City wanderings - and a pilgrimage to some of the best eating and drinking spots in Brussels. Or maybe not eating or drinking - ah, oh well.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Chez Maman

"Hello Rebecca, it's Maman", purrs a voice down the telephone.  Maman?  I look down at the number in disbelief and for a moment I am perdue.  And then I remember the garbled messages on a stranger's answerphone: it was me that prompted this call.

It all started with an evening of singing karaoke in French.  But at the suggestion of a friend said evening continued à trois with the promise of intrigue, via dark gleaming cobblestone streets into a passageway with walls painted black, up some narrow stairs to dispense with hurriedly assembled coats and bags. 

I found myself in a room that was darker still, and advanced with difficulty through a crowd of bodies, bodies pressing against one another as we moved into place on our jigsaw puzzle.  Bodies that were resistant, muscular, - that did not flinch.  I sensed that this was not the kind of establishment where contact with female contours, albeit somewhat boyish ones, would cause anyone embarrassment or alarm. Comfortable with this, I even enjoyed queueing for the unisex toilet, where my femininity was suddenly very apparent and I idly wished I was also capable of using the urinal centimetres in front of me.  It would be so much easier.  But then: confusion!  Squeezing my way back past bodies, one leant over to me and lips whispered conspiratorially in my ear: "I'm the only heterosexual guy in this joint.  I like you - so how about it?"  The only response he received was a very un-ladylike snort of amusement.

And then the show begins.  The strident sounds of "Qui sera, sera" and a striking woman descends the stairs to sing and strut along the bar.  The music is loud, and it feels like I am in a secret underground party or squeezed in a submarine - allowed a privileged view of this powerful woman as she sings to us submariners at her feet.   I see coiffed hair, false eyelashes, shapely strong legs in nylon, satin gloves....  So unexpected is her arrival thatI barely realise that I'm witnessing a drag cabaret show.  And that Maman is performing.

For 17 years Maman has been here, on Fridays and Saturdays with her two girls.  In the days when Le Vaudeville was a night club, Maman performed at Gay Sundays for four years.  And then there was no more night club; Le Vaudeville became a theatre again.   But by then she was famous enough to open her own place: Chez Maman.  Now she sits perched on a stool, welcoming regulars with a kiss. 

When I return months later, alone and by daylight this time, there are some questions I need to ask, as I sit next to Maman smoking at the blackly painted bar with its photos of her girls.  How can I put this delicately?  No matter: I am immediately corrected; "It's not a gay place", says Maman, "it's a place full of gays!"  I absorb this as she continues, "I don't want straight people who have a problem with gay people."  She pauses.  "But there are gay people who have a problem with heterosexual people, and I don't want them either."  Aha!  That explains why Chez Maman is frequented by "nice people of both sides", and why there are no big signs or rainbow flags outside.  "You have to deserve the place", Maman says.  Suddenly I feel lucky to have been allowed in - after all 70% of those who visit keep returning.....

And it's the show and that thrill of the unexpected that makes Chez Maman a draw.  For you can never be entirely sure of your ground.  Maman tells me of the man who, tired with female fickleness, came to try out the club to meet a male companion but instead met.... his future wife, who was tired with male fickleness - and of the usual male-female cat and mouse games in other nightclubs.  They asked for Maman's blessing.....  Funny you should say that: I reveal that my current relationship also began that memorable evening under the eyes of Maman's cabaret show (no: whispering man was not the only hetero in the joint!)  Maman scoffs and says that this does not count, as we arrived together with a friend and Maman regular.  It wasn't a case of eyes meeting across the submarine sea of spectators.  "Yes, it does!" I protest.  "Oh allright then", sighs Maman. 

