11 February 2013

Paris in Chattanooga

Believe it or not, I have found several things in the downtown area and other parts of the city of Chattanooga that remind me of Paris.  Before I get into the meat of that, however, I want to add a little context.

After returning home in the early 1990’s from four years in the Philippines (two with the Navy at Clark Air Base and two with the U.S. Refugee Program in Manila), I found there were certain things always at the edge of my awareness which meant home to me.  I had missed them without even knowing that I had missed them.

First, and this should have stuck out like a skunk in a cat shelter (think Pepé Le Pew), was mountains.  Four years in Central Luzon with nothing around but Mount Arayat right in the middle of the Central Luzon plain and Mount Pinatubo (which made things so interesting for all of us in June of 1991) at its western end.

Second, believe it or not, was the scent of cow dung.  It’s not as readily available in Hamilton County as it still was in early 1992, but I grew up with it where I lived in grammar school.  It’s certainly more fragrant than the rather pungent stench of carabao.

Third, and when I realized it I sat bolt upright in bed at 2 am (not being able to sleep in Ryall Springs because it was too quiet after Manila), was the sounds of train whistles and of the trains over the tracks.  After all, I grew up never more than a mile from the CSX line through East Brainerd, and at night we could also hear the Norfolk-Southern across northern Hickory Valley through Silverdale, Tyner, and Bonny Oaks.

Of course there were reminders of home even in the Philippines.  I mean besides the Tennessee state flag on the wall of my barracks room at Clark and of my living room in Manila.  For instance, whenever I met a Filipino or two or three and told them where I was from, a reference to “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” would inevitably follow. 

One of my favorite memories from the four years I spent in the Philippines came from the Asia Night Beat Band, one of the two house bands at Cheers, a nightclub right outside the gate of the air base.  During their first set on their first night, after several rock songs they changed pace with the Tennessee Waltz.  When they finished, I went up and thanked them, and they included it in every set after that as long as they were there. 

Several months after relocating to Manila as a civilian, we were walking down the sidewalk looking for a place to eat and saw their name on a marquee of a hotel and went in.  The singer saw us, stopped mid-song, and, pointing at us and after saying something to the band, began singing the Tennessee Waltz as the band switched tunes.

That song also played a big part in a night a bunch of us were at a restaurant called Armando’s in downtown Angeles City while I was still at Clark, but that’s another story.

The flag, by the way, remains in Manila.  One of my Filipino friends from work begged me for it when I brought it to my despedida (going away party).

The Philippines isn’t the only foreign country, or foreign context, in which I’ve found a reminder of home. 

About a year after getting involved with Iran’s Green Movement in the summer of 2009, I did a Google search for Iranian restaurants in Chattanooga and found, to my great surprise, that the top night-spot in Tehran, Iran, prior to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 was none other than the Chattanooga Restaurant and Coffee Bar on former the Pahlavi Street (now Vali Asr St.) across from the former Shahanshahi (now Mellat) Park.  The owners relocated to Glendale, California, after the revolution and brought the restaurant with them, at least in name and menu, where it still exists.  Unfortunately, however, there were no Iranian restaurants in Chattanooga.

When I went to Paris at the end of April 2011 (the day after the 27 April tornadoes, by the way), the only place that was for me an absolute must to see was the one where Thomas Paine lived after James Monroe won his release from the prison where he had been held since the Reign of Terror.  The apartment building is at 10 Rue de l’Odeon, in the Odeon district.  The French, grateful to his contributions to freedom and to their own Revolution, have a plaque there which reads (in French): “Thomas Paine, 1737-1809, English by birth, American by choice, French by decree, lived in this building from 1797 to 1802. He put his passion for freedom in the service of the French Revolution, was a member of the Convention, and wrote The Rights of Man.”

Ok, we saw it, I photographed it, even had myself photographed in front of it.  Then we left to find a place that had caught my eye immediately when we reached the sidewalk from Odeon Station on the Metro on our way there. 

Directly across the street from the top of the stairs was something I hardly expected to see in Paris:  the Tennessee Café.  Yes, it is done in Volunteer orange and white, with gold outlines.  It’s on the main street through the northwest of Paris’ Left Bank (south of the River Seine), the Boulevard de Saint-Germain.

And, yes again, I had my picture made there too.

Besides the great food there, I was grateful to its existence because it forms one corner of the entranceway to a Paris hidden treasure, St. Andrew’s Court of Commerce.  It was even new to my host, who had lived continuously in Paris since 2006 and intermittently since 1984.

In addition to the Tennessee Café, St. Andrew’s Court of Commerce (Cours du Commerce Saint-Andre in French) hosts Café Relais Odeon, Le Pub de Saint-Germain, Un Dimanche a Paris (the country’s premier chocolate shop), and Café le Procope, the oldest café in Paris in business continuously since 1686, as well as a number of small shops.  It reminded me somewhat of Jack’s Alley here, except that it is three times longer and 300 years older.

Now, fast forward about ten months and we get to the main subject of this piece. 

When I began living the inner city this past June (2012), I found the area changed considerably from when I was working down here in 2006.  I was most surprised by the changes in the “official” downtown between Georgia Avenue and Cameron Hill, from Martin Luther King Boulevard to the Tennessee River.  Townhouses, apartments, and condos meant people actually living downtown.

As I’ve walked around various days, I’ve seen many things which remind me of Paris.  No, I didn’t do too much LDS back in the Sixties (Star Trek IV reference).  Maybe too much nostalgia, but it’s real to me nevertheless.  It all started with a trip to the restroom.

