Can Canning in Paris

by Austin Weihmiller /
Austin Weihmiller's picture
Feb 02, 2014 / 0 comments

The French didn’t know how to drive. Or maybe they did. Sitting in the back of that taxi from Charles de Gaulle, on the verge of vomiting all over the worn seats, I was convinced I had left Paris and entered some high speed, Grand Theft Auto chase. The driver belched something out the window. Someone yelled back. He gestured wildly. Welcome to Paris, the City of Love. He weaved and swerved in and out of traffic at unimaginable speeds. It was only a matter of time before…


I screamed. The cat we almost hit darted for safety. The driver swore. The taxi flipped. The clash of car on the ancient streets was deafening. I hit my head. Blackness.

I woke up, groggy and a raging headache. Next time, I’m taking the RER in. No questions asked. I let out a moan. There was noise. A lot of it. None of it made sense. It all sounded like Charlie Brown’s parents were trying to communicate with me. Rain began to fall, coming down harder and harder. Slowly, the world around me began to take shape, that strange oblivion melting away. The sound of a car splashing through a puddle forming in the corners of the old street. A honk of a horn. The yell of man. The meow of a cat. The laugh of a woman. The click of her heels. I groaned. I just wanted to get to the hotel, crawl into bed, and never hear from the outside world ever again.

“Monsieur! Monsieur! Vous allez bien?” A pair of rough hands helped me to my feet.

“Um, thanks. I’m sorry. I better grab my stuff and get to the hotel…”

It was hard to tell what was different in the timeless city, but something was most definitely wrong. Something curious. The wrecked taxi was nowhere to be found. Not even shattered glass from the windshield littered the cobblestoned street. The sun had long set, leaving only the archaic street lamps and shadows to color the cold and rainy night. Men dashed across the street. They were all decked to the nines in their best suits and tuxes. Women  hurried to catch their cue in tall heels and spectacular dresses. The slickened cobblestones glowed a vibrant red. Before me stood one of the most iconic buildings of pop culture history: the Moulin Rouge.  

“An American, I see.” The man spoke with a heavy French accent, if he even was man. He was short, barely making it to my hip. His belfry hat only added so much to his height. His spectacles seem to make his eyes grow to immense size, and a well-kept beard tumbled down his face. “Come with me, will you! I cannot go in alone. I need a friend! Sʻil vous plaît, mon ami!” I stood there in the pouring rain, looking over the little man with the massive smile. What was going on? Does this always happen to victims of dramatic automobile accidents?

He grabbed me by the hand and led me through the front doors, the start of our grand and opulent adventure. I was underwear-wringing soaked, my jeans and graphic tee clinging to my shivering body, my socks and Converse squishing with every step. My hair was matted to my face; dirt and grime etched the scratches running up and down my arm, the only reminder that in fact I had been in a taxi that now no longer existed. It occurred to me that I should’ve been more concerned about what was going on, but in that moment, there was only one thing to worry about: what would I be wearing on my first night to the Moulin Rouge?


Jules Chéret. Moulin Rouge/ Paris Cancan 1890

Jules Chéret. Moulin Rouge/ Paris Cancan 1890


The mysterious and charming stranger glanced behind, to make sure I was still following. He called back, “Isn’t it wonderful, the Moulin Rouge?” He chatted at a speed that would outrun a cheetah.

I stumbled over my words, somewhat overwhelmed by the lights and the music and the people. It was a very different world from the one my taxi had been driving in. “I have never been before. It’s a first for me.”

“Oh my! You are like a virgin to the Moulin Rouge. Come! We must find you something to wear!”

“Excuse me, but…what’s your name?”

“Henri! Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec! And yours, mon ami?”

“Um. Austin. Austin Weihmiller.”
“Bienvenue au Moulin Rouge, Austin!” My first night in the Moulin Rouge, and already I had met Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, one of the iconic “legends” of the cabaret.

The little man with the big smile led me into the jardin. A giant model elephant towered over the crowd. The rain had slowed to an occasional drop. Each weathered wrinkle in the elephant’s trunk glistened in the slow rain, colored by a spellbinding red glow. That elephant stood as the centerpiece to this mecca of hopeless romantics, artists, vagabonds, and bohemians alike. Henri seemed to know everyone in the jardin. People from all sorts of backgrounds waved and called to him. He just smiled back, gave an occasional nod here and there, and ran as fast as those little legs could carry him, that huge smile never leaving his face. He pushed his way through the thick crowd - a man with a mission. It seemed so politically incorrect, calling him the “little man”. It only bothered me for a few minutes, though. Everywhere, people called to the man by his nickname, “Little Guy.”

He finally stopped. It was so sudden, I nearly tripped over him. Henri tugged on the tail of a man's coat. The man turned slowly, wanting to finish the chat he was having with another guest. Henri tugged again. And again. And again, that smile still spread across his face.

