After three years in Berlin, Frank Doucet has lost everything. His café. His dream. And the place that was going to be his home, forever.
The lower level of the Hauptbahhof is very quiet as we sit, his luggage in front of us, on one of the benches.
Over the last two years, Doucet created a place across from the church that was special to its visitors. It accepted them, absorbed them and then released them back into their lives, changed and full of new impressions. At least that's how I felt. We would eat raclette and drink red wine and, at the end of the evening, Frank would said goodbye to us with kisses, left and right.
It always felt like visiting a friend.
Seize the day, to go
The Café Charles et Paulin, named after his grandfathers, was Frank's living room, his concert hall, his reading stage. A French salon with a piano, gold-rimmed dishes, lots of good wine and perhaps the best cheese in town. It was also his new beginning. He had left his first life as a real estate banker behind.
He had seen the world and decided that Berlin should be the city where he would eventually retire. In Berlin the rents promised to be so much cheaper and everyday life so much more relaxed than in Paris.
I can see Frank storming out of the kitchen at the back of the café with flushed cheeks, his apron tied around him, balancing a quiche or a sweet tart high above his head. Jazz or an opera spinnig on the turntable.
At some point, when the guests have been sated, when they're tipsy and soulful, and are sinking into the old armchairs and watching the day pass from this safe haven, Frank would open a bottle of champagne and be happy. His satisfaction was easy to see for anyone who had snagged a seat at Sunday brunch.
"Actually, I'm an optimist through and through," he says on the cold platform. "But now I'm very tired." Of the crisis, of life, of fighting for his happiness.
I only learned about him abandoning his dream from the handwritten notes on the windows of his store. Sometime last fall he included his cell phone number because everything in sight was for sale: furniture, oils, delicacies. Bunches of lavender had once adorned tables and extension cords were only unrolled when guests ordered raclette, but now everything was in disarray.
I visited Frank in the midst of one of his clearance sales and at one point he sank into one of the armchairs between the mop buckets and stacks of books and cried.
"I lost everything," he said.
Then customers came in who were interested in one of the armchairs. Frank quickly wiped the despair from his face. By then, bankruptcy had been filed, and Frank was living off what money he could still make in the store.
"I now know what it's like to get by on €100 a week," he says.
Yet in March, when every restaurant had to close, his reservation books were filled weeks ahead of time. His business thrived by allowing guests to savour the moment. You can't get savoir vivre to go.
And while Frank had to put the daily mini French celebrations on hold because of corona, the costs kept coming. Gema, internet, rent. Frank braced himself for the end. Through the summer, he persevered, even if guests were slow to return.
"People were no longer partying and enjoying themselves without ulterior motives," he says. They wanted to save, and he understood.
The utility company shutting off the power signalled the end. First there was an accident where a refrigerator full of food was spoiled. He lost hundreds of euros. Then the bill came that quashed the dream.
The train will be here soon.
"In the end, the sushi bars and kebab shops will survive. But that's nothing like the kind of hospitality I offered," Frank says. At first he'll stay with family in Épernay, in the heart of Champagne.
"I'll go back to my old profession, real estate. I want to work in the social sector and try to help old people, poor people," he says. "That will hopefully make me happy again one day."
As we say goodbye, we throw kisses to each other through the cold air in the cathedral-like station. Frank has tears in his eyes as he says goodbye: "You know that Marlene Dietrich song? 'I still have a suitcase in Berlin'?"
For him, it's like that song now:
The bliss of times past
are all still in this little suitcase.