It was the night of the Hootenanny, a concert and party at l’Atlantique, another youth residence on the opposite side of town where events were periodically hosted. This was one advantage of living in a foyer, that is, these weekly events organized by the staff, activity coordinators whose goal it was to socialize us, the transient residents new to town. The disadvantage was this, that seventeen- or eighteen-year-old French youth, who for whatever reason didn’t live with their parents, needed a different kind of socializing than the smaller, older population of interns and foreigners like me. But for lack of anything better to do, I occasionally participated. And at least there was Tania with me, a Spanish girl my age from the building who was in Niort for a year-long volunteer project.
A make-shift stage had been set up in the main room of the building, and the first band was getting ready. Quentin, a young man roughly my age introduced himself to me and Tania when he heard our accents. One couldn’t help but noticing the Spanish accent in particular, it was so endearing. Mine however sounded awful to me, but apparently some people actually liked it. Being from the outskirts of Toulouse, Quentin himself had a strong southern accent, which was sometimes easier to understand, because it was slower, but just as often more difficult because his vowels had a strange, rolling twang.
He was a recent college graduate doing an ecology internship in the swamps of Poitou, a short bus ride away from Niort. One could tell that he, too, felt out of sorts in this alien environment of delinquent-seeming French youth. Looking around, we were assuredly the oldest there other than the staff.
The first group was standard alt rock sung in French. The second was also standard alt rock, though sung in an unintelligible English. I discovered that this was called yaourt, the French word for yogurt, meaning English sung by French people who actually can’t speak English and possibly don’t know what they’re saying.
When the concert was over Tania, Quentin and I left to go meet Gaspar at l’ArroSoir, a small bar across from the 1000-year-old dungeon. Gaspar would later become my best French friend in Niort, but at this point I barely knew him. We had met in the main hall of my building when he was settling some paperwork matters with Françoise, the genial secretary who worked at the welcome desk; he had lived there for a few months in one of the studio apartments and then moved back in with his parents. Before coming to the FJT Gaspar had taught French in China for four years, which he said gave him more empathy for foreigners living in his own country. Now he worked in a high paying job for one of the mutual insurances that Niort was known for, although it often seemed to me that he didn’t work very much, but rather was perpetually on vacation, as I’ve noted before. He categorically refused to do anything involving the FJT, that’s why he hadn’t come to the concert. It’s okay if you’re new to town or foreign, but otherwise it’s frowned upon to live in the FJT, he’d explained to me. It wouldn’t be a good idea, for example, to bring a girl there, he’d added.
That’s right Dan, we are at the bar, he said in a strange, robotic voice in English when I called him to say we were coming. His English was very poor but he liked to have fun now and then practicing it. He was already lit.
Walking through the narrow streets, the three of us struggled to have a coherent conversation. The truth was I had trouble understanding Tania sometimes, and then she would try saying whatever it was in English and that only proved worse, though endearing. I would have liked not to make any judgements or have any feelings about accents, but rather consider the content of speech alone, because that’s how I hoped people related to me, but accents invariably had an effect on me all the same. I was learning a lesson about the messy distinctions between form and content, which we should not take for granted.
Dan! Gaspar cried when he saw us enter. How are you? He had a rakish grin on his face and for some reason there was a big bandage on his nose.
What happened? I said. You look like Jack Nicholson in Chinatown.
I ran into a door—with my nose, he said. One of his friends next to him laughed. Even his grin resembled Jack’s grin.
We’ve been drinking for a while, his friend said.
Gaspar started rolling a spliff right there on the table. He was man of few inhibitions. When the server came he put it on his lap and ordered a round of shots. To your lovers, we toasted. A few clever things to say about my lack of lovers came to mind, but I didn’t know quite how to express them. The liquor almost made me gag.
Gaspar left the table to smoke his spliff and I followed, needing a smoke break myself. He offered his joint but I declined. I didn’t want to go down that route.
Come on Dan, it’ll do you good! he said, taking a long drag.
I wasn’t made for bud, I said. There was ample evidence for this.
Il faut pas exagérer! he said. This was one of his catch phrases. It never quite made sense to me, as it translated roughly to ‘you don’t have to exaggerate,’ or simply, ‘don’t exaggerate,’ which given the context didn’t seem appropriate, at least in a readily apparent way. Perhaps there was a meaning of which I wasn’t aware.
He was still grinning. He lit my cigarette for me. It was fall outside and I was wearing a light jacket and a sweater. Gaspar had left his coat inside and was wearing a striped shirt, and he looked cartoonishly French. Besides a couple standing outside smoking a cigarette, the streets were deserted, even though it was a Friday night. This city is dead, Gaspar said.