As my meeting with Maman continues and the beer starts to work its magic, our conversation takes on the form of a confessional.  Well sort of.  Maman is interested in depicting powerful women: Madonnas, Beyoncés, Lady Gaga!  Women like her mother and grandmother.  "I don't like victims", she says with feeling, her eyes boring into me sharply.  I gulp and hurriedly reveal my desire to perform on stage, something that my shyness may forever prevent me from doing.  And I learn that performing as Maman helped conquer her own shyness, and that high heels really do work for self-confidence, but that wigs are too hot and horrible.  Heels don't go very well with cobblestones, but maybe I should give the unworn green suede stilettos in my cupboard another chance?  And then there's the unexpectedly blunt advice on make-up: "now you don't really need it, but you should start".  Ouch!  More make-up?  Cheeky!  Maman doesn't know that I'm an insecure newly thirty-something.  But actually I think she does know that, but she will say it anyway!  And perhaps she is right that make-up can be a mask to hide behind, where you no longer need to be yourself anymore.    Sometimes that might just be fun.  I remain unconvinced about why Madonna is a great role model for women though.....

Meanwhile one of Maman's girls is preparing for the show.  I am beckoned over to steal a look inside the loge, stuffed full with clothes; and notice the mirrors with their bulbs, surrounded by make-up, perfume - the paraphernalia of femininity, everywhere!  I am in the boudoir of Nana, in the dressing room of Letal in Almodovar's Tacones Lejanos;
"La beauté d'une femme c'est son artifice." 
Was it Yves Saint Laurent who said that, or someone else?  Maman and I appear to be following the same train of thought.  Femininity is stalking me in powder, rouge, intoxicating perfume, ruffles: it is so much as to be almost frightening!  I am like the pitiable Count Muffat cowed by the naked vision of Nana before him.  Maman and her girls spend two hours getting ready; " we need a strong base to cover pores and facial hair", she says, frankly.  Hair is teased into shape, legs are shaved and cleavage created.  The result is artifice, but Maman on stage is more Nana than I could ever be!  And yet somehow femininity is broad enough to hold both of us. 

And then there are the clothes: Maman buys them in Brussels, goes shopping in H&M, orders them from Thailand.  Sometimes her Mum makes them.  There's the familiar problem of finding some fabulous dress, and wondering what on earth to wear it for.  Maman has some 100 acts: all her favourite things of the last 17 years.  She would start by listening to CDs in the FNAC, but since then inspiration can come from anywhere, but finding it is harder; and sometimes people complain that the same songs keep returning.  With three acts a night, she knows that the show must be a plus, "otherwise it just annoys people".  So Maman and her girls adapt their musical choices to fit the audience.  And once a year, her stage is the venue for a "Nuit des débutantes", for boys who want to try performing.  They receive two weeks of training, and sometimes a new star is born....

I have to ask about the name.  Years ago, Maman was holidaying with same gay friends.  The food was terrible.  She felt compelled to take over the cooking, and her grateful friends responded, "vous êtes une mère pour nous."

"So call me Maman."

We descend the dark stairs and suddenly I am standing on the bar.  I walk tentatively along the stage, perform a little pirouette, marvel at how narrow it is (treacherous in high heels).  And then Maman hands me ceremoniously down the stairs.  No kiss, but a manly handshake.   And then she is gone. 

Il songeait à son ancienne horreur de la femme, au monstre de l’Écriture, lubrique, sentant le fauve. Nana était toute velue, un duvet de rousse faisait de son corps un velours ; tandis que, dans sa croupe et ses cuisses de cavale, dans les renflements charnus creusés de plis profonds, qui donnaient au sexe le voile troublant de leur ombre, il y avait de la bête. C’était la bête d’or, inconsciente comme une force, et dont l’odeur seule gâtait le monde. Muffat regardait toujours, obsédé, possédé, au point qu’ayant fermé les paupières, pour ne plus voir, l’animal reparut au fond des ténèbres, grandi, terrible, exagérant sa posture. Maintenant, il serait là, devant ses yeux, dans sa chair, à jamais.
Count Moffat contemplating Nana in her boudoir, in Nana by Zola, Chapter 7

 Chez Maman is open Thursday to Saturday until the early hours.  There is no entrance fee, but expect drink prices to compensate for this.  Maman is only there on Fridays and Saturdays, but at other times you might encounter the very different Queer as Folk or Pink Stuff.  Make sure you look nice!

rue des grandes Carmes 7
1000 Brussels

Becinbrussels writes about Chez Maman. Again. On Guardian:Been There

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