Monday, August 20, 2007

Eric Vincent and our Dinner on the Seine

Evening of August 18, 2007

This has been perhaps the most magical night of our trip: a private sunset cruise on the Seine, on the houseboat of French singer and songwriter Eric Vincent, who is good friends with my father-in-law. It was tough finding parking in the Bastille area, but well worth the effort.

Eric welcomed us onto his well-appointed barge, which he pilots expertly, and took us through the Canal Saint-Martin and a lock, the Écluse de l'Arsenal. The kids enjoyed waving to tourist boats and yachts passing by, and I thought of another item for my list of "Two Types of People": those who wave back and those who don't. My son pointed to one particularly garishly decorated barge and said, "Look, Mommy, it's your theme!" and I thought, What on earth could he mean by that? It's so gaudy! But then he explained it looked like Christmas to him, and I realized how sweet it was for him to want to make sure I saw it.

We sailed down the Seine past one gorgeous bridge and edifice after another, each with its own long history and associated stories. Quasimodo and The Scarlet Pimpernel were definitely there with us in spirit! Flashes of literature and history came to us almost every moment - medieval times, the French Revolution, the World Expo. We appreciated our new perspective of Notre-Dame from the water, and of the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay, the Eiffel Tower, and the Palais de Justice and adjacent Conciergerie, half-cleaned, half still dingy with years of pollution.

In front of the Palais de Justice I recalled Eric Jager's magnificent work The Last Duel, relating the story of how a knight, Jean de Carrouges, dramatically brought a complaint to the King of France against a squire named Jacques Le Gris. It was in the Palais de Justice that he cried out in a loud voice for all to hear,

"Most excellent and powerful king and our sovereign lord, I present myself, Jean de Carrouges, knight, as an appellant to your court and do hereby accuse this squire, Jacques Le Gris, of a most foul crime against my wife...I demand that he now confess his crime...And if the said Jacques Le Gris denies his crime, I do hereby offer to prove my charges with my body, on the enclosed field, as a gentleman and a man of honor shall do, before your royal presence, as judge and sovereign lord."

My husband and I have traced these two noblemen's journeys by happenstance, following in their footsteps from Normandy to Paris, adding a serendipitous historic pilgrimage to our other, more spiritual one. You can almost still hear these voices from the past, and those of memorable characters from literature, as you sail past the important places of Paris along the Seine.

Besides being a city of great art, architecture, history, and literature from past ages, Paris is pulsating with the music, dance, and story of our own age. On nights like this the banks of the Seine are alive with song and dance. During the summer there are tango lessons on some of the quais, and when we spotted one in progress Eric pulled the boat right up next to it so we could enjoy the sights and sounds and do some tango-ing of our own.

Further down a lone trumpeter was practicing under a bridge. My daughter waved, clapped, and swung her hips from side to side in a little dance of celebration, and the trumpeter turned his instrument toward her as she danced on deck and played her a little jazz ditty as we sailed by.

After that it was time to head back to the place where Eric docks his boat to have some dinner. Eric's wife, Claudine, is a beautiful Franco-Vietnamese woman who once owned a restaurant on a Greek island. She is an amazing chef and prepared a delectable salad of lettuce and gésiers. Although I knew what these were, I got over my nervousness about trying exotic foods and tried them anyway - and am I glad! They were delicious! There's a great picture of them here for curious cooks/foodies who may not be familiar with them. I have this crude photo of the salad, too, but it's hard to see the gésiers well. The main course was like a French version of a Brazilian barbecue. We enjoyed three tasty grilled meats: chipolata sausages, merguez sausages made with lamb and tomatoes, and chicken marinated in olive oil, soy sauce, and spices. A gigantic bottle of Saumur red paired beautifully with these.

I had to speak French the whole time, and though I'm grateful for the wonderful 3 years of training my excellent French teachers in high school gave me (the equivalent of 5 years in the space of 3, actually), I have such high standards for myself that I kept feeling like a complete donkey. It's one thing to be a beginner at a language and make errors or awkward phrases; at that point it's endearing or cute, but once you've progressed to a certain level, it's not cute any more - you just sound stupid or pretentious or awkward or all the above. I kept thinking of Mark Twain's words: "The gentle reader will never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad." Thank goodness the company was basically composed of family who love and encourage anyway.

Eric played for us after dinner, and it was a moment I'll never forget. He sang and played a recent composition, Jardins suspendus, which he hasn't even recorded yet. It was such a privilege to hear a master musician and composer in his own home at his own table, making music. I wish I could remember the lyrics; all I know is it was difficult not to be a bit moist in the eyes hearing this lyrical song inspired by the war in Iraq.

Eric talked about his writing process afterward, another privilege I enjoyed greatly. He spoke of being taken by surprise when, to his delight, additional layers of meaning in the song came to the surface for him after he had already written it. To me this was just evidence of his genius as an artist. I've often thought artistic wanna-be's like me must sound so pretentious or laughably arrogant when we talk about "our work" or our creative process; with Eric Vincent, we had "the real deal." We had evidence of a talented poetic mind right in front of us, but instead of feeling envious, as is my tendency, I felt awed and inspired, like someone at the feet of a great teacher taking it all in. It was great. Later in the evening I tried to tell Eric how special it was for me, but it came out awkwardly, of course, which was frustrating because it was all from the heart but sounding so impossibly inane. Oh well - he seemed the kind of lovely, generous, kind-hearted person (with self-deprecating humor, to boot) who would give me the benefit of the doubt.

The end of the evening was one of wine and music. Eric played a few more songs for us, then pulled out his violin to accompany my father-in-law as he strummed "The Frozen Logger" and other American folk songs on the guitar. My brother-in-law took the guitar then, and he and my husband sang some Cat Stevens and James Taylor favorites. Throughout all this passersby on the boulevard above would stop and lean over the stone wall to listen for a while. One of them even pulled out a fancy camera and tripod - French papparazzi in search of Eric Vincent, perhaps? No matter - we sang to our hearts' content and ate our fill, on a boat in the middle of Paris, long into the night.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the story, we are taking a cruise with Eric tonight. Now I know which barge to look for. Anatol & Christine