On our way back to the table he ordered more drinks for everyone. I asked Olivier, one of Gaspar’ friends at the table, about it. Is he always like this, buying everyone drinks?
That’s Gaspar for sure. No one gets it, you just have to accept it and don’t ask questions, Olivier said.
Now, perhaps because there was an American around, Gaspar was talking about his brief time in Boston visiting a friend doing an exchange program when they were both in their early twenties.
I never had any luck with American girls. I made valiant efforts but they didn’t seem interested! I just don’t understand these américaines!
Were you wearing that bandage on your nose? said Anthony, another one of his friends at the table. Gaspar’s customary sly grin spread over his face. His eyes were red from all the hash. Suddenly he pulled off the bandage to scratch his nose and we all saw that there wasn’t much of a bruise at all, besides a little redness. He stuck it back on.
In Paris though, I was made for the American tourists! he said. When the server came around he started to order yet another round of drinks but Tania insisted that we buy our own this time. She had more pride than me. She and I went up to the bar and ordered beers.
For the next half hour or so I spoke with Anthony about American cinema. He insisted on practicing his English, and while sometimes it insulted me when people did this, because I took it to mean that my interlocutor found my French wanting, this time I realized that he genuinely just wanted to try English. It was nice, for once, to be the articulate one. Anthony was so drunk that he was beginning to slur his speech.
Kubrick…there’s a great, he said.
What about Jerry Lewis?
Ah…Jerry Lewis! That’s shit…in the ’60s we like him…but that’s finished!
I was getting drunk too. I began to think about my last night out, with Mounir. This time I wouldn’t miss any signals! Perhaps I would even see the same girl if I could get us to visit that bar. I looked up at Anais, the only girl other than Tania who was with us. Was she sending any signals? I couldn’t tell. Smoking another cigarette with Gaspar I offered that we head over to l’Onze-bis for more drinks.
Ah, Dan, I know what you’re thinking, he said. He was familiar with the story. That place stinks but let’s head on over.
And so we found ourselves on the roof of l’Onze-bis, and while there were a few vaguely familiar faces, Manu and his friends were not there. I thought of the charisma Mounir had shown the last time. There were several groups of attractive girls sitting and talking just like us, and if I had gone up to one of them and said, simply, ‘Bonsoir, I’m Dan, a lonely American who doesn’t understand anyone in this town and needs friends. What are your names?’ my candor would perhaps have gotten me somewhere—and at the very least, an interesting conversation would have come out of it. But I didn’t have it in me. I looked out towards the river that ran through the center of Niort. In the distance there was one of the town’s three big cathedrals. I yawned suddenly, feeling tired.
Everyone was leaving now and looking at my phone I saw it was already two, closing time. Though I could have easily gone home to bed, it seemed that that would make for an underwhelming conclusion to the evening.
Where to next? I asked Gaspar, expecting him to say there was nothing else open.
Le Chamboul’tou, though I’m sick of that place, it’s all we’ve got left, he said.
Gaspar’s been banned from that place periodically, but I guess he’s on okay terms with them now, Olivier said to me.
I asked Tania if she wanted to really make a night of it. In Spain we are always out this late when we party, she said.
So all of us made our way across the river, a five minute walk, if that, to le Chamboul’tou, which was nothing more than a non-descript building with a bouncer standing out front. When it was our turn to go in he told us that if we all wanted to get in at once, we would have to wait a while. Gaspar got to the front of the line and made a stink. Come on, we’ve got some foreigners here, real, true tourists! He gestured to me and Tania. Tania was very pretty, and that probably did the trick. Okay, he said. Five to ten minutes, that’s all. Gaspar, Olivier and I went to the river to piss, and when we got back the bouncer signaled us in.
The place was packed with people, some of them faces I’d just seen at l’Onze-bis. We all had to push through a horde of people waiting to order drinks just to get to the dance floor, which was only about the size of a living room. Gaspar remained by the bar to order several pitchers of beer. I left the dance floor to go to the small backyard where all the smokers stood.
I pretended not have a lighter for an excuse to strike up a conversation, picking a group of three girls and one guy.
Can I have a light? I said to a demure seeming girl with a thoughtful, pretty face.
Ah you’re English, said her friend, who was also attractive.
American in fact, I said. Thus began the usual exchange of explaining why I was there, where I was from in the States, etc. It was an explanation that had already grown tiring. Our conversation seemed to be going fine, though, until a guy joined us and put his arm around her.
It’s an American, she said to her boyfriend.
Ah! An American! he looked me over. I love your look—those glasses—what a sweater, he said.
