La Louche at Hotel de Crillon
Melanie arrived at the Hotel de Crillon behind her boss into the muted opulence of the hotel’s lobby.
“Bonjour, Madam. Apres-vous,” said one of the hotel staff, obviously anticipating their arrival. They were promptly escorted up the hotel’s grand staircase to one of the designer suites that, upon entering, opened up to a large committee of stylishly dressed fashion elites all gathered around a few haute couture designs at the center of the room.
“Ah! Bonjour, Madam!” shouted a man from the middle of the crowd. He got up and approached Madam to greet her properly. He kissed her twice on either cheek and held her by both shoulders. It was apparent that he esteemed her greatly.
She was dressed plain by comparison to this man. He wore the finest suit Melanie had ever seen a man wear on a Monday afternoon. The women accompanying him peered down from their exceptional height, accentuated unnecessarily by designer stilettos. They were visibly unimpressed by their arrival. Melanie smiled out of habit and quickly followed Madam to the center of the room where the garments hung on several live models.
Monsieur directed Madam to the handful of adjustments and applications that needed to be made to each piece. Madam took the measurements while Melanie recorded everything in her pocket-sized notebook. Fashion week was quickly approaching and many of the pieces were still unfinished. The remaining work was beyond the ability of the major fashion houses. Small, yet exceptionally skilled and unpretentious hands from the best ateliers were required to finish the final tasks. Everything would be completed painstakingly by hand, an art still revered by Monsieur, yet overlooked and unrecognized by most.
These ateliers were the true source of haute couture fashion, however, most of society, even the fashion insiders, were relatively unaware of the work being done in those ateliers. The chambre syndicale de la haute couture, founded in 1868, required all major fashion houses to maintain an atelier, however, the unpretentious and tedious nature of the work required years of masterful training for little recognition and pay, a deterrent to many newcomers and also a major reason behind its impending death. But there were still those like Monsieur who understood and respected these small ateliers. Once Madam was through, he kissed her graciously again upon her departure and gave Melanie a genuine smile and embrace as he saw them out. A large group of chicly clad women chatting incessantly amongst themselves left the suite with Madam and Melanie passing them in the corridor.
“Melanie, please take the rest of the evening off,” insisted Madam as she rustled through her purse. “I will need you in the shop very early tomorrow morning and I’m afraid it’s going to be long hours for the rest of the month.” Madam parted ways with Melanie, kissing her as she left. “Au revoir! Get some rest.” Melanie loitered and looked down at her watch. Her ride wasn’t due for another thirty-minutes. As she approached the doors leading out onto the Place de la Concorde she passed an interior room that caught her attention. It was the hotel bar, a room of supreme elegance, exuding a golden hue. It seemed to pull her in against her will.
Upon entering she immediately noticed the group of women from the suite upstairs. A few of them turned to see who the newcomer was, their bodies pulling away from the inner circle they had formed. Their body language seemed to momentarily suggest that she join them. But just as soon as they broke ranks, they huddled back together, making it clear that their inner circle was full.
She took a seat at the bar. The bartender immediately greeted her with a napkin and a menu and said that he’d be back to take her order shortly. He smiled and left to tend to the other patrons. She starred at her surroundings, gaining her bearings. She studied the gilded façade and traced the elaborate columns to the extent of their height arriving at the ceiling, a piece of art deemed a national landmark. How out of place it all made her feel. She observed the pockets of people around her. Chic men and women were scattered throughout the room talking in subdued tones as not to disturb the sanctity of the place.
“Qu’est-ce que je vous sers, mademoiselle?” Startled, she looked back ahead of her abruptly to an attentive and smiling face. By reflex she opened the menu to quickly order but became immediately overwhelmed. It was page after page of champagne and vintage wines with names and dates that meant nothing to her. The bartender, sensing that she was a novice, offered her a reasonably priced glass of champagne. He did this politely as if merely out of protocol and not pity. She looked around her with her eyes at what the other patrons were drinking. None of the girls from upstairs were without a glass of champagne in hand and she immediately began to feel suffocated by some ethereal force.
“No. No, thank you. I need something else, something different.” Without thinking she blurted out, “I’ll take an absinthe please.” The bartender’s polite and corporate smile suddenly turned genuine and a sense of excitement came over him.
“Oui, mademoiselle!” Overcome with emotion at this breach in protocol, he set off almost militantly and came back at once. He set a Pontarlier glass down on the bar in front of her and began pouring the absinthe into it. The bright emerald green liquid came level to the bottom brim and he immediately stopped pouring. He rested a slotted spoon over the rim of the glass and placed a single sugar cube over its perforated parts. “I’m going to run ice water over the sugar to slowly dissolve it into the drink. Be patient, this must be done deliberately as if almost by-hand. It’s what we call the ceremonial task of la louche. The drink will become cloudy. Once the final layer of neon green disappears from its surface, it is finished.” Placing an elaborate water drip over her single glass, he opened the spicket to allow small drops to pierce the sugar cube one by one. He smiled once again and left the rest to her.
