Back when I lived in Paris, one of the most incongruous things I saw was Pere Noel peeing in the snow on the Boulevard St. Germain. “Father Christmas” in France takes some getting used to. But hey! Pere Noel isn’t fat. He resembles Jolly Saint Nick, except he isn’t what we’re used to seeing doling out gifts at Macy’s; instead he’s something of a rail-thin rake or roué in a tailored red suit fond of foie gras.
This Santa was drunk as a goat. Still, my friend Annick and her beau, the gendarme, managed to run up to Pere Noel and catch an expressionist Norman Rockwell moment on camera, the yellow stream glistening in the flash like Silly String. We laughed first and best, our hearty “Ho-ho-ho”s echoing through the night like a department-store security klaxon.
Wherever you go in the world, they do Christmas differently. In Holland, for example, Santa’s sidekick is an obliging fey helper known simply as “Black Pete". Still, with all the Yuletide ornamentation up along the streets, the City of Lights reminded me a little of home. But while my friends and family in New York were dining on turkey and opening prezzies, I was purchasing a “Bouche de Noel” (Christmas Mouth) – without knowing what it is or even how you eat it – and unwrapping only cartons of odoriferous Gauloises.
With everything closed in the city and a light snowfall, it’s no wonder I ended up drunk in the slightly dodgy section of Barbés Rochechouart, which is the unofficial Muslim quarter of Paris. A while back on a sidestreet, I had eaten at the sere “Restaurant Islam,” which featured dry desert fare and absolutely no alcohol. Un, what?
In the distance I thought I heard the sound of unfamiliar Christmas carols. I went to investigate.
Entering the oven whoosh of the brasserie, in the shadow of Montmartre Cathedral, which resembled a whitish mammoth marzipan masterpiece, I noticed that everyone had a slightly swarthy complexion. Meaning: I was the only white guy there. Hey, this is cool I thought, wondering if there were any Algerian "pied noirs" (I love that term) who could stand me a few.
I was surprised to see a several people, sinister-looking Middle Easterners and Maghrebis in loose-fitting blue suits, actually drinking biere pression scientifically measured up to a white line on the glasses.
“Biere, si’il vous plait!”
The Arab bartender sized me up. After trying French, then German, he settled on erratic English: “I said, you are not scared to be here?”
“Not at all,” I answered casually and carefully. “In America I’m used to new experiences.”
“Really, you are the first American to ever come in here.”
“I like Barbés.”
One of the female staff smiled at me, a lively young woman with long brown hair who flitted about like a harem fly, then ran out the door. When she returned, she had a small Christmas tree tucked under her arm, which she proceeded to set up on the bar.
“For you, our American guest,” she said. “Happy Christmas!”
She told me she was “Kabil,” and that in Algeria (a former French colony) they celebrated both Christmas and Ramadan. I searched my mind for a famous Algerian and came up with, Albert Camus’s The Stranger as one of my favorite books. I like existentialism.
“Oh, L’etranger (stranger), just like you!” The Kabil woman threw back her head and laughed.
I drank until the evening got as fresh and fuzzy as a frozen sorbet. No matter that the Arab pop music called rai wafting in the cigarette haze didn’t remotely resemble Christmas music. In fact, it sounded like all the moaning and ululating singers had been punched in their stomachs. What mattered was Christmas cheer, peace, love, hope and good will. Beyond that, all I remember is I woke up with a painful start the next afternoon to the irate garbage collectors energetically crashing cans outside my window in the Marais. Right, thanks for nothing, Santa.
Check out the author’s bio here.