Espresso on every corner

Coffee can be a reason to cross town. Or just leave your apartment. Luckily, the 20th arrondissement is full of places in which to find a decent roast, often with good music, a friendly welcome and wi-fi thrown in. Here, in no particular order, are 15 local favourites and recent discoveries.

Cream A chic niche on multi-culti rue de Belleville, Cream upped the local coffee bar when it opened in 2015. The excellent Belleville Brûlerie roast comes in a well-edited range of styles – including a mini-crème-like cortado (3€) for those expanding their coffee vocab – but there’s no decaf, soy or wi-fi. Tempting sandwiches, salads, cookies and cakes hit the spot if you feel like eating. Afterwards, head up the steep hill to Parc de Belleville for one of the best views over Paris. 50 rue de Belleville

Les Pères Populaires This place, with its fine tunes, mismatched décor and bargain coffee (1€ espresso), is a chilled-out haven near Place de la Nation. It has 5G wi-fi, plenty of space and a laissez-faire attitude towards laptop jockeys who spend hours over a single beverage. If you come for lunch, the 16€ set menu is seasonal and satisfying (with moreish Ten Belles bread on the side). With a truly mixed crowd – native millennials, families, welded-on regulars – Pères Pop is also a lively (read noisy) option for apéro46 rue de Buzenval

Les Pichettes This homey newcomer does a 10€ Sunday brunch, making the most of the market atmosphere and passing foot traffic. It’s mostly a lunch spot, though, open from 11am to 4pm every day but Saturday, with a daily menu (three courses, 15€), natural wines and beer from Montreuil brewery La Baleine. Continuous service means you can just pop in for noisette (1.90€) served in a vintage teacup with choc-coated coffee beans on the side. 47 rue des Vignoles


Le Café Sans Nom On Thursday and Sunday mornings, this spacious café (on the corner opposite Les Pichettes) hums to the rhythm of the open-air market in Place de la Réunion. As well as a certain zinc-bar, no-frills charm – and serviceable coffee (1.30€ noisette) – there are books to browse, wi-fi and a genuine neighbourhood vibe to enjoy from a table on the terrace. 57 rue de la Réunion


L’Escargot d’Or They roast the coffee on the spot here. It’s only open in the afternoon (or evening on Friday and Saturday) and closed Sunday. They also have a stand at Marché de Charonne on Friday mornings and sell coffee beans from around the world. 53 rue de Bagnolet

La Chouette Well-made espresso and flaky croissant at La Chouette (with its double meaning of owl and super) is a good way to start the day, with free wi-fi removing any excuse not to work, if that’s the mission. Locals take equally to the footpath terrace for a sundowner. The menu at lunch and dinner is fresh and inventive and the Art Deco design touches – mirrors, light fittings – make this handsome space a standout at the southern end of the arrondissement. 89 rue des Pyrénées

Le Barbouquin Worth the detour to street-art-filled rue Denoyez, this cute, casual café does double duty as a second-hand bookshop (hence the name). Sip your noisette (2.40€) in a velour-covered armchair or at the long communal table. It has wi-fi but also a weekend laptop ban – to encourage conviviality, as a sign on the door helpfully explains. Its comme-ci, comme-ça attitude to tables filled with laptops bearing glowing fruit is, it seems, increasingly common. 1 rue Denoyez

Café La Laverie It’s a little bit Paris terrace, a little bit rock’n’roll, with fairy lights outside and retro-inspired décor indoors (including the old laundromat sign, evidence of the building’s former life). In the fine weather, enjoy your espresso (1.90€) or panaché (that’s a shandy in Australian parlance) looking out across the shady square. There’s no wi-fi, just conversation, cigarettes and a book (yes, a paper one). Cnr rue Sorbier and rue de Ménilmontant

Benoît Castel – La Pâtisserie-Boulangerie The open-kitchen concept comes to the bakery. At Benoît Castel’s eponymous boulangerie-pâtisserie, you can have excellent coffee (2.20€ noisette), lunch or weekend brunch (29€) with a backdrop of artisan flour, dough hooks and antique wood-fired ovens (logs stacked neatly the side). Long tables, floor-to-ceiling front windows and wi-fi make this a very pleasant working spot. Take home some jam, biscuits or granola as well as irresistible bread and pastries. 150 rue de Ménilmontant