After several long minutes the absinthe had completed its transformation and a strong aroma perfumed her area. She took a sip and set the glass back down on the bar. It was immensely refreshing and not at all like the poison she was made to believe it was. She closed her eyes, taking in the multitude of herbs now flowing through her.
“Ah, mademoiselle, you look like a painting there!” said a deep voice from her left. She opened her eyes and turned towards him slightly.
“Pardon-moi?” she questioned meekly. “Are you speaking to me?” She felt embarrassed.
He kept speaking as if he didn’t hear her. “You know, you would have caused quite the scandal 150 years ago.” He spoke in platitudes that made her uneasy. “No one orders that blasted drink anymore, so it’s easy to forget!”
“Je suis desole, I don’t understand you. What painting exactly do I remind you of?” She felt ridiculous for entertaining his absurdities, yet she was unfailingly polite.
“Oh!” He threw his head back in an epiphany. “Pardon me! I’ve gone off with my imagination again!” his whole body laughed to himself. “I often have this absurd recollection that people understand what I am saying. But, I have to remind myself that that is just not so!”
He was an old man, to what extent, she did not care to guess. He spoke with the remnants of an ancient dialect and gave off the impression of a man with a rough demeanor. But his roughness did not point to his upbringing. No, his persona was one conceptualized out of spirit rather than by birth. She could tell by the way he was dressed. The cut, the fabric, and the bon tombé du vêtement as they commonly said in the atelier were all signs of a custom design. This was by no means a common man.
“You are the girl in the café!” His whole face grew expressive as if his explanation were crystal clear. His statements were beginning to make her wonder whether she was just an absolute fool or if he were just insane. She remained silent, but she could not hide her ignorance from him. He could sense it.
“Degas’ painting, In the Café. Or as I like to call it, The Girl Drinking Absinthe in the Café.” This made him laugh again. “Oh, you don’t believe me, but it was very scandalous for its day. Caused quite the uproar!” His eyebrows rose upward as one does when discussing a juicy piece of gossip and then he took a long swig of his drink. He set it back down, entering back into thought. “One British art critic—George Moore to be exact!—even called the femme fatal ‘a slut’, his words not mine. And now! Look how far we’ve come. A young woman can sit alone with a glass of absinthe without the least bit of disapproval or judgement. How marvelous and supple human nature is!” He starred into space, in reverence to the world. “You know, when I first saw you sitting there, I said to myself ‘I have a message for this girl. This girl has a message that she needs to hear.’”
“Was the story about the painting what I was meant to hear?” she remarked still not following the conversation.
“Oh,” he replied, “no, no! That was purely anecdotal, purely anecdotal. My message to you is this.” He pointed at her drink. She frowned.
“Are all your remarks merely inside jokes that you have with yourself?” His speech began to make her feel bold.
“Ha! You give me too much credit. I’m not witty; I’m just a fool.” She did not contradict him. “And a messenger. My message is meant for you, so you must be burdened with my message.”
“Must I?” she said provokingly, now taking a slight interest in this old man’s vague obscurities.
“La louche—the message lies within la louche.”
“Pardon-moi?” she asked, eyes widening and protruding out slightly.
“All artistic progress is in a state of la louche. Just like absinthe, the world must become cloudy and unclear to release those revolutionary ideas inside of us.”
“Me?” she looked around in jest. “Are you inferring that I’m an artistic revolutionary?” She didn’t know whether to laugh or be concerned.
“Of course! What don’t you understand?” Searching her for any acknowledgement or understanding he found none. “Darling, look. The herbs in absinthe do not activate unless they go through la louche, where the cold water completely transforms the drink. The world works in the same way. We experience rare moments of truth and beauty but they only come by the hands that have suffered the most. One generation builds up a beautiful society through hardship, yet their offspring, ignorant to the sacrifices made to attain it, become easily complacent and restless, for mankind is not a stationary creature. We need progress! It’s for that very reason alone that much evil has been done in the name of progress. We progress blindly believing that we are embarking on truth when in reality we left it from whence we came. So, we’re striving, but all the while leading farther from where we thought we were going. Society becomes backwards. And we find ourselves having to defend this new and strange way of life simply to justify our progress. Now, to get back to truth, in comes la louche. You see, most people are in la louche, like your drink. They can’t always see things clearly. But the artist is the only exception. In times like these society needs an artist, a counter-revolutionist, to take her backwards. And that’s been the secret all along, which is why it lies in la louche. The real revolutionaries can see truth the clearest in the dark. Where the world is blind, they have sight, a vision counter to that prideful progress—sent to take us back—to progress in reverse because man has the tendency to stray so far from real understanding. Perhaps I can explain it better this way:
It has been found again
It is the sea mingled
With the sun
“Did you come up with that yourself?” she asked.
“Of course not! It came from the mind of someone immensely more intelligent than I. There are those that create genius and those that repeat genius. I prefer to keep a safe distance from the maddening burden of genius.”
“Who are you?” she demanded. His attire, his demeanor, his mystery all disconcerted her. “You must be some obscure celebrity or man of means.”
