The promised land of one night stands

Angela Hunt | Photography Editor

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It’s nighttime, but far from dark in the red light district of Paris.

 

A windmill outlined in neon red and white light, positioned on the rooftop of the main attraction, paints the faces of passersby a shadowy shade of pink. Its lights flicker, hiding the blush of strangers as they glance down the strip, a two-story French Las Vegas. The creaks of its blades are the squeaks of mice against the roar of accents belonging to visitors from afar: American, English, Chinese, Japanese, German, Spanish and least of all, French.

 

My accent is American. My floor-length Dillard’s gown rises straight from the ground in blackest-black fabric to the empire-style waist, where the material transitions to the white stuff that makes up wedding veils. My heels are black satin from H&M.

 

Excitement reflects in a line of mascara-hooded eyes, bare legs and high heels outside the doors of the Moulin Rouge. Some show a little skin. Some show none at all. They are the clientele, or they are the workers. 

 

There are no pedestrians here.

 

Cobblestone streets arch in their centers and slide beneath the curbs that line them. The sidewalks are large blocks of smooth, stained cement. The metro station here is buried beneath creperies and brassieres, sex shops and strip clubs and supermarkets, whose lights stay on even when the metro shuts down the hour after midnight.  The metro surfaces at the intersection of five streets.  It is an island of Parisians – both authentic and pretend. They wait impatiently to keep going, one shined shoe on the curb and the other ready to step foot on the white blocks of the crosswalk, to leave the Paris they knew and enter the Paris they want to know. But the island serves more as a connection between Paris and its slutty younger sister.

 

DINNER AND A SHOW

 

There is a French restaurant across from the theatre, where the French waiters speak English, the French menus have English subtitles and the tables have ketchup in plastic squeeze bottles, for patrons who order French fries. “We Will Rock You” plays from the speakers, followed by “Somebody That I Used to Know.”

 

The bill is in euros, but there is a period in the numeral instead of the typical European comma, as if it were dollars and cents. The steak is bland; the salad is a boring lettuce and tomatoes. The Frankfurters on the menu are merely a plate of two 6-inch hot dogs that were hatch-marked, microwaved and served with thick fries for 14 euros, about 17 U.S. dollars.

 

“No mouss du chocolat, but we have chocolate cake,” says our waiter, his white collar starched and his hair slicked back, Greaser-style. 

 

The dessert I order tastes more flan than crème brulee.

 

The Parisians that pass by, whom I can see through the row of street-level windows, are in winter coats. It is March and they are marching. They rush past, ducking the cold drafts that swirl hair around their faces. Those on my side of the street wear pants and flat shoes, warm and functional. They wear nothing too bright, and don’t show their skin, except for their windblown cheeks.

 

But on the other side of the street, where the Moulin Rouge awaits, everything is a shade of red.

 

INSIDE THE MOULIN ROUGE

 

There are hundreds of heels leaving indentations on the crimson wall-to-wall carpet. Does that mean everyone here is a star?

 

The coats are checked and the customers wear suits and short dresses. The walls are red velvet and resistant to the cold outside. The ceiling is painted blue-green and yellow, like clouds of another world, only interrupted by groups of crystal tubes hanging from the ceiling in different-sized circles and at different lengths, a chandelier of sorts.

 

Waiters with laugh lines and bow ties at their Adam’s apples wait at the bottom of the stairs, behind the black doors leading into the main theatre. Their faces fill the door’s square window frames, like nervous actors peeking at the crowd from behind the stage curtains.

 

“Bonsoir Monsieur, bonsoir Madame,” says a dark-haired woman in her late 30s, early 40s, holding what looks like a stack of identical magazines in her arms.

 

“10 Euros for program,” she says eagerly, “You want?”

 

I do want, I think. It would be nice to get an autograph in the book. I even start to pick out where I would place it in my Wilmington apartment. But I’m attempting to blend here. Tonight, I am an upper-class client, not an American tourist.

 

“No, merci,” I tell the woman, my eyes already past her, my nose upturned.

 

Beyond the program saleswoman, a man in a tuxedo, older with thinning white hair, takes my ticket and waves me past the gift shop on the left and into the theatre.

 

It is here, navigating the room filled with waiters and patrons, where I feel I am at the Moulin Rouge. Does that mean I’m a part of the show?

 

The room is filled with square tables in white table cloths, with red lanterns on each one. There are three levels. The lowest level, where the most expensive tables await their patrons with a bottle of champagne in a silver bucket of ice, is circular. The wooden stage extends out into the crowd like a black tongue, the sequined curtains its upper lip, the red velvet line of the stage, its lower. The ceiling above this section carries rows of colored theatre lights.

 

Behind them, towards the back of the theatre, the ceiling rises above the second tier of tables like a red and white circus tent, held up by a tree in the center. The second tier is separated from the floor tables by a 4-foot wrought-iron railing in the shape of hundreds of hearts, painted gold. The floor is red carpet, like in the lobby. The ceiling above me is mirrored; when I look up, my reflection shows that my face is lit only by the red glow of the small lamp at the end of my table. Jazz music hums in the background, fast with a Latin tempo.

