex­tracted from The Whirl: Men, Mu­sic & Mis­ad­ven­tures, by Jane Corn­well (HarperCollins, $29.99).

Christophe liked to meet me on the Pont des Arts, the foot­bridge over the Seine that links the Left Bank with the Lou­vre. He’d ar­rive early, sit on the mid­dle bench and take in the view: Pont Neuf, the old­est bridge in Paris; Ile de la Cite, the tiny is­land with the copse of green trees and the hulk­ing Notre Dame cathe­dral.

He never replied to texts telling him what time my Eurostar ar­rived. But there he’d be, on the bridge.

I’d see him be­fore he saw me. I’d come out of the Metro at Lou­vre-Rivoli, tak­ing a de­tour past the great glass pyra­mids in the mu­seum court­yard, spot­ting him be­fore I’d even crossed the road.

Some­thing al­ways gave him away: a red fe­dora, a polka dot bow tie, a shock of silk erupt­ing from a be­spoke breast pocket.

One time he was wear­ing a but­ter­cup yel­low suit and owlish glasses with lime green rims. He was rest­ing a hand on the brass knob of a walk­ing cane, and chomp­ing on a pipe whose carved duck’s head sported a lit­tle or­ange beak.

The pipe wasn’t lit. Christophe didn’t smoke. The look was the thing that mat­tered.

“Peo­ple re­spect you if you dress well,” he said af­ter we’d started chat­ting at the New Morn­ing, a jazz club in the 10th ar­rondisse­ment where I’d gone to re­view a Con­golese band that played tra­di­tional tribal trance mu­sic on thumb pi­anos am­pli­fied with old car al­terna­tor mag­nets. The band, whose name was Konono No 1, had just been signed to a hip Bel­gian record la­bel; the mu­sic press in Bri­tain and Europe was call­ing them the next big thing.

Christophe thought this was very funny since Konono No 1 was an in­sti­tu­tion in Kin­shasa and had been play­ing there for decades.

“Young peo­ple in the Congo don’t lis­ten to Konono any more.” He pulled at his cuff­links. “They like souk­ous and rap.”

Christophe was tall, around 30, and so slim that I reck­oned I could fit both of my hands around his waist if I squeezed him hard enough. He had high cheek­bones, a wide nose and a pen­cil mous­tache like the cir­cum­flex on my key­board. Even with the sweat patches un­der his arms — it was sum­mer, and the place was rammed — he looked like he was some­one.

I checked out his clothes: turquoise trousers, a shirt with fat pur­ple stripes, a vi­o­let waist­coat with a mus­tard pocket silk and a fob watch on a loop­ing sil­ver chain: “Clothes make the man,” he’d said in his heavy French-African ac­cent, putting one pol­ished brogue in front of the other and spi­ralling his hand. There wasn’t enough room for him to bow. I was glad that I’d frocked up be­fore I left my ho­tel in Saint-Sulpice, even if it was only in the olive green Ghost dress I wore in San­ti­ago the sum­mer be­fore, and a pair of peach fab­ric mules from a sec­ond-hand designer shop in Is­ling­ton that I rarely wore since they were al­ways slip­ping off.

The up­beat vibe in the New Morn­ing got strangers talk­ing, in be­tween watch­ing var­i­ous band mem­bers blow­ing whis­tles, beat­ing drums, ping­ing the metal rods of their lit­tle boxy thumb pi­anos. The mu­sic was warp­ing through a pair of old porte-voix speak­ers that looked like white lilies on stilts; when­ever the sound built and broke, peo­ple put their arms in the air and whooped, like I used to do back in the day, in Heaven.

I took out my notepad and made some notes. Christophe looked over my shoul­der.

“Mu­sic is where the pas­sions en­joy them­selves.” A pause. “Ni­et­zsche.” I wrote that down too. Sev­eral African men were work­ing the same dan­di­fied look as Christophe, chan­nelling the sa­lons of 1920s Paris by way of Charles Baude­laire and Willy Wonka. A short guy in a Jeevesesque white bowler hat fin­gered the lapel of his royal blue frock­coat as he pushed past on his way to the bar.

Christophe stared at the guy’s white leather sneak­ers, which had per­fo­rated fronts and a sig­na­ture striped trim. “Paul Smith,” he said. “Tres bon.” They were sapeurs: the so­ci­ety of Con­golese men who were ob­sessed with Euro­pean designer clothes. Les Sapes, as they were also known, pur­sued a life­style that cel­e­brated el­e­gance, style and im­pec­ca­ble man­ners, stick­ing two fin­gers up to war, poverty and the late leop­ard-hat-wear­ing dic­ta­tor Mobutu Sese Seko, who’d banned Christ­mas and the wear­ing of bow ties.

Most sapeurs loved French and Ital­ian la­bels: Gaultier, Versace, Yves Saint Lau­rent. But Christophe had a thing for English pieces, es­pe­cially Paul Smith’s clas­sics with a twist.