“Oui Henri?” The man smiled with a hint of annoyance, mixed with a dash of sarcasm. A heavy French accent spilled through.

“Monsieur Valentin! I have found this strange man in the street and he is in desperate need of new clothes for his first night in the Moulin Rouge!”

Valentin looked me over. Suddenly incredibly self conscious of myself, all I could do was give an awkward wave and a little smile. He smiled back and chuckled.

“Bonsoir, monsieur. Follow me.” I looked down at Henri, panic stricken, who only smiled and waved his hands furiously, motioning me toward Monsieur Valentin.

In his rapid fire speech, he piped, “I’ll meet you inside! Promise! Hurry now! Aller!”

I jogged to catch up with Monsieur Valentin. The skinny jeans plastered to my legs made it a valiant effort, causing each step to be slow and sluggish. People hardly gave me a second glance. It seemed the Moulin Rouge had seen worse. Instead of entering through the grand doors, Valentin led me through a side door, almost invisible to the rest of the lucid world. Almost. It was like entering a whole new world, stepping through the hidden stage door. Loud and vivacious music echoed from above in the cabaret. Everyone seemed to be rushing around, getting ready for their acts. Girls in huge and color-splashed dresses ran in heels, fixing their makeup as they went. Men dashed behind them in dapper tuxes and shoes. Showtime couldn’t wait for anything.

Monsieur Valentin nodded and waved and smiled at everyone he sauntered pass. “If you don’t mind me asking, but um, what do you do here, Valentin?”

He seemed offended, as if my smilingly innocent question had assaulted his ego and pride. In that heavy French accent, laced with snark, he replied, “That is Monsieur Le Désossé to you, American. I am a dancer here at the Moulin Rouge, you see. I dance here for pleasure, and I’m probably the finest dancer Europe has seen to date, next to my partner, La Goulue, of course.” I couldn’t help but laugh. He glared a French glare, which soon enough turned back into that charming smile.

I followed him into a dressing room. Posters of the Exposition Universelle of 1889 and the Empire State Building and Montmartre were plastered to the walls. A large mirror lined with lights ate an entire wall in the already tight room. Valentin checked that his perfectly quaffed hair was still in fact perfect. “My number is about to start,” he casually nodded his head toward a rack of tuxes. “Change quickly. Do not be late! You’ll find Toulouse-Lautrec at this usual table. Hurry! Aller!” With that, he took off, running toward stage left. I found a tuxedo; it all fitted perfectly. Everything but the shoes at a half a size too big. I added a top hat and bowtie for effect. On my way out the door, I grabbed a cane, and sauntered down the hall. Showtime wasn’t waiting.

The Moulin Rouge pulsed with life. Hundreds crowded onto the dance floor as music boomed and girls danced. Finding Henri’s table was easier than I had expected, nestled between two cheetah print walls off of the dance floor. Mood lighting dropped dramatic shadows across his face. He was hunched over a sketchbook, madly drawing. A green bottle sat on his table. His Absinthe. At the rate he downed the stuff, it wouldn’t be long before the Green Fairy whisked him away to some far off realm.


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La danse au Moulin Rouge

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La danse au Moulin Rouge


“Bonsoir!” I called out, finally beginning to enjoy myself. Henri looked up at me, and that crazy smile spread across his face.

“Bonsoir! Isn’t it just wonderful?”

Wonderful was only the tip of the iceberg, though. Spectacular. Jaw dropping. Glamorous. Marvelous. Fantastic. Magical. People cheered, the dancers in beat with the face paced music. Their twirling skirts were a rainbow blur. Their can canning legs pointed high into the air. I couldn’t help but cheer with the crowd.

The music grew louder and louder. The skirts seeming to spin faster and faster. The intoxicating lights shone brighter and brighter. I started to feel dizzy. I had only felt this way once before - right before the taxi crashed into oblivion. I looked down at Henri and his Green Fairy. Caught a glance of Valentine out on the dance floor. And he was a fine dancer. My world started spinning, everything becoming one huge blur of color and excitement. Lightheaded, I stumbled toward the dance floor, wanting to catch one last dance before my departure. Blackness.

“Monsieur! Monsieur! Vous allez bien?” My eyes fluttered open. The wrecked taxi sat upside down a few hundred meters down the road, an ocean of shattered glass between it and me. Sirens blared. People gawked at the sight. Someone helped me to my feet. The sun began to disappear behind? the timeless buildings. I smiled as the men helped me hobble toward the ambulance. On the ground, just a few feet from where I landed, was a top hat and cane, forgotten to the world, waiting for their chance to return home. To the Moulin Rouge.


Moulin Rouge








Austin Weihmiller is a member of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program

Photo Austin Weihmiller