If You’re Going to Order a Negroni in January in Paris, Just Do Whatever You Want
Apéritifs in Paris
Apéritifs are a serious concern in Europe; they are meant to be consumed during a specific time of day and for a specific purpose, and they serve as a benchmark for the continent’s long-established and sophisticated drinking culture that is heartbreakingly lacking in North America. So when my wife and I strolled into a Paris bistro around midnight and ordered two Negronis, we were already conspicuously out of place.
It wasn’t only that it was well past the appropriate hour for apéritifs, but the cool, early-January rain that had been falling all day suggested almost anything but a refreshing, crisp tribute to summer. It’s one of my true failings as a drinker; when I’m in the mood for Campari, it’s all that will satiate my palate, situational relevance be damned.
We had been in Paris over New Year’s Eve, and the tangible reluctance to reverie surrounding the holiday so soon after the November terrorist attacks certainly made an impression. What I hadn’t anticipated was that so many restaurants would still be closed on the Monday after New Year’s weekend. The bar just a few short blocks from our rented apartment in the 3rd was chosen more out of necessity than anything else.
After a harried waiter set two Negronis on the table, I received my first genuine surprise of the evening as I tasted the exceptional bitter, strong, and sweet components. Because of my prejudices and memories of previous trips to the country, I still didn’t often expect great cocktails in France, especially not at an unassuming neighborhood joint. This, however, was among the cleanest, most well-balanced Negronis I’ve ever tasted.
As we sipped, a group of locals seated at the bar stools and some tables nearby took turns passing around a guitar, playing short songs and singing in French as though this section of the bar was their own personal studio. It was difficult to tell just how closely connected they were, and although they numbered only about ten people, their liveliness made the room seem on the precipice of being packed.
The guitar was finally passed to a man next to me, and after listening for several minutes, I eventually asked in my shamefully unpracticed French if he knew any American songs. While his response was, “Oui,” his expression read, “Surely you have something specific in mind?”
A jovial man with gray hair, a thick, gray beard, and a suede sport jacket soon suggested Elvis, and I remembered that “Suspicious Minds” is particularly well-suited to my key. Our guitar player launched into the chords without hesitation, the first of many songs I would hear him play from memory with startling precision. While the bearded patron and I didn’t exactly harmonize, our performance drew an appreciative response from the rest of the crowd.
Following another round of Negronis for us and beer for our new friends, we stumbled through renditions of Sinatra’s “Summer Wind,” more Elvis, and some Elton John. I discovered that, through some combination of the Negronis and my unreliable memory, I couldn’t summon the verses of most of these songs with nearly the accuracy with which our guitar player could conjure the chords. This hurdle had little effect on the group’s spirits, thankfully.
Right as we were about to leave, the guitar savant asked with his thick accent if we knew any “Simon et Garfunkel,” and I smiled, wondering how I could have forgotten about two of my favorite artists of all time as he began strumming the melancholy intro to “Sounds of Silence.” I never knew to whom the guitar belonged, but its appearance made after-midnight apéritifs in Paris seem like the most natural decision ever.