I'm still in emotional shock. Simenon, I see him all day long in front of me. He so often mentioned my tavern in his books... So I'd hoped to pay a visit to the father of Maigret. I was on vacation in Switzerland. Passing through Lausanne, I thought about Simenon. At an intersection, we were at the entry to the Avenue Figuiers, It was Thursday, August 31. They say he died the following Monday... My wife knew that I dreamed about speaking to him. We rang at No. 12. A house sheltered from the tall buildings by trees. The writer's wife welcomed us. After a quarter of an hour, as I wanted to leave a message, she suggested we go in. Simenon was seated in a wheelchair, like in the photo in front of me. In his right hand he was holding a glass of beer, a red beer. He drew on his pipe. Carefully shaven, he was dressed as if to go out, with a white shirt and grayish beige trousers. Slippers on his feet. He didn't say anything. He seemed so far away. We were impressed. But then to think that he would die so soon. On leaving, we noticed the beautiful blue cedar of Lebanon where the ashes of his daughter Marie-Jo and now his have been scattered. Yes, it made me feel funny to think that I was the last inhabitant of the Place Dauphine, Maigret's district, to have seen him. And guided by chance...
Robert Cointepas, 60, is built like an ox. Since 1951 he has kept, in Paris, on the Ile de la Cité, at the Pont-Neuf, the tavern that served as the model for the Brasserie Dauphine, described hundreds of times by Simenon throughout his pages.
"The Brasserie doesn't exist. Simenon created it by observing various establishments of the district, including mine," continues the innkeeper.
In L'Ecluse n° 1, the writer put these words into the mouth of Jules Maigret, on page 64...
Fascinated by the policeman, Robert Cointepas wrote to Simenon, who sent him a photo autographed with the words "with warmth". The portrait is hung next to the copper plaque engraved on the initiative Robert Courtine, journalist-writer who published Madame Maigret's Recipes. An exploration of the universe of the famous policeman through his preferred dishes. A plaque has been put up at Fouquet's and other Parisian spots.
It's not surprising that Simenon was inspired by Robert Cointepas's tavern... There's the long brassy counter, glasses of wine and beer, piles of sliced Poîlane bread, rillettes, pâtés of hare and wild boar, cheeses ripened in the cellar, from the Auvergne bleu to the camembert just ready... The habitués mix with the tourists. When the judicial return the people from the P.J. come in. Lawyers at the bar, magistrates at the tables. Rarer are policemen. Like Maigret, old school cop, psychology and investigations solo, the boys of the murder squad have changed. Now they wear bomber jackets, jeans and sneakers, no tie, and hang out elsewhere.
"I used to rub shoulders with the policemen. For years. Saturday noon the chief would bring in his team, they'd drink two or three glasses with slices of bread before going home. Many looked like civil servants, dark suits, big coats, often leather. Not a few of them retired to country. I sometimes go to say hello... "
Robert Cointepas pulls from a shelf stuffed with cookbooks a row of Maigrets. In his spare time he checks off quotes about his café, enjoys retracing Maigret's circuits in Paris. After work the commissioner went home to the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir. He liked to walk in the rain at dusk, sent out for pots of coffee and sandwiches during long cross-examinations. All one atmosphere. Robert's customers brings him of souvenirs of Simenon. Here is Bernard Thibault, 58, passionate for books, who found a marvelous photo of Simenon in a rare work. "You can keep it. It was made to be seen. Photos must not sleep. This is by Michel Cotte."
In the 30s, before the building housed first a tabac, then a bar-tabac, and finally the present Taverne Henry IV, it served as a chartering bourse for boatmen. Mariners arriving there from Belgium or Holland found themselves in a tumult of accents. An ambiance that attracted Simenon, always in search of his Liège roots and who liked so much the canals and barges, the simplicity and the authenticity of boatmen...
And if you were looking for the silhouette of Maigret on the Ile de la Cité? In the Place Dauphine, men play pétanque for small wagers. Their commentaries resound in the triangular space surrounded by houses several centuries old. The Hotel Henry IV, for example, with its narrow entry that gives on a small staircase opening on an office that has not been redecorated since the 30s, with varnished paneling and roll-top desk. At Chez Paul, a small discreet restaurant, the day following the death of Simenon, a customer asked for Maigret's favorite dish, a blanquette de veau. They also serve scallops with vegetables. Trees give the Place Dauphine the look of a village. Seated on a bench a girl is plunged into a book. The wind lifts the first dead leaves that already announce the fall. Facing the Quai des Orfèvres the booksellers' boxes are open in the sun on the opposite bank of the Seine.
"You're the first to buy a Simenon today" says a woman with a kind smile. Her neighbor is not surprised. The Simenons sell all year round... the good books always go.
Access to the offices of the judicial police, where Maigret engulfed himself every morning, is not easy. It is necessary to show a white service card or to specify an appointment. You arrive, slipping through by the inside of the immense palace of justice, clear fortress whose rear opens up on the Place Dauphine. Suddenly, at the exit of an unobtrusive staircase, behind the public prosecutor's office, a human stream inspectors returning from a bite to eat. They look like Starsky and Hutch, know Paris like the insides of their pockets, but are probably not devotees of the places described by Simenon.
At Robert Cointepas's, on the Pont-Neuf, the clock whittles away the hours. Bernard Thibault leaves the counter, heading toward the métro station. He is going to see his mother at an old-age home near Evry. With his beard and his black suit, his passion for words, his manner of listening and his sensitivity, his sense of the solitude that he erases while drinking a Morgon to the Taverne Henry IV, he belongs to the universe of Maigret. Robert and he will continue to speak of Simenon, while looking at the photo of the writer, who certainly sat, one day or the other, at one of tables, drawing on his pipe while drinking his beer slowly in the middle of the murmur of life...
translation: Stephen Trussel
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