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Cerwood Terrasse Just off the main strip at Jourdain, the second Cerwood address (after the original in the 19th) is more log cabin than typical Parisian café. It’s all antlers, animal hide and hunks of tree suspended from the ceiling, not to mention a leather chesterfield couch by a faux open fire (in an echo of the owners’ pretty-rustic florist shop, Nouvelle Ere, nearby). The coffee is from Brûlerie de Jourdain, there’s free wi-fi and, as per the name, an inviting terrace. 8 rue Jean-Baptiste Dumay

Kahwehgi Coffee House Pull up a stool at the bar in this tiny, friendly café for a macchiato or signature Kahwehgi (an espresso topped with cream), both 2.50€, made with coffee from award-winning French roaster Pfaff. A range of teas, sweet nibbles and ground coffee are available to take away. The location is welcoming, too, on a leafy side street between Place Gambetta and Père Lachaise cemetery. 9 avenue du Père Lachaise

Ô Divin Traiteur Mid-morning, just after opening, the glass-and-marble bar at Ô Divin Traiteur is already topped with Middle Eastern-inspired pastries and salads. The whole place smells incredible, and the espresso (2€) is smooth. Linger for lunch or go up the road to sister épicerie and primeur (greengrocers) – both part of the group along with Restaurant Ô Divin in the 19th – for wine, cheese, charcuterie and fresh produce, if you fancy a gourmet picnic at Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. 118 rue de Belleville

Le Monte-en-l’AirHidden away opposite Ménilmontant’s beautiful Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix church, this design-focused bookshop – art, photography, graphic novels and illustration – is not really a café, but it does offer coffee and cold drinks on the terrace. 2 rue de la Mare

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Aux Ours Maybe it’s the banks of sidewalk tables, maybe the neighbourhood atmosphere, but this place is always buzzy, often to the point of heaving. It leans more towards bar/restaurant (with a classic French menu and new home-delivery service) than café, but in the morning, it’s a quiet place to work or simply have a coffee (1.10€ espresso). The spacious interior and free wi-fi make it popular with freelancers. 236 rue des Pyrénées

ABC Belleville – Arts of Bakery & Coffee Opposite the forecourt that overlooks Parc de Belleville, ABC puts the city at your feet. Although you might not notice the view (look, the Eiffel Tower!) if you’re here, bleary-eyed, when it opens at 7am. If a croissant and espresso (1.20€) are not sustenance enough, the breakfast offerings extend along a distinctly anglo bent, from granola to omelette, and for those who don’t get going until midday, there’s a lunch menu, too. 10 rue des Envierges

 

 

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Promenade de deux

The main hall of 104 Centquatre is a vast space. Concrete floor, skylight open to the cerulean-grey patchwork above, red brick, iron beams. Dancers of a world of styles – hip-hop, tango, salsa – are toiling joyously in the natural light that pours through that transparent roof. It’s hard to believe this building was once home to the city undertaker service, where up to 1400 people organised 150 funerals a day, where first horses then motorized hearses were accommodated on a site the size of Place de la République. The 1873 building has, since its rebirth in 2008, housed rehearsal and performance spaces, a start-up incubator, bookshop, cafés and vintage boutique Emmaüs. It’s a world unto itself – from the Open Wall neon installation by Pascale Marthine Tayou in the arched floor-to-ceiling glass frontage as you enter to the tucked-away Café Caché.

Paris does urban renewal with style, and this is the second example of it on our Saturday afternoon ramble through the 10th, 18th and 19th arrondissements to Aubervilliers, a copy of L’Autre Paris in hand.

When J and I meet at Gare de l’Est at 3pm, we have it firmly in mind that we’ll be finished and settled with beers in hand at Le Supercoin by six at the latest. Not so fast. Turns out perhaps we walk slowly, or take too long over coffee, or there are just too many things to see on Nicolas Le Goff’s second itinerary in the book to rush things.

Our first cool discovery is behind a high wall over the road from the 19th-century railway station, one of Paris’s six main hubs and the departure point for the first Orient Express to Istanbul (thank you, Wiki, for that titbit). The station façade is gorgeous. But more lovely in its way is the garden of Café A in the Maison de l’Architecture. Too late for lunch, too early for coffee. We snap a couple of pictures, take a look at the menu and promise to return another day.

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Right, to serious navigating, wandering, wondering and getting under the skin of a new part of town. (Sorry, 20th, you’ll have to sit this one out.)

