[3 MINUTE READ] Love in the time of cabaret
On my first visit to Paris, my mother suggested I visit the Moulin Rouge.
On the taxi drive to the airport Rafi was on the radio, returning the city into an era of old fashioned friendships, where people sat on desks and wrote inland letters to each other. I travelled with my eyes glazed to the present. Not experiencing much – so remembering little.
I landed at Charles De Gaulle and picked up a tourist pamphlet. On my way to the hotel, I saw the ad for the oldest cabaret in town – it was called The Moulin Rouge. I felt a pang of respect for my mother. And an obligation to be free-spirited.
The next morning I discussed the visit agenda with my host. Along with a checklist of engineering designs and technical clarifications, I mentioned I was a vegetarian and had to visit the Moulin Rouge. He duly noted them both down and scribbled ‘mother’s instructions’ next to the Moulin Rouge.
Jacques Menetrier was assigned to take me there. He was a veteran engineer who made equipment hand sketches with the precision and character of an artist trapped in a fabricator’s body.
I wore suspenders and felt a sense of occasion. I recently found a Moulin Rouge matchbox with my picture on it from that trip. It reminded me of enthusiastic young men in tight suits, with bouquets in their hands, posing at the send-off of a cousin at the Santa Cruz airport. As we were about to leave the office for Pigalle, Jean Marie the matronly office secretary, opened the office vault and returned with a set of condoms which she tucked into my pocket. It was like a mantra whispered into my ears. Beneath my gratitude lurked the spell of uncertain anticipation.
The inside of the Moulin Rouge was bathed in thick red carpeting and bright neon colours. A pulsating rhythm of lust hung in the atmosphere. Not the hesitant furtive kind that centuries of colonial rule and self doubt had left as their residual imprints on the East, but a more normative Parisian one enjoyed with a sense of culturally acceptable abandon.
Dinner was first served. I was offered a flute of champagne and a plate of fish. I mentioned to the fully dressed waitress that I was a vegetarian who did not eat fish. Her face was bathed with the strange happiness that descends on us when we experience something completely alien but not threatening. I felt the same way just being there so did not complain.
Soon enough the lights were dimmed and the show began. Perfectly proportioned women poured onto the stage and bounced around like their leg muscles had been retrofitted with springs. Their scant clothing framed in bright plumage rising from behind their backs, regal headgear and aristocratic straps that allowed their bodies to become swaying pieces of animated art. Music soaked the room into a whirl of shifting lights, bursts of smoke and orchestrated legs that kicked and rolled in tandem.
I watched them closely to see if anyone caught my fancy. They all looked interchangeable. The audition process must have involved precise specifications and a measuring tape. The initial joy on seeing so many women performing on stage persisted for a very long time. But there was also something else. As the spectacle unfolded, I felt entranced by the natural beauty that centuries of modesty had cloaked behind decorum but suddenly unleashed before me on stage. Drawn into this enchantingly risque spectacle were the unnecessary secrets and irrelevant angst of every teenage history, stomped by a hundred tapping feet. The dancers turned into a frozen extract from another time, when men and women danced around tribal fires below a phosphorous moonlight. My heart began to fill up with lightness as unacknowledged barriers of guilt slowly crumbled. I hoped the music would never stop.
After the show we shuffled along the sidewalk towards the metro station. Pimps offered us invitations to the peep show booths skirting the Moulin Rouge. But the cabaret had left me with a feeling of patient love. I carried that back to my hotel room and went to bed.
All of us have an ageless observer inside us. Whose constant voice watches over us as the body ages, circumstances evolve and a sense of where we can find our peace takes root.
Sometimes we listen to that voice. It keeps us quiet and allows us to be alive to what we experience. On occasions it converges with our mother’s advice and gives us a chance to enjoy the cabaret.