March 2011

SO, THERE I WAS on a station in Montmartre, Paris, waiting for a Metro, when this old guy with an accordion walked in and sat down on the opposite platform. He began playing,  just fooling around, but it sounded fantastic in the empty station. I smiled at the music and he noticed me smiling and nodded to me. I nodded back and then my train came.

That’s Paris at its best. It’s a place of brief exchanges and happy accidents. At its worst, it’s the limp lettuce and canned tuna salad I had in a rip-off restaurant on the Boulevard Beaumarchais. Or the Indian cab driver who doubled the fare from hotel to station and then demanded an extra euro for access to our baggage in the boot. Furious, I shouted at him in schoolboy French, finally resorting to the only insult I could remember – “You are a monkey,” I snarled. It was probably the politest put down he’d ever had.

But you’re probably wondering about Uma Thurman.

Well, we strolled into Brasserie Bofinger off the Bastille – it’s Paris’s oldest brasserie, apparently – and because we hadn’t booked we were invited to queue for 25 minutes.

While we were waiting at the bar, somebody I recognised walked in: Arpad “Arki” Busson, the Mayfair-based hedge fund manager.

I was thinking, “isn’t he going out with …” when my wife whispered, “I think that’s Uma Thurman”, which it was. She’s surprisingly tall. Anyway, the multimillionaire and  the film star didn’t have to wait as long as we did and were swept upstairs and out of sight with Uma’s blonde kids by Bofinger’s superb Maitre d’.

When we were finally shown to our seats in what really is a splendidly authentic brasserie, we found we were sitting within earshot of Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle. It was like being in Scott’s on Mount Street in London's Mayfair.

As it turned out, though, the food wasn’t that great. True, the onion soup I had was authentic and filling – but it was peasant food available all over Paris at a fraction of the price. And the Magret de Canard with foie gras was undercooked and chewy. Not a patch on Galvin’s Bistrot in Baker Street, London.

Still, it was an experience. I’ve never seen service in a restaurant so intense. There were far too few waiters and dozens of exasperated exchanges. Only the Maitre d’ sailed through it calmly, juggling dozens of waiting customers, smiling and greeting regulars and personalities, never once letting the mask drop. He even found time to have a conversation with me, a badly-dressed tourist who would probably never return (although now I might). Remarkable.

Paris is a city I love. It oozes art, and – despite the reputation – I’ve always found the people to be friendly and easy going. And there are those happy accidents.

We climbed hundreds of steps in the spring sunshine from Montmartre to the Sacre Coeur for the first time since our honeymoon and found another old guy playing Bambolaya on a battered nylon-string guitar to dozens of appreciative listeners. The sun shone and the people cheered and the old guy played Beatles tunes with a flamenco twist. It was entrancing.

The journey home on Eurostar was marred by two senile delinquents – an English couple in their late 50s, I’d guess, who were drunk, in some kind of aged lust and so thrilled with themselves that they didn’t care who knew it.

It started before they sat down when she asked him how he was going to open the bottle he was still carrying. He said he’d use her thighs, and they laughed like Barbara Windsor in a Carry On film. Frankly, I don’t think her thighs were up to it. Nor his, come to that. They were – how shall I put it – pre-frail; unable to fill their clothes properly, heading for the stained wing-backed chairs in an old folks’ home. Heavy drinkers put on weight, but this couple reminded me that alcoholics tend to be undernourished.

Anyway, from there it got worse. They noticed my disapproval – it’s a look I can’t hide, I’m afraid – and began talking about me in stage whispers, reinventing me as a character they could despise. I switched them off with my iPod, listening instead to the wonderful Simon Callow reading Peter Ackroyd’s Thames: Sacred River.

They were still at it when I unplugged myself at Ebbsfleet, only this time they were going on about her ancient father. Family relationships broadcast at full volume.

As we were pulling into St Pancras, it occurred to me to tap the guy on the shoulder and say: “Cheers mate, hope the necrophilia works out for you.”

But I didn’t, of course.