Chasing the Green Fairy - Part 3 | Paris

In Which I Actually Get to the Part About Absinthe

Everywhere and Nowhere

We had been wandering the streets for hours and the light was becoming liquid and golden by time we made our way back down from Montmartre to the Seine. 

There is something about the streets of Paris that makes it seem as though they lead you everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

When you're trying to get somewhere in particular, it always seems that the streets lead you everywhere else before taking you where you want to go. By time you reach your destination, you've passed The Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame from three different directions.

Inversely, if you're going nowhere in Paris you always end up somewhere. Usually, you end up everywhere.

We'd done the latter.

This sightseeing tour doesn't happen by accident, either. The whole city is intentionally built to be beautiful. There was a purpose in mind when developing the layout of the major streets. All of Paris is designed to provide clear sight lines from one monument to the next so that from almost any point in the city there is a spectacular view.

When the dinner hour came around, we'd found our way back to our apartment in the 9th arrondissement, down the street from the Opera and across from the Galleries Lafayette.

After a quick pit-stop, we attacked the streets again, searching for an empty table at a cafe or pub with a visible TV - no easy task since kick-off for the semi-final Euro Cup match between France and Germany was moments away.

Les Bleus

Eventually we lucked out and settled in to watch the match in a room filled with people shouting "Allez les Bleus!" and the newly popular Icelandic "Aah-Hoo!" chant that the French adopted that summer after being charmed by the Icelandic team's underdog energy and sportsmanship.

My own father, a staunch Englishman in every conceivable way, (who, to my knowledge had never in his life up to that point had a positive thing to say about France, the French people in general or French football in particular) was so enamoured by his time in Paris that he set aside the old rivalry that had probably been passed down through the family since the Hundred Years' War and cheered for France. 

He proudly purchased and wore a French football jersey for the remainder of the trip. Since then, he's taken to making lists of all the things he'd like to do and see on his next trip to France. Just a few days ago I received a text about a town in Provence that has been added to the list. He's even downloaded an app to try to learn some French.

I'm not convinced that he wasn't swapped out "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" style at some point during our travels. It seems to me that the father who raised me would likely have spontaneously combusted had a French jersey touched him previously.

After dinner, drinks and a hell of an exciting game, we spilled out into the streets with the rest of Paris. France had won. Madness ensued.

People were shouting, singing and screaming. People were climbing statues and monuments waving flags from the shoulders of kings, generals and enlightenment thinkers. One man ran out into oncoming traffic and climbed on the back of a random still-moving scooter. From the look of shock on his face and the surprised shout, the man driving the scooter did not know the man hitching a ride, but after a brief exchange, the two drove up and down the street together anyway, the man on the back trailing a huge flag in the wind shouting "Allez!" and "vive la France!"

I have never in my life seen so many empty and broken liquor bottles littering a street. Everywhere we went, wine and beer bottles lined the sidewalks and piled in gutters. They rolled in public squares clinking along the cobblestone. 

Every street we walked down was filled with revellers. People hugged and shook hands as we walked. They clapped dad's blue jersey on the back rattling off rapid-fire French that we couldn't understand. My dad would respond with about the only French he knew: "Allez les Bleus!" Hearing that he was English, they'd laugh, startled and maybe a little touched to see an Englishman cheering for France, before running off in a blur of red, white and blue to find more people to celebrate with.

In 2004 I remember very clearly the Calgary Flames making their first playoff run in seven years. I've never been a huge hockey fan, but the excitement around the city as they won series after series was infectious and thrilling. Emotions were high and I got swept up in the buzz along with everyone else. 

Thousands of fans gathered along 17th Ave - dubbed "The Red Mile" since 2004 - dressed in red to celebrate every victory. Horns would honk all over the city and almost every car had a little Calgary Flames flag flying from a window or antenna. They made it all the way to the 7th game of the Stanley Cup final before losing on a bad referee call.

The energy in Calgary in 2004 was a fraction of the energy in France over the Euro Cup. I'd never seen anything quite like it. Even my wife, Aleks, who isn't much of a sports fan (she used to cheer for Spain's national soccer team for the sole reason that Xabi Alonso is a very classy and very good-looking guy) couldn't help but get swept up in the excitement.

La Fée Vert

The city was riotous in celebration. There wasn't a quiet corner in all of Paris and we didn't want to miss any of the excitement. 

After filling our day with music, art and culture from absinthe's golden age and after an evening of wild celebrations straight out of "The Sun Also Rises" it seemed too perfect. I looked up directions to a proper absinthe bar and we set out across a Paris that had lost its mind.

La Fée Vert came highly recommended by the internet. It was also the only absinthe bar that was definitely open and the only one within an hour's walk. Despite the celebrations going on all over the city, the Paris Metro had, for no good reason, closed early.

France is strange that way. It seems as though there's always something going on. It seems as though Paris never sleeps. It may seem that way; it may even be that way but you have to know where to find the places that stay open if you yourself are suffering from insomnia. I definitely do not know where to find these places. There are always plenty of people wandering around, but I have no idea where any of them are going.

At 4pm many groceries, bakeries and cafes are inexplicably shutting their doors. At the exact same time, other groceries, bakeries and cafes that, as far as I could tell, weren't there before seem to be opening their doors. The business hours are impossible to predict. At 9pm some days it's almost impossible to find a restaurant that is still serving food. Other days you are able to get food at 2am. It's a bit disconcerting to be in a major city full of traffic and people wandering on every street as though it's noon when all the bars, restaurants and stores are closed and dark. 