“I am neither. I’m merely a fool. A fool who knows too much.” He raised his glass into the air toasting himself in the spirit of his own self-deprecation. He winked and took another long swig.
He continued with his lecture. “We are in an eternal quest for truth whether we know it or not and it is dependent on man’s fall from understanding. That is the irony of life. And perhaps also the greatest tragedy. For all men fall, but few have the capacity to redeem themselves, which is why we need those artisans of human nature—the ones that blossom when the sea mingles with the sun—to lead man back to truth.”
After a few moments of silence, she exclaimed, “All of this is very beautiful. Truly. And perhaps even beyond the scope of my understanding. Well, actually, that’s just the point. It is beyond the scope of my understanding. I can’t possibly be meant to hear this. How could I if I couldn’t even understand it?”
“Ah—that’s simple. Because you chose it yourself.”
“Who are you? And what gives you the impression that you know anything about me?”
“I have powers of perception.” He tapped the side of his head as if to indicate to something. “I sized you up almost immediately. It wasn’t until you ordered the absinthe that I was able to confront you. But you are a complex soul. Despite your plain and simple attire, you have what they call depth. An internal depth that cannot be seen, only experienced. You do artistic work of an ancient practice. I can tell by your briefcase there.” He pointed to her sewing bag. “You’ve dedicated your life to mastering this artform, but you feel undervalued. You feel underappreciated and you question the value of your work.” He paused to give her an opportunity to refute. She was silent, so he continued. “Those women over there intimidate you.” He pointed to the women from upstairs at a table just to her right. “You feel like an outsider and wonder what it would feel like to be inside that circle. But let me warn you dearly. That inner ring is death. It is la louche without any redemption. It is empty. Nothing of value comes or goes from that circle. To enter would be futile.”
He stopped speaking and began to look about himself. “See these columns and these murals? These were all brought to life through someone’s bare hands. A painstaking process and for what? For beauty. They stand as a testament to the belief that if you endeavor on something, no matter how small or grand, in the spirit of truth and beauty, you will become their architects in this world. Because like all invaluable things, they are begotten, not made. And that is why I tell you that the truth lies in la louche and to enter that inner circle is death. The real work is being done in your atelier. Do not be discouraged. There is much value in your humble profession because it is a small keepsake of virtue that all the world can admire. It beckons and calls back that man that has gone astray. It leads him back to whence he came.”
GIRL POWER: KOKTAILS WITH KOKET
Just then her phone vibrated in her hands. She looked down. The solitary word here appeared on the screen. She no sooner wanted to stay with this strange man than she wanted to leave. She felt herself in an odd place. But she couldn’t keep her ride waiting so she drank the last of her drink and began collecting her things. “I’m afraid I must leave you at the most interesting part.” She smiled, truly perplexed by this stranger before her. “Monsieur, perhaps it’s unnecessary at this point, but I’m Melanie. Et toi?”
“Zelenyy, Feya Zelenyy.”
“Mr. Zelenyy, it’s been a pleasure. You have,” she paused, “entertained me immensely.” She held out her hand as if to receive a handshake in a spirit of truce rather than a parting. Sensing her expectation, he reached out for her hand but took it and kissed it in that imperial way of true chivalry. She blushed. Unaccustomed to such gallantry, she felt ashamed and departed without another word. As she made her way out onto the bustling Place de la Concorde all of those grand feelings that he had filled her up with immediately began to fade. That was the problem with grand and holy ideas. They rarely lasted. She looked back behind her. There was the balcony that Marie Antoinette used to sit after her piano lessons. She turned back out onto the Rue Royale. And there, there was the place of her husband’s execution. All had already faded into the past. The world kept going forward. Progress, progress, progress. She could hear those words echo in her mind. She suddenly felt ashamed for parting so abruptly. Signaling to her driver that she forgot something she ran back into the Hotel de Crillon and into that gilded sanctuary.
Looking for her stranger, he was gone. “Excuse me,” she urged to the bartender. “Could you please tell me where to find the old man that was sitting with me here just moments ago?” His mechanical smile turned puzzled.
“Mademoiselle, je suis désolé, but I do not know the man that you are referring.” He seemed a little concerned.
“He was sitting right here.” She pointed to his exact seat. “He was wearing a very well-made hunter green suite. It was only minutes ago!” she cried desperately. “I only need to ask him one last thing. How he knew that I worked for an atelier. It was the strangest thing and I only realized it until now.”
“Miss, I’m sorry. I’ve been here all evening and I have not served any old men in a green suite. Again, I’m very sorry.” He bowed slightly and backed away as if wanting to separate himself for her madness yet remain within the bounds of propriety. Her mind was revolving trying to recall every detail. It can’t be so, she thought to herself. In a daze, she took to leave. But from the corner of her eye she caught the image of a rouge napkin in the place of her strange meeting. She rushed to it. Written there on the fabric in an elegant hand were the words:
It has been found again
It is the sea mingled
With the sun
Signed: “Feya Zelenyy, Your Green Fairy”.
Words by Alexa Jennelle