Travels of an Innocent Man
Author: Rask Balavoine

Chapter 5
Just Another Cafe in Paris

That’s all it is really, another Paris cafe. It’s called Berthillon’s, 42 Quai d’Orléans. To be correct it’s a Salon de Thé rather than a cafe but there’s no need to be pedantic about it so cafe will do for our purpose which is nostalgia. In short Berthillon’s is an agreeable and convenient place for friends to meet and chat over a drink.


Berthillon’s is where I like to meet up with Mathilde when I’m in Paris which is not so often now: I wait while she shops. I love to take the time to sit there on those sharp, cold, early afternoons in February. There might be a skiff of snow lying on the pavements and the sky will be the brightest, crispest blue. The sun will be shining, but its heat can only be felt in sheltered corners or from behind the big, clean windows of Berthillon’s as it blesses a city that is too busy to look up and notice.


I notice. Mathilde notices too and we remember the many winter afternoons we have spent over the years when I’ve passed through Paris on my way elsewhere. Berthillon’s is always warm, the kind of warm that makes me think of butter melting into freshly toasted bread. It’s also usually quiet, not in that grey, sullen, lonely way where the clash of cutlery carelessly thrown down on tables brings attention to the lack of customers. No, the quietness here is more like a warm, discreet hush where the conversations of generations of lovers have been muffled as they have seeped into the wood panelling on the walls. Intimacy, discretion …..


Moreover the crowds don’t seem to know about Berthillon’s, at least that is the impression given. The level of business, the turnover of customers would be called brisk if you sat and thought about it, but at Berthillon’s the traffic is deceptively muted in spite of its constancy.


Those who seek refuge here are not usually of the tourist classes, backpackers, day trippers and the like – I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone who could pass for a tourist in Berthillon’s in the 25 years I’ve been coming here – but they are not far away. They rarely wander far off the beaten track which comes to an end a few hundred yards along the narrow road at the front of the Notre Dame cathedral.


It’s at the back end of the cathedral and across the river that I sit in Berthillon’s, looking out at the flying buttresses that stabilize the unfortunately iconic edifice that dominates that part of Paris. While tourists marvel at the repugnant, squat façade of our lady, their lady really, certainly not mine, I watch and feel comforted that the Seine flows between Notre Dame and me and I luxuriate smugly in the secret glory of this and all the other out-of-the-way refuges I’ve found in the city.


I read my newspaper as I wait for the ever late Mathilde, soaking in the winter sunshine in the warmth of the cafe while the sun’s pale, yellow rays bringing out the golds and bronzes of the brass fittings and the wood panels.


I order what I always drink there at this time of the day, at this time of the year; hot chocolate that arrives in two parts. A jug of dark, thick, runny chocolate concentrate sits alongside another filled with hot steamed milk: I mix the two to my taste and to my enormous satisfaction.


Mathilde arrives and I rise from the comfort of my chair, thrilled at the sight of the beautiful woman who had left me after breakfast to spend my money, warmed beyond telling at the smile of recognition on her face and I kiss her freezing cheeks that remind me that it is February, we are in Paris, and the day proceeds from there.

 

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