Thank you, I said. But I was not thankful.
Listen, he said, putting his arm around me. The demure girl was talking to another guy, and I longed. They hadn’t kissed or touched yet so there was still hope. The other girl had left the group and now it was just me and her boyfriend. You like these French girls? I can get you French girl. He spoke in a mix of poor English and French. You can get girlfriend tonight.
He was drunk, I was drunk, we were all drunk. That’d be nice, I said. But instead of introducing me to girls, the demure one for example, he just introduced me to his guy friends. My American friend! he kept saying. There was definitely something patronizing about this but I was too drunk to care. After being introduced to several people and forgetting their names instantly, the guy, Antoine or Pierre, pointed out a girl just coming outside. Ah it’s Mirielle, you could try her, he said.
Sure, I’ll try her, I said.
Mirielle, this is Daniel the American.
Bonsoir, she said.
Salut, ça va? I said.
Ça va, she said. Thus ended our conversation. I decided that this guy was getting me nowhere and I would be better off rejoining Gaspar and his friends, but before I went back inside we exchanged numbers, although we would never contact each other.
Back inside I took beer from the pitcher Gaspar had bought and forced myself to dance. Predictably, I felt absurd. The whole thing was appalling.
Pretty soon the music stopped and the lights came on. It was four in the morning and the place was closing. I assumed that meant our night was over but there was one last option, the Saint Gelais. The place was infamously trashy, beauf as the French said. I hadn’t been there but I’d heard talk about it. There were rumors that it had been closed down for a few months due to a rape on the premises, and a few of my younger colleagues at the elementary school confessed to having frequented the place out of desperation for anything else to do; they always felt ashamed afterwards.
We might as well try it, it’s right on our block, Tania said.
So now we all stumbled out and walked up the winding narrow street towards Saint Gelais. We weren’t the only ones with that ideas; drunken, boisterous groups of friends were all walking in the same direction—a Eurotrash march to our final destination. Looking around, I could tell everyone was tired but we had to get our last bit of clubbing in before the night was over and we repeated the whole stupid mess the next evening.
White we waited in line, I made note of a placard on the outside wall with a list of rules for proper clubbing behavior. Among them were ‘be respectful of women’ and ‘excessive drunkenness will not be tolerated.’
This time we all had to pay the doorman five euros to hang our coats. Descending the stairs, the generic club beats became louder and louder.
What I saw before me amounted to a dingy dungeon converted into a dance floor with a small bar serving over-priced drinks. Men aggressively danced with the women, if one was available, and a strange smell filled the air.
Ah, isn’t isn’t it glorious? Gaspar grinned. I was amazed at his ability to slum it and to appreciate things with detached amusement, au second degré. He was right, it truly was glorious. Many of the street vagrant types seemed to be there, and I even recognized a few of the more unsavory faces from my building.
I went into a small room were the music was turned down and the bartender served cocktails and wine. I managed to order a gin and soda without confusing the guy too much and almost puked after one small sip. There was a cute girl with plastic glasses standing in the corner who seemed out of place so I took another big swig, gagged, and approached her.
You seem out of place here, I said.
What? she said, incredulous.
You seem out of…never mind, I said, realizing that I wasn’t making myself understood. It was probably a bad line anyway, for all I knew she loved it there. She did ask me where I was from and why I was in Niort but before I could even finish my spiel a boy came up, her boyfriend evidently. I gotta go, I said.
Back in the main room I watched the people dancing. I wasn’t sure if I was having fun. Sometimes it was difficult to tell, for me. I could not even offer myself the consolation that at least this was material for a story, because of that I wasn’t sure. A fog machine came on and everything became hazy. Body odor wafted in my direction.
Eventually Gaspar appeared out of the fog, dancing with Anais. The bandage had stayed on his nose all night. Il faut se frotter! he said, yet another one of his catch phrases. This meant, roughly, ‘you have to rub each other,’ in the context of dancing. But I didn’t want to frotter, it made me uncomfortable. A beautiful girl walked passed Gaspar and he put his hand on her shoulder. Wait, he said, taking her hair in his hand and smelling it. She pushed him away and walked off. He was a man of many impulses, and he followed them.
I clumsily made a few efforts to dance, taking care not to frotter at all but rather keeping my distance. Luckily, the night was almost over and soon the lights came on. It was six. We all stumbled out. Gaspar tried to kiss Tania, much to her chagrin, and Anthony pissed in the street right in front of the doorman, who threatened to call the cops. We’d better get going before this gets worse, I said to Tania. She agreed, and we quickly walked back to our building.
Did you have fun? she said to me in the lobby.