I could not figure out any rhyme or reason to the hours upon which France operates. Like most things in France, there seem to be no reasons. Things just are as they are. People there seem to just do whatever they want, whenever they want. If the staff don't feel like working, they close up shop and go home, hours be damned.

I wish I'd taken a picture, but I saw one sign in Paris that summed up this work ethic perfectly. The english translation under the "ouvert" sign on the door read: "We are open until we are closed."

Fortunately for us, the knowledgeable and pleasant staff at La Fée Vert had not yet decided to go home. When we arrived the place was still full and buzzing. 

As though she could sense tourists coming from a block away, our waitress had already set our table with English menus before we'd even sat down. The menus included detailed descriptions of the various spirits and cocktails available along with tasting notes much like a good wine or scotch menu.

La Fée Vert was as much a tasting experience as it was a bar. The waitress was well versed in the history, development and production of absinthe. The menus included write ups that sought to dispel myth from fact (unfortunately also dispelling the myth that absinthe causes creative hallucinations or visions - there goes my hope of writing the next great novel of the 21st Century). Although a little of the romance was killed by the matter-of-fact dismissal of my favourite absinthe legends, I was ready to order.

The waitress asked if we'd ever tried absinthe before. I was the only one who had, but I was certain that it had not been real absinthe. I was also certain I hadn't done it right. It turned out I hadn't.

She brought over an ornate silver absinthe fountain and began to explain the whole procedure in very good English. The whole thing reminded me of smoking at a traditional shisha bar or going to a tea ceremony at a Japanese garden. There were customs and conventions to drinking absinthe. You don't just shoot it.

She brought us a flight of four different absinthes to sample. Some were inventive modern concoctions, some followed traditional eighteenth century recipes. 

She showed us how to position the special absinthe spoon and sugar cube over the glass so that single drops of ice water would slowly melt the sugar into the glass and dilute the 100-150 proof spirit. Whether or not it improves the taste, the effect is certainly pleasing to the eye.

The glass of the fountain begins to run with condensation, melting and refracting the dim lights of the street and the silver taps and nozzles develop a beautiful cloudy frosting. The ornate patterns on the silver spoons are slowly revealed as the sugar cube dissolves gradually, one satisfyingly slow drop at a time. The ceremony forces you to take the time to appreciate every aspect of the experience; forces you to anticipate the drink; to appreciate it rather than guzzle it. It's that sort of patience and ceremony; that sort of delayed gratification that's missing in our modern world of cheap beer and jager-bombs. 

The first few drops of ice water create a pronounced swirling texture in the absinthe. Visible currents form in the alcohol like heat waves over a road in summer. The next few drops begin to cloud the drink. The cloud slowly spreads until the glass has fully transformed from clear gemstone green to an opaque milky white. Once the transformation is complete, the drink is ready. More water can be added to taste, but I preferred the absinthe at the point when the "louche" process is just finished.

Apparently the "louche" (the act of preparing absinthe with ice water until it becomes cloudy) helps to release the herbal essential oils in the alcohol which give absinthe its unique effects. For this reason, seasoned absinthe drinkers insist that you should never drink absinthe neat.


Once the absinthe was prepared, we passed the glasses around, sampling the different liquors on offer. Each one developed its own distinct colour and cloudiness. One was cloudy and yellowish, one was almost pure white, another was a foggy deep green like sea glass. 

We sat and chatted about the different flavours but I honestly don't remember much about it. Each one had a distinct taste. I found the modern, more experimental absinthes to be a bit harsh and chemical tasting while the traditional one was distinctly medicinal but not unpleasant. They each had a bit of a licorice root flavour not unlike Jagermeister. 

We drank slowly and closed out the bar. There were still crowds of people out celebrating as we walked for an hour or so back to our apartment. By this time, almost every place was legitimately closed (not French closed) as it was now well into the early morning.

I'm not sure about the effects of the absinthe. I'm a scientifically minded person and don't like to take anything on faith, but I did feel different after drinking absinthe. It wasn't the usual effect that alcohol produces.

It could have been that I'd hit that sweet-spot between tipsy and drunk. It could have been a placebo effect. It might have just been the excitement of the day; the wide-eyed observant appreciation that comes from travel; from new surroundings. As I walked home though, I distinctly remember feeling particularly alert and lucid. I felt a certain clarity of mind that isn't typical after a day like the one we'd had.

We arrived home at 2 or 3 in the morning after a long walk in the warm midnight summer air. I wrote of absinthe in my travel notes: "Hits hard and fast but doesn't linger. Feel awake. Long walks in Paris sober you up." Whether it was my environment or the absinthe itself, I felt healthy and creative and my mind was running.

Although the streets were a post-apocalyptic wreck after the celebrations; littered with broken glass and bottles, and strewn with all sorts of garbage, human waste and graffiti, somehow Paris had returned to normal by time we woke in the morning. The streets were clean. The liquor, vomit and urine had been washed away. The glass had been swept up and and the people were once again the dignified, slow-paced Parisians that sauntered casually and stylishly off to work or paused for a drink at the cafe.

Most importantly, I felt no worse for wear after my first encounter with that infamous Green Fairy.