Red or white? Meat or cheese? We'll always have Paris, 1991, and we'll always have Refuge des Fondus. We being me, my mother, and a fellow American, unknown to us at the time, who has since become a most amazing friend. (Actually, this is the same friend who hooked me up with the most amazing Keith Jarrett tickets; I'll call him B.) At this point, I just have to clarify that everything about this memory has to do with the Parisian restaurant in Montmartre, and not with its poor relation, La Cave des Fondus, a NYC knockoff that opened not long ago in Nolita (and that I am not advocating). Refuge des Fondus is a tiny space in the 18th arrondissement, dwarfed further by the majesty of Sacré-Coeur, in whose shadow it has operated for at least thirty years. I had been there once with my study-abroad group, and had resolved to bring my mom along for some fun when she visited me later on in the term. B. was directed to the notorious eatery by a friend of his, who suggested that it was not to be missed during the single-day layover that B. had in Paris, on the way to I-forget-where. He, adventurous soul, came alone. When my mom and I arrived, we were greeted in a brusque manner that is typical of the place, but that is also part of its . . . well, not charm exactly . . . its outrageousness, certainly. The cramped space allows for a long series of tables, pushed together so completely that there is no gap between them; together they form a single long feeding post. I—being the younger, more agile, and shorter-skirted one—was made to climb onto the outer chair and step on the table itself, in order to seat myself on the banquette side. No harm done. At this early stage, my mom might or might not have been catching on to the fact that in coming to this restaurant, we were making ourselves the willing targets of some crass but harmless fun. The game was definitely up, however, when we placed our order and got our drinks. Ordering at Refuge takes the form of two single-word answers to the following questions: "Red or white?" (wine) "Meat or cheese?" (fondue). You might squeeze in some extra syllables if you add a polite "s'il vous plaît," but by then you are talking to the waiter's back. When your wine arrives, it is contained in a "glass" not of the Riedel type but something rather like Avent—yes, that's right: in a baby bottle, complete with sterilized nipple. This is your litmus test. Probably because I was in my twenties, I shrugged and started sucking. My mom drew the line at the nipple, preferring to pry that off and drink from the neck of the bottle. It was around this time that B. walked in and asked for a table for one. I suspect he was seated next to my mom because it was clear that we were all Americans, and therefore we ought to benefit from each other's company. I don't think they were trying to do us any favors by this gesture, but in fact they did—the favor of a lifetime, since B. is the only happenstance travel acquaintance who's become a lasting friend. B. looked a bit bewildered. I assume he noticed the baby bottles and wondered if they were obligatory (they are, unless you empty a water glass and pour your wine in there . . . come to think of it, maybe that's what my mom did with her wine). We started talking, laughed a lot, ate wonderful fondue, got a bit tipsy on the wine, laughed some more, and went out into the chilly night. It would have been an impossible shame to part ways there, especially since we were just one short (steep) climb away from the most beautiful spot in Paris—and especially since B. was leaving the next day, and we were all in Paris to profit from the City of Lights, in whatever time we had allotted. So after dinner, the three of us hiked up to Sacré-Coeur, walked through the basilica, and looked out from its terrace over the famous rooftops of the city. It was a clear night, beautiful. The lights twinkling and the basilica sublime. It took the ridiculous for all of us to get to this moment, there together at the same time, but isn't that what life is? Deeply ridiculous, and marvelously sublime?
Note: If you're ever in Paris and are game for good fondue in an absurd yet jovial atmosphere, Refuge des Fondus is located at: 17, rue des Trois Frères 75018; tel: 01-42-55-22-65. Métro: Abbesses.