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French travel back to simpler time

A few feet from an overgrown path that hugs the banks of the still, green Marne River, two fishermen doze in a small wooden boat under the buzzing wings of insects. Awakened on a humid late afternoon, they raise a beer and shout, "Bonjour!"

A little farther on, the riverside path winds toward a tiny island covered with trees, and the muffled sound of music.

The trees break for a clearing, revealing a terrace set with red-and-white checkered tablecloths on picnic tables under wisteria-covered trellises. Two musicians play old French tunes on an accordion and guitar. Strings of colorful lights and paper lanterns glow against a darkening sky as guests arrive.

Cross a pale blue metal bridge and enter the past. The Ile du Martin-Pecheur guinguette brings to life the old open-air dance halls that thrived on the rivers around Paris in the early part of the 20th century. Now guinguettes are finding new fans in a fast-paced modern world.

This is a place that feels far removed from the capital, where people come to feast on fried fish and wine, and dance in the middle of the day to songs their grandparents knew by heart.

"We're looking for authentic things, simple things, that give us a real break from the weekday stress at work," Nathalie Cicolella, 47, said as she leaned over a table where she sat with two friends who at the Martin-Pecheur, a 20-minute train ride from central Paris in Champigny-sur-Marne. "This is our patrimony, our French heritage, and it's still here. You can't get more French than this."

In their heyday, hundreds of guinguettes (gan-GET-ts) were perched along the banks of the slow rivers that loop through the Parisian countryside (where owners avoided town taxes).

During a roughly 100-year span encompassing the belle epoque and the first half of the 20th century, they were magnets for young, working-class people who were drawn by the low prices, fresh air, cheery accordion music and hourglass-shaped women flirting in their Sunday best. Pierre Auguste Renoir famously painted one of his favorite guinguettes in "Le Dejeuner des Canotiers" (Luncheon of the Boating Party).

"At the time, Paris was dirty, and stifling," said Jean-Yves Dupin, 58, manager of the Martin-Pecheur. "People escaped Paris on the train from the Bastille to the banks of the Marne, which was called the Train de l'Amour."

But by World War II, most guinguettes, with their accordion-animated balls and checkered tablecloths, had disappeared. Parisians took fewer train trips on weekends, preferring to drive farther away. Industrial and urban development invaded much of the Seine River, where grassy banks morphed into concrete platforms and pollution discouraged bathing. A younger rock 'n' roll generation shrugged at their parents' taste in music.

Still, guinguettes never became extinct, experiencing a revival in the early 1990s among aficionados — many of them nostalgic retirees, but some of them also young romantics — hoping to bring back something that had been lost.

"One hundred years ago, people ate this," said Philippe Pannier de Belle Chasse, pointing toward the terrace at Chez Fifi (short for Philippe), the guinguette he opened in Neuilly-sur-Marne in 2001. "Fried fish, white wine. That's it."

On a recent Sunday, Pannier cooked furiously for a big crowd, sweating in his cap and apron. He served up steaming mussels, roasted veal, lamb and more seafood, calling out as he walked into the dining room, and hugging and kissing the feminine half of the partyers.

Pannier had always wanted to run his own guinguette.

"I grew up around the working-class [dancing] balls in the countryside," he said. "And you remember where you were the first time someone flirted with you, when you were 15."

He has planted a tree and pots of flowers in the middle of the covered dining hall, which is zigzagged with colorful streamers and bunting. Tables outside look down at the Marne from a raised platform.

At 2 that morning he had gone to the daily market where Parisian restaurants stock up to buy fresh meat and fish, the way he does every day before work. He refuses to let other employees do the shopping because he "knows the best cuts." At 62, he sleeps only two to three hours a night, he said, which is hard to believe from his wide-eyed smile.

Pannier is proud of the cultural tradition he is maintaining.

"In other restaurants, they sit you down, plop. That's it. None of the charm that makes life a pleasure."

And yet, a guinguette today is not the guinguette of the past.

The same day at Chez Fifi, Betty Frantz, a robust 65-year-old, was dressed in a figure-hugging white skirt and a loose, lace-draped top bedecked with pearls. A pitch-black, bouffant hairdo strewn with black and white paper flowers floated around her face.

She usually dresses up to come here, she said, which amounts to a lot of dressing up, because she comes on most weekends to dance during the afternoon ball.

This day, despite sore knees, she danced for hours with several partners, and participated in a Miss Guinguette contest, judged by dancing ability, style of dress, cheerful attitude on the dance floor and knowledge of guinguette tradition. She would later win the top prize, along with a bottle of champagne, flowers, a ribbon and an invitation to compete in the national Miss Guinguette contest to be held in the north of France on July 14, Bastille Day.

"It reminds us of the films, and our grandparents. It was another time then. A friendlier time," Frantz said, before being interrupted. "Excuse me, can't talk now," she said as she was led away to dance again.

Among the crowd, families celebrated birthdays at long packed tables, while the regulars danced, some dressed in 1930s and '40s-style outfits, one man in a cap and suspenders, a woman in a cancan-inspired short skirt, bustier and red ribbons in her hair.

But most stuck to their Sunday jeans and T-shirts, sipping beers at the bar, or leaning into their chairs on the outdoor terrace. They greeted one another, and raised glasses to Fifi whenever he passed.

Dalmia Lamouri, 50, doesn't know the traditional guinguette dances but likes to come watch the couples at Chez Fifi.

"I like the working-class side of it. The way people relax and enjoy. Cheap eats, fried fish. The guinguette was the poor man's ball," she said. Her family didn't introduce her to the French tradition — "They all speak Arabic," she says — but she got interested through friends and keeps coming back.

One reason young adults are a minority at guinguettes is that it's less common for them to learn the traditional dance steps. Guinguette balls with accordion music, and the waltz musette, a faster, body-hugging version of the waltz, are played on weekend days, and sometimes nights. Dances include favorites like the Charleston, tango, cha-cha and rumba.

On weekend nights a lot of guinguettes also have rock bands and other entertainment more in tune with current trends. Salsa dancing on Saturday nights is one of the attempts to attract a larger range of customers to Martin-Pecheur.

"Until now guinguettes were corny, aging, but for the last 10 years there's been an increasing interest among youth," said Christine de Klerk, 44, who organizes events for a guinguette association.

Back at Chez Fifi, the only young couple to participate in the Miss Guinguette contest struggled over the culture quiz required of every contestant.

"We knew a few of the questions, but this one: Why do guinguettes exist?" Frank Michaux could only shrug. He wore a 1940s-style straw fedora, and said he was happy just to participate. (He and his partner were among the first to be eliminated from the contest.)

"I'm just an absolute fan of old French songs," Michaux said. "I'm 28, and I don't know, I think it was always in me."

Lauter is a special correspondent.

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