Country no. 8 on my World Karaoke Tour: Vive la France!

Generations of Americans have been drawn to Paris for its culture. I came for karaoke.

Not long after returning from my 2 1/2 week Eurotrip in 2004, I tendered my notice of resignation to my horrible boss. I was finally extricating myself from an untenable work situation. My last day at the office was in early November. I left without having a new job in hand; that’s an indication of just how much I felt the need to get out.

It took me nearly a year to find a new position, partly because a headhunter who’d promised to help me seemed more interested in having me perform cut-rate legal work for his company than in placing me with a law firm (I referred to him as the “laissez-faire headhunter” when mentioning him to my friends). Only when I initiated my own networking efforts the following summer did my job search finally acquire momentum. One of my contacts referred me to an elite recruiter, who hooked me up with the law firm where I still practice today. I arranged to start that new gig in early October, 2005.

Before embarking on the next phase of my career, I decided to visit London and Paris for a little over a week. Paris was to be a weekend excursion from London.

London had already become — and remains today — my favourite foreign city in which to spend time. And the London portion of my vacation was itself chock full of highlights; among them were my first time attending a play at the reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe theatre (I saw “Troilus & Cressida”), and a delightful day-trip to the ancient university town of Cambridge and the equally venerable boarding school at Eton. Naturally I also did some karaoke singing in London, although this wasn’t my first time performing there (London having been the very first city outside the United States in which I’d sung karaoke — thereby launching my World Karaoke Tour, back in 1993).

As the weekend approached, my excitement mounted for the next phase of my holiday. I’d made a day-trip to Paris the previous summer, while I was staying in Brussels; and I looked forward to spending more quality time in Paree.

To reach the French capital from London, I crossed the English Channel via a mode of transportation I’d long sought to experience: a Eurostar train ride through the Channel Tunnel (popularly dubbed the “Chunnel”). My train dropped me off in Paris on Friday night, September 29.

I actually knew a couple of people in Paris before I got there. My friend Ellen, whom I’d met at my local karaoke venue in New York, had become an American expat and moved to the City of Lights just a few weeks before my arrival. A talented vocalist, Ellen had joined a local singing group consisting of three sopranos and a pianist. That group was scheduled to give a concert, consisting mostly of classical pieces, in a Parisian church on the Sunday afternoon during the weekend of my visit (among the composers represented on the program were Mozart, Puccini and Massenet). Due to her need to rehearse and rest up for the concert, Ellen was unable to join me for karaoke on Saturday night. However, she’d put me in touch with her roommate Bev, a native of the United Kingdom. In advance of my visit, Ellen and Bev researched Parisian karaoke options for me; they compiled a list of venues throughout the city, culled from listings in a local newspaper. And Bev eagerly agreed to accompany me on Saturday evening as I went out on the town in search of karaoke.

Before I could turn to official World Karaoke Tour business, I had some daytime hours to fill. Two of Paris’s modern-art museums, the Musée d’Orsay and the Centre Georges Pompidou, were among the places where I whiled away the morning and afternoon. (I can’t recall whether I also went inside the most visited art museum in the world, the Louvre.) I also stopped by the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute), which may seem like a random place to have checked out; but that building, designed by renowned architect Jean Nouvel, features some unique design elements. The most visually striking of those is its window treatments. The curtain wall incorporates a photosensitive system of blinds consisting of what architects call “mechanical diaphragms,” which were designed to automatically adjust to conditions and let in the appropriate amount of sunlight. This was considered an example of “smart” architecture. Sadly, by the time of my visit in 2005, the automatic window blinds were no longer functional. They still looked pretty damn nice, though (see photo at right).

Eventually I ended up at the Eiffel Tower. Nothing clichéd there. 🙂 I was disinclined to brave the long lines required for admission to its observation deck; so I just lingered in its vicinity, and snapped some photos when its external lighting was turned on at dusk. One of those pics, showing the distinctive yellowish-gold hue of the tower’s sodium lamps, can be seen at the top of this blog post.

Then I had to tear myself away and meet up with Bev. It was time to find some karaoke.

Karaoke: an H-Bomb in Paris

Bev and I spent a considerable amount of time on Paris’s Metro system, crisscrossing the city. Some of the published listings of karaoke sites proved to be either inaccurate or obsolete, and the first two or so venues that we showed up at either lacked karaoke, or were no longer in operation. Finally we wound up in a nightspot that did have karaoke on that night: La Casa del Fox, a block or two off the Champs-Élysées. The crowd inside skewed young and was fashionably attired. I believe there was a cover charge for admittance. No one in La Casa del Fox seemed to speak English — not even the karaoke host. Fortunately, Bev was fluent in French and acted as an interpreter — thereby facilitating my communications with the host. (I’d studied the French language for three years during my secondary schooling; but that had been a long time ago. In the intervening years, much of my knowledge of français had dissipated due to disuse. As a result, my conversational skills in that language were limited.)

I enjoyed the way the karaoke host pronounced “H-Bomb” in French when summoning me to the stage; it sounded like “OSH-Boam.” When I took the mic, I sang “Footloose” — one of my go-to songs at the time, and a song that had already gone over well at my karaoke appearances in Greece and the Netherlands the previous year. This time, the audience applauded raucously; in fact, that evening at La Casa del Fox ranks as the greatest reception I’ve ever gotten from a crowd at a karaoke performance.

And that is how France became country no. 8 on my World Karaoke Tour.

Ordinarily, during a night of karaoke, I’ll sing at least three songs. But on that Saturday night at La Casa del Fox, after the off-the-charts response I’d received for “Footloose,” I decided that the Kenny Loggins dance favourite would be my only song of the evening; anything else I sang could only be a letdown. I therefore emulated the credo of George Costanza: always leave on a high note. Well, actually, I modified Mr. Costanza’s strategy in one respect: although I was one-and-done as far as my singing was concerned, I did not immediately leave the nightclub. I was having too good a time.

