The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Thursday Night at the Expat Bar

Dave is already there, leaning on the bar at Wallace, when I come in. I'm a bit out of breath, having picked a Velo'V bike with a busted derailleur that wouldn't upshift out of first, so I spun the pedals like Lance Armstrong on angel dust all the way across the 2nd, over the bridge and into Vieux-Lyon. We exchange our greetings as I shuck my jacket and toss it over a barstool.

"Anyone else coming?"
"One more for sure...I dunno. We'll see."

[photo: Full moon on Hotel-Dieu from the living room balcony. Click to enlarge]

Dave and I don't have too much in common other than being American and roughly the same age. But we talk a bit; this is what you do as an expat--hang out with people for no real reason other than that you have the same-colored passport. We do share a taste for whiskey, though, which partially explains why the American Club's monthly low-key hang-out-and-drink is held here at the Wallace, a Scots-owned place that features every brand of scotch I've ever heard of plus a bunch more.

I order a drink, a glass of Lagavulin 16, sans glacons, and there's the odd little interaction with the bartender, an invisible, silent negotiation over which language the transaction will occur in (the Wallace staff are bilingual). The customer wishes to show that he is a local and not a tourist; the bartender wants to complete the transaction as painlessly as possible. In this case the conversation begins with "Bon soir. Alors, je prends..." and ends with "Cheers, mate."

[photo: pretty much the same photo, taken from 5 steps to the right to get the neighboring building in the frame. So sue me, I like 'em both.]

A blackboard shows upcoming events: Chelsea-Blackburn Rovers, Six Nations rugby, some cricket match or another. One of the weekly specials is haggis. The music switches from Oasis to U2. I finish my dram, and having warmed up a bit, have the barkeep pull me a pint of Murphy's.

Some more 'Ricains show up, plus a couple of English-speaking French people, and we've got enough people to enter the Thursday Night Pub Quiz.

Pub Quiz is pretty straightforward: A bloke reads off a set of trivia questions, aided by a French translator sitting next to him, and a videotape of visual aids displayed on the bar's TV. Each team notes its answers on an official scoresheet, and scores are tallied after each round. There's a tiebreaker question that no one can be expected to guess correctly (last time it was "How many kilos of pubic hair does the London sewer authority remove from its network each month?"*) Highest score wins... something. Free rounds, gift certificates maybe.

I don't know because my team has never won--Americans are at a distinct disadvantage at Pub Quiz, as it is heavily biased towards UK culture. If you don't know your Coronation Street cast members or BBC presenters or 1966 World Cup team members, you're going to drop points.

As it becomes apparent that we're going to finish out of the money in Pub Quiz, conversation wanders: The French folks have all sorts of questions about Hillary and Obama (very big story here) and we scratch our heads to try to remember arcane details about party conventions. There are a lot of "where can you buy [x] in this town, anyway?" and "anyone ever been to [y], and is it any good?".

Of course, the first question in any expat conversation is "How long have you been here?", which precedes even the "So, what do you do?" that is standard within the US. There is small talk. There are silences a bit too long as everyone tries to think of a suitable conversation topic. I figure "Anybody got the new Mountain Goats album?" is unlikely to generate much conversation. There is a bit of oversharing as someone gets a little too far into the whiskey.

After a couple of pints I need to visit the Gents', so I excuse myself and head down the hallway to where the urinals are. Interestingly, the Ladies' is past those urinals, and as I'm conducting my business a girl passing by catches my elbow with her oversized bag. "Oh, pardon," she says, slightly embarrassed. Somewhat more embarrassed, I reply "C'est pas grave" [It's no big deal]. She doesn't try to peek to verify.

Back in the bar room, a table of about 12 Brits and a handful of Frenchies (useful if you need to know how many times Edith Piaf was married) takes the pub quiz prize. I'm getting tired far too early, plus I've got work tomorrow, so I decide to cut out.

The streets are quiet and I ride along the sidewalk, slowly so I can look in the shop windows. Two years and I still haven't been in most of these shops, bars, and restaurants. Maybe this weekend... well, probably not.

*1400 kilos!


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