In mid-June, my son took me out for a combination Father’s Day and birthday (27 June) lunch at the Hair of the Dog Pub on Market Street.  He suggested there because it was one of three he had gone to on his 21st birthday (21 May).  In the natural course of things, I felt nature’s call, and when I got to the appropriate location downstairs found a dual-flush toilet exactly like the ones they have all over Paris now in restaurants, hotels, and homes.

I asked, by the way, and while the facilities for women downstairs have the usual kind of toilet, the one upstairs is definitely of the French variety.  The men’s toilet upstairs is the usual kind.

The toilets of Hair of the Dog are not its only aspects which remind me of Paris, however.  The atmosphere there reminds me of some of the neighborhood cafes in the French city, as does the fact that the entire inside is a smoking area.  I quit in 1998, but I still like that.  Also, their eating deck can be shielded from bad weather with thick plastic sheeting like all the sidewalk cafes in Paris.  Speaking of which, Hair of the Dog also has a sidewalk café.  It’s also the only place downtown other than the library in which I am comfortable enough to write.

On Sundays they usually have coffee from the Mean Mug Coffeehouse on Main Street, another facility they own, and they also brought the Irish back to Irish Hill with the Honest Pint on Patten Parkway, which is something else reminding me of Paris, which has a large number of Irish and Irish-themed bars.

Other downtown venues I’ve seen with a sidewalk café component include Applebee’s, Chili’s, Panera, Taco Mac, Noodles & Company, Taziki’s, Five Guys, Ice Cream Show, Pepper’s Deli, and Top It Off Yogurt.  So does Jefferson’s, which occupies the space that so long hosted the Brass Register off Fountain Square.  The latest addition, bordering Miller Plaza, is Community Pie Neapolitan Pizza and Handmade Gelato; they also have a raised sidewalk café with garage door style windows to protect the area when it’s cold or rainy, just like some cafés in Paris.

For Paris-quality croissants, go to Greyfriar’s Coffee & Tea on Broad Street.  I spent a year looking for something close to what I’d eaten in Paris, and these are not just close but exactly the same.  In addition to the croissants, they have great coffee roasted in-house, including the only French roast I’ve had that doesn’t just taste like burnt coffee.  Plus, they have French-sized cheesecake (about 1 inch cubed) which is delicious.

One new feature to the downtown landscape that pleasantly surprised me is the number of racks of bicycles for rent.  Those are ubiquitous in Paris, but I didn’t expect to see them here.

A little bit outside the boundaries of the “official” downtown, I have several times passed Stone Fort Inn bed and breakfast on East 10th Street.  Stone Fort Inn occupies the spaces formerly occupied by the Colonial Hotel and the Choo-Choo Diner (no connection to the complex in Southern Rialway’s former Terminal Station).  One of those times passing by, I went in and checked it out, and it reminded very much of a bed and breakfast we came across near the Tennessee Café called the Hotel de Seine.

On the outskirts of the official downtown but still within it, several parts of the Bluff  View Arts District are reminiscent of the City of Lights.  The most immediately obvious is Rembrandt’s Coffee House with its garden patio.  It’s a little bit hidden, but the small alleyway with its fountain between Rembrandt’s and the River Gallery is identical to many courtyards and alleyways in Paris.  Besides Rembrandt’s at Bluff View, you can also get a bit of Paris-like experience dining in the outdoor section of Tony’s Pasta House and the double deck at the Back Inn Café.

Paris is littered with parks and plazas and squares (many of which are round), and gardens, and Bluff View’s detached Herb Garden reminded me of many of those as soon as I saw it.  Likewise, the River Gallery’s Sculpture Garden could have been plucked right out of the Left Bank (Paris south of the River Seine).

Which brings me to public art.  Every quarter of Paris is filled not only with parks, plazas, squares, and gardens, but public art.  The Sculpture Garden is one of the oldest examples Chattanooga has, and I was very pleased to see the proliferation of public art in downtown and surrounding areas that has joined it in recent years.  A couple of sections of the city which lie beyond downtown are of note.

The Big Nine (E. MLK Blvd.) sports many new murals, one of the most recent on the side of the landmark Live and Let Live Barbershop, owned by Virgil McGee, Sr., featuring jazz artists who stayed at or played on the former E. 9th Street throughout the 20th century. 

Newcomer to the Big Nine Champy’s Fried Chicken has another mural and its dining area, almost entirely outdoor, is fenced in and can be protected with plastic sheeting like the deck at Hair of the Dog and nearly all the cafés in Paris.  Champy’s also has giant heaters hanging off the ceiling exactly like those Delmas’ in the Latin Quarter of Paris, which sits on the famous Place de la Contrescarpe, the site of venues frequented by writers such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.

For sculpture as public art (other than Bluff View’s Sculpture Garden), the best section of the city is Southside, particularly Main Street.  In fact, the city’s newest public park, Main Terminal Art Park, is full of avante-garde sculptures as well as exercise areas.  Even more recently, the Sculpture Gardens at Montague Park has joined Chattanooga’s venues for public art.

Completely detached from downtown in St. Elmo, Pasha’s Coffee & Tea Shop and Blacksmith’s Bistro share a large sidewalk café offering another glimpse of Paris.

If you want an actual taste of Paris and France in the literal sense, there are a number of restaurants in the area offering French food, though the best of which I know, Café Francais formerly in the Brainerd Hills Shopping Center went out of business in the past year.  You can also have a glass of California red Zinfandel, since that is the variety fastest growing in consumption in Paris; nearly every café, brasserie, bistro, and restaurant offered it, except for places like Maxim’s and Le Procope.

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