Chanukah began yesterday at sundown. I was curious about the holiday in Paris after hearing stories about French Jews unable to broadcast their religion, and the huge amounts of security around all the temples on Yom Kippur.
Chanukah is not actually that big of a holiday, though. I think I was more into doing something celebratory than even Rachael was – we were originally going to make latkes with a few friends, but we postponed until Monday evening in favor of checking out a new bar.
Christina and I met Rachael, Thomas (French) and Ricardo (Spanish) near Saint Germain, where we left to walk to the smallest, most crowded, smokiest basement bar I’ve experienced in Europe.
This place, Chez Georges is wildly popular. We made our way past the bar and down a tiny set of spiral stairs into a brick cellar no larger (and possibly smaller) than my apartment, to find five seats at a wooden table. As we sat down, we congratulated ourselves on finding seats, which, according to Thomas, is a near-impossible feat.
Within five minutes of sitting down and ordering a bottle of wine, in walked three people I know from classes at Sciences Po. Over the course of the evening I probably ran into ten to fifteen people I know, which is a pretty rare event in a city as populated as Paris.
For a while we all sat around the table, just drinking our wine, talking and slowly asphyxiating from the clouds of cigarette smoke. Think about it – a teeny tiny brick basement room with only one exit and no windows – there’s nowhere for the smoke to go but into our lungs.
At about 23h, the place started to pick up. Soon the room was completely packed, with ten people crammed at each little table, and the minimal amount of standing room packed with couples and groups holding their bottles of wine and glasses. Meanwhile, the smoke cloud became denser and denser with each breath we attempted to draw.
After a few hours and many bottles of wine, the crowd was ready to dance – a difficult endeavor in such a small endroit. No matter, dance we did. There were people on tables, benches and chairs, packed in the center of the room and lining the twisting staircase to the rez de chaussée (rdc, or ground floor).
Normally, I wouldn’t expect such a dank and polluted little cellar to have such a powerful draw, but this is Paris – the people (patrons and bartenders) are friendly, the wine is decent and the music is eclectic, which is a sure recipe for success.
The playlist slid from an Elvis medley, to swing music, to thirties slow-dance music, to half an hour of Beatles songs, to Klezmer Music, to Judy Garland and around and back again. There’s something slightly unreal about standing in a packed mob with your arms around Parisian strangers while everyone sways together, belting “Let it be” at the top of their lungs.
It’s even odder when the same group grabs hands and begins to dance in a frantic circle, singing Hava Nagila in a smoky basement on the first night of Chanukah with approximately five people of authentic Jewish faith are present in the circle. It’s so surreal that the only solution is to join in with the singing, embracing complete strangers and pausing between songs to make toasts (being sure to always look into eyes of the person you’re cheering – lest be cursed for seven years with a variety of complaints).
Despite the cough I had upon waking up this morning, the red wine drips on my shirt from last night and the horrible bar smell radiating from my coat and scarf, it was definitely a good night. Hava nagila! And happy Chanukah, of course.