I saw the movie Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain just before my first ever trip to France when I was 16 years old. Amélie, the gamine of all gamines, is a kind of whimsical fairy, changing for the better the lives of her unsuspecting neighbors in her hilltop Parisian neighborhood. She works as a waitress at a café called Les Deux Moulins, and I am intent on finding it as my family wanders the streets of Montmartre during our weeklong stay in Paris.
Onscreen, Les Deux Moulins looks like a riot of color and polished steel countertops. The reality of the café, like most things in France, doesn’t measure up to my imagination — the place is old and shabby and smells like stale tobacco and sour drinks. Excepting the faded Amélie poster on the wall behind the bar, you never would have known the movie was filmed here. We have one drink to cool off from the hot July air and leave quickly.
Years after that first trip, I’ve decided to give the café a second chance and am once again seeking out Les Deux Moulins, this time by myself. On this early spring morning the neighborhood is mostly empty, only a few people wandering the small alleys before any of the cafés have opened. As I study my map, hoping to recognize street names, a group of men amble by, reeking of booze and probably still drunk from the night before. Even as I avoid their stares and try my hardest to fade into the wall behind me, I can tell they’re intent on getting my attention.
Why do you look so serious? barks their unshaven ringleader to me in French. You didn’t get laid last night?
The group guffaws with laughter. I turn wordlessly and walk quickly away, stuffing the map into my bag without folding it and ignoring their calls after me. When I calm down enough I sit on a bench and take the map out again, only to find a deep crease in the eighteenth arrondissement.