Later he would tell me that he’d read up on English style in old copies of the Paris-based mag­a­zine Africa Elite, the unof­fi­cial bi­ble of his sapeur group in Kin­shasa. They’d met each week in a tin-shed pool hall on a dirt road next to an open sewer, to swap tips like get­ting the dim­ple in a cra­vat just right.

Christophe hadn’t been to Eng­land. He’d been in Paris for over a decade. “What do you do?” I said. “What do any of us do?” His smile de­liv­ered the ques­tion. Phi­los­o­phy was an­other of his pur­suits.

Af­ter the gig fin­ished Christophe sug­gested we go for a drink in Saint-Ger­main-des-Pres, which was a good idea since it was close to my ho­tel.

I liked him. I wanted to know his story. We set off for the Metro, Christophe walk­ing on the side of the foot­path near­est to the road, my toes grip­ping the soles of my mules.

He let me go ahead down the stairs and through the sta­tion doors with the big green hand­prints on them, which he ac­ti­vated for me. When I put my ticket in the turn­stiles he bunched in close and we tripped through to­gether.

“Ooh la la,” I said as I fell out of a mule. “Is that a fob watch in your poche?”

The train was crowded so we stood near the door, hang­ing on to the sil­ver pole, our knuck­les bump­ing. An older woman with a French bull­dog on her lap was star­ing hard at Christophe and me; as we got out I squished my tongue into my bot­tom lip at her.

The Left Bank was used to flam­boy­ance, but it was past mid­night: most places were shut.

“De Beau­voir and Sartre used to sit in there,” I said as we passed Cafe Les Deux Magots, with its out­door ta­bles un­der a pea-green awning.

“Man is what he wills him­self to be,” said Christophe. “Sartre.”

We found a late-night su­per­mar­ket on Rue de Seine, one with mir­rored walls by its check­out, and Christophe gave him­self the on­ceover in them while I bought us a cut-price bot­tle of fizz and a sealed tower of plas­tic cups.

“Cham­pagne!” I said. “Tonight, mon ami, we are ex­is­ten­tial­istes.”

“Merci beau­coup.” He put his arm out and we fla­neur-ed along un­til we hit the river and the Pont des Arts.

It was a hot night, so all the benches on the bridge were taken. I ripped some pages out of my notepad and we laid them on the deck­ing next to the rail­ing and sat down; Christophe popped open the cham­pagne with his thumb and the cork arced into the wa­ter, where it bobbed as it drifted away.

“To visit Paris is the dream of all sapeurs in the Congo,” he said as a barge chugged un­der­neath us.

I re­mem­bered a photo of my mother stand­ing in front of the Eif­fel Tower, her hair teased into the bee­hive she said would flip up like a lid in a high wind, wear­ing the black jeans she’d bought in Mont­martre, and reck­oned she was the first woman in Australia to wear. Right from when I was a kid, read­ing books un­der the blan­ket with a torch, vis­it­ing Paris had been my dream, too.

I raised my cup to the City of Light: to chan­sons and ac­cor­dions; bi­cy­cles and baguettes; to Amelie, Bre­ton tops and Ger­ard Depardieu. A blast of Piaf singing “Non, je ne re­grette rien” roared in my head. Too right, I thought.

Christophe raised his cup to some­where more spe­cific: “To Chateau Rouge.”

Chateau Rouge was one of Paris’s more African neigh­bour­hoods. It had an open-air mar­ket in Rue Dejean that heaved with ev­ery­thing from egg whisks and knock-off cig­a­rettes to fruit and veg at €1 per kilo.

Its shops sold fab­rics, cos­met­ics and mo­bile phones, and CDs by mu­si­cians who were mega in Benin and Burk­ina Faso and ig­nored by white world mu­sic pun­dits.

“There is more than one Paris,” said Christophe, sip­ping his cham­pagne. “To Paris,” I said. “Cheers! Sante!” “Sante!” he said. “To La Sante!” “Hooray!” I was con­fused. Af­ter­wards he walked me back to my ho­tel, a tra­di­tional townhouse tucked op­po­site the soar­ing east wall of Saint-Sulpice church, and we stood in the shad­ows look­ing up at the dark ho­tel win­dows with their wrought-iron bal­conies and gera­nium pots. “Kiss me,” he said. Bong, went the church bells as our tongues met. Bong, they went as his fob watch dug into my ribs. Bong, as he stepped back and I top­pled for­ward, fall­ing out of a mule and step­ping bare­foot onto a cob­ble. “Now I will let you sleep,” he said. “Oh,” I said. “But I am not in the least bit fa­tigue.”

“Let me know when you are com­ing again.” He was wait­ing for me to get in­side. “I will be there on the bridge.”

When I got back to Lon­don I texted “great to meet you” but he didn’t re­ply.

MAN IS WHAT HE WILLS HIM­SELF TO BE

CHRISTOPHE

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