~how ya gonna keep em down on the farm~

January 8th, 2010


Tho’ you may think it strange/Wine and women play the mischief/With a boy who’s loose with change/They’ll never want to see a rake or plow/And who the deuce can parleyvous a cow?
Oh how ya gonna keep em down on the farm/After they’ve seen Paree?

This post WWl tin-pan alley tune looped on my personal jukebox as we made our way from Paris to Berlin. Alfonso and I stopped over to visit our friend Manfred in Aachen, Germany and we three made subzero field trips to both Belgium and the Netherlands, as Aachen is perched on the border of all three countries. Our first adventure took us to Liège, a French-speaking region of southern Belgium.


In the early evening we toodled around town, spying on shoppers and bidding our time over local Jupille beer in Casa Ponton, where we inadvertently inserted ourselves in a scene of downplayed cruising. As a rather fey and jovial posse, we were tolerated by the room full of butch North Africans, but just barely.

We were patiently awaiting the open doors of café-chantant Aux Olivettes, which features traditional singing from the song books of Piaf, Brel and the like. It’s a family affair, opened in 1966 and passed though the generations. We were the first and nearly only guests during our stay (arriving at 9pm on a Friday night), which did not bother Michaël Roka, current propriétaire, who first served us and then took his spot at a piano tucked in the corner. Above him hung a splendid portrait of Miss Mary, who is described by Joan Gross in her ethnographic text, Speaking in Other Voices:


Walloon songs were popular fare on certain radio stations, at festivals, and in a singing cafe called “Aux Olivettes” located on a side street near the Pont des Arches. The cafe had a working-class/bohemian clientele whose average age hovered aroud 65. An extremely thin and frail old woman called “Miss Mary” sat at the piano and banged out tunes with scotch-tape-bound fingers. One by one audience members would mount the stage and belt out a song. The performers (who were all amateurs) generally took on the identity of their favorite singer and would only sing their songs. They were known as Edith Piaf, Tino Rossi, etc. World War II songs were common and someone always sang a song or two in Walloon*.


We were warmly welcomed in this cinematic scene, and as a result lingered in that vast and stunningly unheated room (see your breath cold) for far long than we would have otherwise.

*Ed: Walloon being the apparently dying out ancestral language of Wallonia, and a casualty of the long-time debate between the Francophonic and Flemish in Belgian culture. It is similar to, but not a dialect of, French. Bonjour becomes Bondjoû. A Manifesto for Walloon culture can be found here.

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