We cross the forecourt of the station, up horseshoe-shaped stairs, over an iron bridge next to an old viaduct, around the corner to find the coloured façade of Collectif 23 is no more. We stand at the gate, making friendly noises to the dog on the other side. Eventually, a nice chap comes to ask if he can help us. I explain we’re doing a tour and hold up the book. He looks puzzled, then amused as he reads the entry that mentions this art collective squat – the mural was painted over, he says – and invites us in to see their latest photography exhibition, of women fighters during the Balkans conflict.

Onwards. Through the Indian quarter, past an incense-scented temple, piles of shoes at the door, to La Halle Pajol, our first repurposed utopia. The former mail exchange depot (built 1926) is now, yes, a cultural centre and 330-bed youth hostel. Its roof also supports Paris’s second largest collection of solar panels. We find a table at Les Petites Gouttes’ leafy terrace and order coffee (for me) and a house-brewed IPA (for J).

Breather over, next stop is the Marché La Chappelle on rue de l’Olive. The covered market, which stays open until 7.30pm most days, has immaculate stands of produce, fish, meat and cheese. I love French markets – rabbits with organs neatly on display, chickens with feet and head intact, pungent cheese, fresh oysters to be devoured standing up. Nearby En Vrac sells wine by volume – you can take your bottle and refill for just 3€.

Due to my inability to navigate and read instructions at the same time we’re halfway across the power-blue bridge over the train tracks before I realize we’ve skipped a garden or two. Regardless, we continue to the Jardins d’Eole, which stretch along the railway with basketball courts, lawns and a lovely view of the Sacré-Coeur off in the distance. It’s a green oasis between transport infrastructure and high-rise apartment developments and very popular, it seems.

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Around the corner, through a neighbourhood vide grenier in full swing, we stop to gape at the Orgues de Flandre, a monumental 1970s housing development. From there, it’s five minutes to Centquatre.

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Deciding not to have another stop, at Café Caché, we leave arts central and walk along Paris’s longest street art fresco to the new Gare Rosa-Parks. (It links to Saint-Lazare in seven minutes!) The pedestrian/cyclist thoroughfare takes us to Square Claude-Bernard, then over the Périphérique via a curvy wooden bridge, glancing right at the Forêt Linéaire but a bit too weary to explore further.

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Our final destination is the canal and the free shuttle ferry from enormous shopping centre Le Millénaire to the Corentin-Cariou métro station, where our “official” itinerary ends. The ferries come every 12 minutes and are a novel way to travel.

So, at nearly 8pm, we finally reach Le Supercoin, a close-to-perfect neighbourhood bar that specializes in craft beer. Oh yes. We get two demis of Rhythm’n’Blues, a smoked rye IPA from local O’Clock Brewing. At 7.5 per cent alcohol, it’s a big beginning but, hey, we’re been walking. And, oh yes, she’s a lovely drop, with clear notes of smoke and pleasing bitterness. We discuss barley wine and the merits of ambrée versus IPA, all the while continuing with a mini degustation (and nibble a complimentary crêpe complète). Our next beers, shared, in bottle not pression, include a coffee number from Brasseurs du Grand Paris that we agree would make a cracking biramisu.

Sweet.

 

 

Urban ramblings

On the other side of the southern wall of Père Lachaise cemetery, Le Jardin Naturel – the natural garden – has been left to self-seed and native species encouraged to proliferate thanks to chemical-free, eco-friendly maintenance. It’s tucked in behind rue de Bagnolet and feels, over its 6300 square metres, more like a walk in the country, with birdsong and sunlight breaking through spring leaves in patches. It’s unusually unkempt for a city park, charming and rambling, with signs offering information about the indigenous plants. Here, an oak, there a field maple, copper birch, bellflowers, ferns and so on in a tapestry of green, and pink, and gold.

I had forgotten the little park was there until yesterday when we came upon it during a “randonnée urbaine” organised by local bookstore Le Merle Moqueur. Our expert guide was Nicolas Le Goff, whose excellent new book, L’Autre Paris,  I’d brought weeks ago during a fact-finding sortie to FNAC. Happily, J and M agreed to come and we joined about 15 others (mostly women, as another walker noted while we were milling about waiting to begin) for the 90-minute walk. We started at Square Edith Piaf and ended with a signing at the bookstore. (When J observed that it was the first time she’d seen the statue of the Little Sparrow, M responded dryly that she was often skirted by locals and their bottles, which we all agreed was somehow appropriate.)

My hope was that Le Goff, whose book details 10 promenades around the greater city with a focus on architecture, urban design, parks, street art, culture and food, would offer some insight into my ’hood. I was not disappointed. It turned out that many of the participants were also locals, and he clearly felt the pressure to give us something special. At one point, as we walked through an innovative social-housing development, Le Goff asked J and me if we had seen it before. Our shaking heads elicited a very pleased, “Yes!”

