The traditional manner of greeting at the Moustache Bar in Paris is a slap on the arse. With a Dutch tool.
While I realise a million porn search engines have just exploded at the publication of that sentence, and some of you may have already decided to click through to the Disney website to cleanse yourself, I hasten to add it’s not as bad as it sounds.
Moustache is one of the local bear hangouts, and Francesco, the enthusiastic Portugese bartender, has a large steel spatula behind the bar which he uses for christening (or to coin a word that Christophe invented, “Christianising”) new customers.
Being not from a country where corporal punishment is seen as a way to meet and retain new customers, I was rather taken aback, but it was all in good fun.
The seven or eight men in the bar (it’s quite small) were silent for about an hour after the very loud party of English speakers arrived, until one of them actually approached us because he recognised Andy’s familiar accent. He decided to share some jokes. There was a punchline in there somewhere, but I think it got lost somewhere under the English Channel. I returned to my wine.
About three glasses later, one of the bar’s regular customers turned up. He is blind, and an elderly gentleman who took quite a shine to Andy. He felt his stomach (this is a bear bar, after all), his cheekbones and his lips and told him he “had a lovely heart”.
Francesco, who had been out the back, returned and was shocked to see this man in the bar – he had been banned a few weeks before.
Turns out he had been through a period of such severe depression that he wasn’t bathing, and the smell had become so bad that he was asked to leave. Francesco reminded him that he was supposed to be banned, and he explained that he was feeling much better and had bathed especially for the occasion. All was forgiven.
Not all stories have happy endings, though. The following day, we were on our way to lunch when we passed a homeless man lying in the pavement on his back, an empty bottle of wine in his hand. He was mumbling incoherently, and thankfully wrapped up warm on a day where the outside temperature was stuck at zero.
When we returned after lunch he was still there, only now he was lying on his side and not moving. We stopped to make sure he was breathing. The thought that hundreds of busy city dwellers could have been stepping over his corpse as they rushed, oblivious, to their next appointments made me feel sick.
It never ceases to amaze me how such abundance can live alongside such poverty, no matter where you travel in the world. I know some people don’t like giving to the homeless because they think the money will only be spent on more alcohol, or drugs.
I thought about this man’s story, about how he came to be lying on that grate in the first place. A large percentage of homeless people experience mental illness, and the street is their final refuge when the people around them have either burnt out from compassion fatigue or simply don’t understand the bizarre behaviour of their loved one.
I’d like to think my conscience was clear because we stopped to check on him, but I don’t think it ever can be. For any of us.