Listening exercises

Like a football final, or the human brain, Paris is a city of two halves. It splits many times over, with yawning chasms appearing and closing the longer an interloper lives here, gape-mouthed and intent on prising apart the pieces to peer inside. Left bank, right bank. Parti Socialiste, Les Républicains. Working-class east, bourgeois west. CDI, everyone else. Car, Métro. Native Parisian, everyone else. Tourist, implant.

I returned recently to this last division, as deep and invisible as a puncture wound, as I was flicking through an Australian travel magazine, the beautiful images and text somewhat at odds with the city I live in. This is standard – no one sees their daily surrounds as a visitor does. The short-term stay is stuffed with cherry-picked pleasures and skimmed of the grind. Residents, on the other hand, balance the trials of overpopulation and insouciant competition with the luxury of time and repetition, the opportunity to sit in a bar or café, as I love to do, and watch the world pull up a chair, drink, sigh, and contribute to the landscape. It’s instructive to do this in different neighbourhoods, either by design (as at Les Pères Populaires, above) or hazard, to learn, as the French say, comme une petite souris. Here, then, are some recent observations.

Septime La Cave

The American holding court at the bar is complaining that a man he’d just met tried to kiss him on the lips. I have been listening to him spout foodie jargon for a glass and a half of Busser Printemps (100% malbec) – Michelin stars, five hundred euros, Barcelona, blah, blah, blah.

“He’s got a beard and shit, right? He’s a good guy.” “That’s rad.”

Septime La Cave is full to elegant sufficiency on this early evening. I have a stool, a second glass of wine and half my olives (the black ones – the green ones were so plump and unctuous I ate them immediately). I have my book (La Vérité sur l’Affaire de Harry Quebert by Joël Dicker), a loan from an astute colleague and thus far a compelling mix of Twin Peaks and Lolita.

Rue de Charonne is my terroir. J and I ended up here a few nights ago after finding the gloriously named Bears & Raccoons, around the corner, closed. I’m back because I had, on my way home tonight, a hankering for a good red.

The young women behind the bar, then and now, are attentive and discreet. They bring me a top up based on a raised eyebrow. They slice dried duck breast for bar snacks. They have long dark hair and just-red lips.

Everyone, or nearly, is speaking English. An older dude lingers outside. People leave the bar. They light cigarettes as they go.

I sit and listen. Talking, garden-variety reggae on the stereo, chairs scraping on the wood floor, fridge door closing, ring tones, clinking glassware, traffic, a thump of a handbag hitting the floor.

I’m warm – wine? Candles?

The patrons are well-groomed, beautiful. They swirl their glasses. The two girls near me are comparing text messages and finishing a bottle of Faugères, their glasses leaving glistening scarlet rings on the windowsill.

This feels like Twilight Zone Paris, partly fed by tourists, partly locals of a certain flavour.

The American is back to opining about the wine industry. “Less work, same money.” Maybe he’s somebody. I have no idea. I turn to put a face to the nasal twang. “We have micro-climate. Over the winter, I’m going to try to build a small greenhouse.” His companion is sitting up very straight, listening. She has glossy hair halfway down her back.

The bar is tiny, smaller than my apartment, with cabinets along two walls filled with wine, price tags hung on red thread around each neck. I notice later a bike helmet and umbrella on the coat rack. The furniture is stools, wine crates, an armchair.

“Forty covers a night, so there are some options.”

The song changes, the conversation pauses, then all begins again.

I think the girls next to me are on a date – folded arms, a hand on a hand, a quick kiss. I can’t follow their rapid-fire French mixed with laughter.

The American has gone. Suddenly, the space opens up. I dig into a final olive. The salt reminds me of my hunger. My glass is lined with a shadow of pink, my head has a shadow of alcohol, another twilight zone. I’ve reached page 269 in my book. It’s time to head home for dinner.

It’s definitely a date going on behind me.

Hoppy Corner

Because I am a beer-nerd-in-training, the second thing I notice on entering Hoppy Corner  – after realising none of my workmates are here – is that there are fifteen beers on tap, including a couple of familiar Frenchies.

Wrong day, wrong place, wrong time, whatever. My curiosity has been piqued by La Levalloise from Les Brasseurs du Grand Paris on the list, so I pull up the lone stool at the end of the bar.

“Accidental beer is the best kind,” says J in a text. She also says she can’t come down to keep me company. Tant pis. She’s right, though, I think with an eye on the mid-gold pale ale now placed in front of me. The atmosphere is more wine bar, Americana-style soundtrack not withstanding, than beer hall, and the beer is served in stemware.

Outside, people in Halloween costumes are headed towards the Montorgueil pedestrian area and perhaps to Beaubourg beyond. This Monday night has caught a little imported holiday spirit.

At Hoppy, you can taste before you buy to make sure the bitterness, weight and style of your chosen drop pleases your palate. The barman launches into the origins of India pale ale between pulling half pints for punters. I feel quietly superior that I already know this story. I study the foam on top of my demi and continue eavesdropping. I think of my sister-in-law who inadvertently opened the door to the beer universe when she offered me a sip of her Leffe, at a café just down the road.

This place has been open since April, the barman explains. They have a rotating selection of thirty beers by the bottle as well as those on tap. There is wine, too.

The noise level is rising. I’m enjoying the crisp, non-challenging bitterness of my choice.

Les Chaises

You’ve got to love a bar that plays Giorgio Moroder. I Feel Love is on, and about five people are sitting at the bar at Les Chaises, while the barman takes the occasional forkful of some kind of meatball dish. I look past him to the short blackboard menu and order a glass of Libac (4€). I take a table at the back, through the wide arch where the wall has clearly been knocked out to extend the space towards the kitchen. I’m meeting J in half an hour, and this place is local, plus it’s a recent recipient of a Time Out award for favourite neighbourhood bar (20th arrondissement).

Conversation is the dominant sound – about four tables are already filled and a couple more are ready for reservations. I discover this when I try to move to a spot away from the pass. Opposite me, a couple are sharing a planche of cheese and charcuterie beneath a tableau of Scrabble tiles on the wall. Its lines spell out names.

I have previously thought that, if you were trying to name a baby or a pet, that a visit to an art gallery might furnish many ideas – I was at the Louvre at the time and falling in love with David’s depiction of the Sabine women – but this artwork could also do the job. Magalie? Sébastien? Astrid? Cédric? In the centre, it says, “Merci à tous”, so these names are clearly attached to people, actual people, like the ones coming in now for their reservation and engaged in the critical ritual of kissing everyone, noisily, on both cheeks. (An aside, when I was waiting for my dance class to start the other night, the women doing the concurrent contemporary class arrived to change in the curtained-off corner at the bottom of the stairs where I was sitting, buried in The Line of Beauty. From behind the khaki drapes came a clicking puckering, the smacks of lip-cheek connections, like rain falling heavily on a pond or carp surfacing in a château moat.)

But I digress.

The tables at Les Chaises are mismatched. The chairs, too. The place is named for its seating but it’s standard-issue bric-a-brac here. Industrial lights. A corkboard for announcements made of corks. The walls are red and grey. There are fairy lights and plants.

I continue to watch the couple opposite. The man is eating from their planche with a knife and fork, but in between bites he lets his hand, still holding the fork, fall below the table. I think she likes him more than he does her. Her legs are stretched well into his side of the table. She is not eating.

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