So I continued to hang out with Bev, and listen to the other singers. One of the things that’s fun for me about karaoke in foreign countries is the exposure to songs that I would never hear back home. No matter where on the planet I find myself, local karaoke singers always know American and British pop music, and can often sing those songs flawlessly even if they don’t speak English fluently. But it’s always a treat when the person at the mic belts out a song in a language that’s foreign to me. A number of the songs performed in La Casa del Fox on the night of my appearance were European pop hits that were reaching my ears for the first time. And I really liked them. (I once experienced a similar phenomenon without even leaving the United States. On a Sunday night in June 2007, I sang karaoke at Paparruchos, a Mexican restaurant in Houston, Texas. That restaurant attracted a large clientele of Hispanic heritage. Even today, the Paparruchos website trumpets that every Sunday at that eatery is “Noche de Karaoke.” Anyway, during the entire two hours or so that I was there, I was one of only two singers to perform any English-language songs.)

At some point Bev took off, but I continued to chill at La Casa del Fox. Then, at about 2:00 a.m., I finally brought myself to leave, and I wandered towards the Champs-Élysées. The nightclub had been near Etoile Charles de Gaulle, the traffic circle inside of which the Arc de Trimophe stands; and I noticed that despite the late hour, the arch was still illuminated. Conveniently, my camera and tripod were in my backpack (as I’d used them for my photo session at the Eiffel Tower earlier in the evening); so I now took some long-exposure photos of the lighted arch, including the one that you see here. Then I entered a horse-drawn coach and was transported to the Paris of the Jazz Age, where I conversed with caricatured versions of Hemingway and Picasso. Okay, not really. 🙂 But despite the lack of time-travel, it had been a perfect evening.

Dead people and sewage

After my life-affirming night of karaoke, it was time for me to see some dead people. A featured stop among my Sunday wanderings was the Père Lachaise cemetery. This graveyard boasts perhaps the highest concentration of culturally significant corpses of any place of burial in the world, with the possible exception of London’s Westminster Abbey. It would be impossible to do justice here to the full catalog of illustrious names whose final resting places can be found within its gates. Herewith, a representative sampling of the subterranean residents of Cimetière du Père-Lachaise:

Authors and playwrights

Honoré de Balzac
Molière
Marcel Proust
Gertrude Stein (she went to a place where there’s really no there there)
Oscar Wilde

Composers and singers

Frédéric Chopin (his heart is entombed in a pillar in a church in Warsaw, but the rest of him molders in the soil of Père Lachaise)
Jim Morrison (he finally broke on through to the other side)
Édith Piaf

Painters

Eugene Delacroix
Amedeo Modigliani

Not all of the remains at Père Lachaise are of the six-feet-under variety. On the premises can be found a columbarium, which is defined in dictionary.com as “a sepulchral vault or other structure with recesses in the walls to receive the ashes of the dead.” The one at Père Lachaise is comprised of a series of 2-story arcades that are reminiscent of cloisters (see photo at right). Behind the colourful plaques on its walls repose the ashes of persons whose bodies were incinerated in the adjacent crematorium.

Père Lachaise is not the only place in town where you can pay your respects to the dearly departed. You can also do so at the Catacombs. Technically, the word “catacombs,” when used in the context of Paris, refers to the vast warren of underground tunnels and chambers below the streets of Paris. That network consists of some 300 kilometres of passages, most of which is off-limits to the public (although it’s common for younger Parisians to sneak into the restricted portions for some urban spelunking). The most notable feature of the Catacombs, and the part that’s publicly accessible, is the section that contains its ossuaries. The skulls and bones of millions of deceased Parisians, dating back to the 18th century, are arranged in various patterns and can be gawked at by visitors. A dignified way to go through eternity, no? One of the most memorable sights when you hike through the Catacombs is a sign near the entrance that bears a chilling welcome: “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort” (Halt! This is the empire of the dead).

After the Catacombs, I hit yet another attraction of underground Paris: I took a tour of the Musée des Égouts de Paris (the Sewer Museum of Paris). You get to meander through the real sewer system, just a few feet above the onrushing sewer water. (And that torrent of liquified shit is fully visible and smellable.) There are also exhibits (situated below street level, like the sewers themselves) where you can learn about the history of water supply and treatment in Paris, going back to Roman times.

On Sunday afternoon, after re-emerging above ground, I attended Ellen’s concert. Ellen was outstanding, as I’d known she would be. Then I caught a train back to London. The next day I flew home to New York and prepared to start my new job.

In June 2006, I would take my first vacation after commencing my employment with my new firm. The destinations this time would include London; Prague, Czech Republic; and Helsinki, Finland. I didn’t know what the karaoke situation was like in Prague, but I’d heard that the karaoke scene in Helsinki was first-rate.

But before I recount what happened in Prague and Helsinki, I’m going to deviate from a strictly chronological narrative of my World Karaoke Tour. The subject of my next post will be the most unlikely place in which I ever found karaoke: Easter Island.

In the Musée d’Orsay, a man looks out on Paris from behind a giant clock.

Categories: Europe, travel, World Karaoke Tour | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Country no. 8 on my World Karaoke Tour: Vive la France!

  1. Bev Beck

    We did have a good time that evening, didn’t we? I have never seen such an amazing reception to somene singing a song at karaoke and it has stuk with me ever since! Bev. X

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    • @Bev: You are too kind. That was a really fun evening, though. And it’s a good thing that those other places that we tried before La Casa del Fox didn’t pan out; an audience at another venue probably wouldn’t have been quite as into it.

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