 

Glasses are clinking. All of the waiters are men. The patrons are both men and women, young and old, but are mostly Caucasian or Asian. One man clasps and unclasps his hands, rigid beneath his chin. He is white, balding, suited and seated in the first row. A woman across the room, an aging Marilyn Monroe, cackles loudly. Her hair is box-blond, her lips Revlon-red, her dress white. But get closer and there are lines at the corners of her mouth from smoking, and her figure is far from hourglass.

 

My waiter is a short, older man. He wears a suit with a red tie and shiny black shoes. There is a flashlight between his teeth, because the show is about to begin and the lights have dimmed. He hums and taps his feet in time with the background music as he places a wine glass before me.

 

He leans his body over the table to glance at my small journal. He emphasizes the endings of each word.”

 

“Writing-geh about me-eh?” he inquires, his right eyebrow raised. I don’t offer him an answer with my voice, but with my fingers. I’m writing his every utterance down. After pouring my glass of champagne from a green bottle, shoving it into the ice bucket and turning off the flashlight, he smiles at me in the dark and hurries off.

 

The room darkens and the stage spotlight appears, casting the audience into the shadows. As dancers rush onto the stage in the dark, a green feather lands in my glass. And suddenly, the show has begun.

 

Sex appeal is what I expected; bouncing breasts, tight thongs, multicolored feather headdresses and boas, hip-grinding, dirty dancing and erotic movement. I expected flashy outfits, cheesy music, heavy make-up and can-can-ready, camera-ready, mile-long legs attached to impossible heels. The girls didn’t disappoint. Each scene featured the girls in some ridiculous outfit, but each costume was designed with time in mind. The details were rooted in what has been considered sexy through the ages; the flapper dresses and short hair of the 1920s, the housewife dressed in skirts and curls of the ’50s, the long blonde hair of the ’60s, the tight, bright clothing of the ’80s.

 

The women played along with men as individual femme fatales, role models for strong, independent women. Women from different countries were featured, women representing different stereotypes and languages. One woman represented the Amazon and the indigenous tribes by jumping into a pool in the center stage, naked and writhing with live snakes in the water, some longer than she was. Another scene showcased women as Egyptians, with provocative hip movements; another showed women crawling out of a cage, shaped much like an igloo. One dancer portrayed a drunk woman, being shunned by other dancers.

 

With each new scene, a new woman appeared, just as sexy as the last one. None were too skinny or too fat; their breasts were average, their bodies were healthy and muscular, and their smiles were wide.

 

I arrived in Paris with a group of students from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Our class, Travel Writing in Paris, spent the entire semester learning how to blend in with Parisians. This meant discovering who a typical Parisian was, but we soon discovered that each Parisian claims a part of Paris as theirs, and rejects others. We did the touristy things; climbing the narrow stone spiral staircase to the top of Notre Dame, posing on the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower, spending hours in art museums like the Louvre, Orsay and Pompidou. We walked the Grande Palais, the Jardin du Luxembourg. We did Parisian activities too; we ordered Chinese food from French menus, ate croissants for breakfast, had wine at every dinner. We didn’t step foot in a McDonalds or Starbucks. Or, at least, we wouldn’t admit it.

 

“Whose Paris is it?” we’d ask each other in our imitation of our professor’s voice.

 

“This is my Paris,” they’d say, when discovering a neighborhood they could picture themselves living in. “This is my Paris,” they’d say when they liked a certain food, or piece of art, or a store.

 

There were three other group members at the Moulin Rouge with me, all female, and our professor, more of a supervisor in this strange setting. As we left the Moulin Rouge, we wondered, to ourselves this time.

 

Whose Paris is this?

 

The red light district of Paris is infamous because its prostitutes made it so. But there is a level of class here. The women are tested for STDs. They pay taxes on their wages. Some of them take home a paycheck every week. They are mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. If the streets cast in red light are for a Parisian man, the promise land for one night stands, is the Moulin Rouge a place for Parisian women? Do the women of Paris feel empowered by the production, or demeaned? Do women derive their power from their sex, or is their power what appeals to the sexes?

 

A good theatre production raises questions. It provokes thought, even argument. It allows the mind to venture past what is real and probable to the unreal, and sometimes, the unreal can mimic life and the human condition. By exaggeration, we remember details. Is the Moulin Rouge an exaggeration of women and their sex appeal?

 

After leaving the Moulin Rouge, a man in a dark 4-door sedan yelled to one of my classmates on the street. Tonight she is the picture of American youth that the French had come to love on television shows broadcast from the States: 20-something with long blonde hair and long, tan legs. The stranger sat in the backseat, his window rolled half-down. His stubble was thick, his eyes dark, his French clear.

 

“This is the trash can of Paris,” he called out, “Come with me and I’ll show you a good time!”

 

But she was already having a good time. She laughed when another classmate translated the cat call for her, and kept walking as the sedan passed. She strutted through the red light district in high-heeled black boots, in a thin, silk, Bohemian dress. She shivered in the cold and hugged her jacket a little tighter, but she made no effort to leave the neighborhood until she was sure she had seen what she came to see of the trash can of Paris.

 

After all, she’d just seen the Moulin Rouge.