Last year I visited Paris for the first time, a marvelous city celebrated by this charming and quirky little movie. The café where Amélie works, the apartment where she lives, the little shop where the abusive grocer rules, are in Montmartre, one of the neighbourhoods I found the loveliest in this great metropolis. It is a peculiarly Parisian joy that pleasant little neighbouroods like this also contain majestic gems - in this case, Sacre Coeur, whose domes jutted dramatically against a clear blue sky when we were there. They also often abut seedy joints, like Moulin Rouge, which we ran up against as soon as we stepped off the metro on our way to Montmartre. Today the Moulin Rouge bears little resemblance to the hallucinogenic pleasure dome of the glorious Baz Luhrmann movie - if it ever did, even in its heyday; instead, it recalls nothing so much as a strip club, and we hurried past.
Paris is crowded with traffic and tourists and locals, but with the help of some clever cards showing walking tours, we were able to negotiate our way to some quieter areas. In Montmartre our cards led us up the busy narrow street past the very cafe that was featured in "Amélie". It wasn't so golden, so welcoming, so lovely as in the movie, but we stopped for a café crème anyway, and sat in a cramped table in an open window near where the cigarette counter had been added for the film. The scars of its removal were still fresh.
We watched the delivery vans negotiate their way through the crowded streets to the small shops that were just opening, clerks setting out gorgeous cheeses and jars of foie gras as they readied for business. At the café's sidewalk tables, just in front of us, sat an aging transvestite, a bedraggled Euro-girl traveller, a young Frenchman, and his black and white bull terrier.
Now a bull terrier is an odd-looking dog. In profile the bridge of its nose juts out instead of in, and its eyes are small and piggy. It has short hair, in this case white with a few black spots, and it's stout and broad-chested and stocky. It's generally an even-tempered canine, though, and this one was no exception: in fact, it was downright sucky. It had placed its front paws on the young man's legs and burrowed its head into his lap, and it remained there, motionless, while he finished off his cigarette and espresso. Finally he dislodged the dog with a few affectionate shoves; it scrabbled for a minute before heaving itself, with his assistance, onto the chair next to him, whereupon it leaned against him and heaved a weary sigh. He lit another smoke and ordered another espresso, chatting and gesticulating all the while. A young Japanese couple made their way into the café, consulting their guidebook to ensure that this was one made famous by the film.
Then up the street came a father and his little daughter, perhaps three years old. She was a vivacious and precocious young thing, chatting happily away, when suddenly she stopped dead in her tracks, thrust her arm out to point directly at the dog, and exclaimed, "Regarde! Une vache!" ("Look! A cow!") She was oblivious to the chuckles of the adults nearby, her face a picture of wonder and delight at this most unexpected sight. Her father gave a very Gallic shrug and prevaricated, "Mais, c'est comme un vache" ("Well, it's like a cow"), but she was not to be deterred. She took a hesitating step towards her cow as the animated young man encouraged her to pet it, which she did, a little awkwardly, giggling and recoiling slightly when it gave her a lick. Then, after a quick chat, too fast for me to follow, they resumed their errand, and the dog settled back into its master's side as he lit another cigarette.
As we finished our coffee and left, we felt that we had witnessed one of those magical formative childhood moments in the life of a real Amélie, and that one day she would make a movie or write a book or knit a sweater which would feature a cow in Montmartre, and while everyone would consider it a flight of fancy, we would know that it was true because, just for a second, we had seen that bovine too.