We began at Campagne à Paris, which is utterly village-like in its spring finery, then tacked south through manicured Square Séverine, along the narrow elevated street that overlooks rue de Bagnolet from which we could see two elegantly curved staircases at the front of houses that once sat amid vineyards. Our path took us through the cemetery at the back of Eglise Saint-Germain de Charonne, and Le Goff allowed a few minutes for us to go inside the medieval church (the first time I’d seen it open) whose interior dimness showed off the brilliant hues of the stained-glass windows.

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Crossing rue des Pyrénées, Le Goff, who has previously worked at cultural centre Centquatre and clearly loves his subject, took us through the public housing development around Place Mélina-Mercouri, pointing out energy-saving features (heat-retaining construction materials) and how car-free thoroughfares linked adjacent schools. In this “eco-quartier”, there’s child-friendly, ethical Super Café, gardens and a sense of light and space. The design was created in consultation with the residents, he said.

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Cutting through Place de la Réunion, being prepped for the Sunday market, Place Marc Bloch and Jardin Casque d’Or, we emerged at rue des Vignoles, and another corner of the arrondissement that was completely new to me. And this is where having a guide really paid off because we were able to peep behind a private gate into another development, this one all external staircases and green walls. It was so lovely. And utterly hidden from the street.

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Next door was the brick-red cobbled courtyard of Flamenco en France, opposite a retro barber shop, and down from tempting bar Café de l’Amitié and organic restaurant La Petite Fabrique (where J and I went last night for delicious homemade quiche, brandade de morue and natural wines).

Our route back to rue de Bagnolet also offered a glimpse at the art deco Eglise Saint-Jean-Bosco de Paris, built in 1937, with its 53-metre clock tower.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Paris rewards curiosity at almost every turn, but it does help to be pointed in the right direction. All around Père Lachaise are little cul-de-sacs. We wound our way up and down several, one through Le Jardin Naturel and another that seemed to be lined with warehouses, where work was going on to re-lay the cobbled surface. I immediately wanted to live there.

Yet another took us past the Cité Aubry community garden, one of 14 in the arrondissement, where weekend gardeners were happy to pause in their work to explain the project to us. (I discovered later from the website that the garden was created nearly three years ago, and there is a long waiting list for plots.) The walls surrounding the garden are covered in beautiful murals, and the garden makes excellent use of wooden palettes for planters, dividers and racks. The most magnificent yellow and red tulips filled one box; strawberry plants donned white flowers in pots by the red-arch entry.

We finished back at the bookstore, which has recently had an update, filling its industrial-style interior with more light and opening up the space. We took the opportunity for a browse, particularly the graphic novel section; J bought a copy of L’Autre Paris and we made plans to do the itineraries (watch this space).

The 20th can feel like the ultimate urban mash-up, dominated in so many places by nondescript high-ish-rises from decades past. The walk with Le Goff revealed some of the neighbourhood’s hidden greenery and, even better, offered a chance to learn about projects putting heart and soul into the built environment. Yes, another Paris, indeed.

Cacophony of calm

Wet bitumen underfoot, birdsong in my ears, an unfurling canopy above. My mind plays a relentless loop of anxieties, real and imagined. I run, naming the things I pass, like an insomniac counts sheep. Mental effort pushes back against white noise. French nouns, verb conjugations, imagine the world in the subjunctive, grapple with the future anterior.

Another day. Another run. Spring. Almost cloudless sky. I pass through a portal of tarmac and traffic to carpets of greenery, under huge trees already decked in new leaves. Runners, other runners, are they also looping the past week through their brains? Walkers, gardeners, prams, dogs, smokers. The morning air is softly cool. Crows squabble metres up. Courting pigeons, honking geese, distant cars, beeps from reversing vehicles, conversation, steady breathing and rhythmic footfalls, squawking seagulls, forest birds, quotes from A Few Good Men. Who can handle the truth? English. French, Russian, Mandarin. Cascading water, scraping gravel.

Over years now and months and weekends and precious minutes of solitude, I have found myself in Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. I come here for my own tranquility and yet it is never quiet. That’s the beauty of the thing. Perfect silence would only induce further madness. Instead, a garden dripping loveliness and community allows me to still my thoughts among a succession of soothing moments. The people pass. Time passes. It all passes, eventually. And none of it has anything to do with me. The parade is my meditation.

Anxiety meets park.

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I pause to read the plaque on the Japanese pagoda tree whose branches twist in a million chaotic directions towards the water of the lake. It was planted in 1873. You are not allowed to climb it.

The park has 47 types of trees, many exotic. Many date from its inception in 1867. Many call to mind landscapes by Hubert Robert, whose idealized vistas are on display at The Louvre.

In the 21st century, the park is lovely at all times of the year. Right now, when flowering trees pitch pinks and yellows and white against celestial blue, it is at its photogenic best. But bare in winter, under snow when skiers and cardboard-borne tobogganers take to its vertiginous slopes, it is worth an Instagram post. Through ongoing renovations, I have measured the world in green plastic barriers and barren beds, pedestrian detours, mourned potholes lost under spanking new pale grey asphalt. The information board tells me that changes to the circulation between the artificial lake and the waterfall will save a million litres of water a year.

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This treasure atop the 19th arrondissement feels timeless, but of course that’s the romance of wishful thinking. Even the most natural beauties have an architect. A former gypsum and limestone quarry and later general dumping ground, the “bald hill” was a sorry, desolate site before Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann and engineer Jean-Charles Alphand turned it into a rambling 25 hectares of Chinese-Anglo landscape, all grassy slopes, nestled sculptures and wooded corners. The Île du Belvédère with its miniature Temple de la Sibylle, after the original in Tivoli Rome, is the centre of the fifth largest public park in the city.

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Dusk. I round the upper trail, past Rosa Bonheur, haven of tapas and disco. Golden light. I think of a key scene in L’Avenir. Philosophy teacher Nathalie (played by Isabelle Huppert) takes refuge from her disintegrating life on the slopes of this very park. Stretched out on the grass, life flowing around her, she slips into herself. It’s calm in all its many agencies. (And few embody frenetic stillness like La Huppert, who needs no grand gestures to convey frustration, heartbreak, intelligence and Parisienne insouciance.) Mid-reverie, her phone rings. Life intrudes again.

Finally, I turn for home. Descending rue de Belleville, the northern border of the 20th, affords a potted tour of this diverse arrondissement, the narrow thoroughfare into the melee of Paris’ second Chinatown, past fashionable wine bar La Cave de Belleville and coffee-toting neighbour Cream. Layers of routine on replay. The creamy, fruity, bitter noisette (for a princely €2,80) is a porcelain cup of pure joy. Onward, past pho joints and dumpling palaces, the pastel-coloured offerings at Bonjour Patisserie, the nose-wrinkling deliciousness of Délicatessen de Caire, laden with nuts, baklava, spices and cheeses from the Near East and Africa. I recall the veiled assistant who offered me a perfectly fresh pistachio.

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A tall guy on rollerblades hurtles down the steep hill past me at a speed that must surely be illegal. The terrace at Café aux Folies, one-time hangout of Edith Piaf, Jean Cocteau and other postwar luminaries, is heaving. The late-afternoon sun has brought out the masses, tables filled with wine, beer and overflowing ashtrays. Around the corner, in rue Denoyer, graffiti artists are spraying their thoughts onto a wall already inches deep in paint.

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A Sunday afternoon and Belleville Métro station smells musky as a stable. Hashish is my best guess but who know what wafts from the bodies that press themselves through these corridors?

The daily grind of Paris can weigh heavily but simple things – sunshine, trees, birds, caffeine – are reviving. It helps to step outside the confines of the mind, to put the body into action, to breathe, to smell, to listen and to live. No moment is the same, all are lost beneath those that follow, but really they are all we have. Soon, the leaves will set into their summer dark, and that will be a whole other wonder.

Swing, swing, swing

Lindy hop, born in Harlem in the 1920s, and my dance of choice, is all about connection. Without it, you’re just two people on the dance floor, with four left feet. The fusion between lead and follow is often subtle – hands clasped at arm’s length, a palm against a shoulder blade – through which flow steps, musicality, cadence and trust. It’s a skill I’m yet to master after eight years, more or less, of enthusiastic effort. Connect, however, and it’s magic. Returning to weekly classes this last September, after a three-year hiatus, has felt like rejoining my tribe.

Luckily, Paris is full of places to dance – from lindy to bebop, west coast to balboa, and so many other styles besides. In every corner of the city, there are studios, ballrooms and live venues, and that’s without the joyous summer overspill into the squares and riverbanks. It’s impossible to charleston in the sun at the foot of Palais de Tokyo, across from the Eiffel Tower, without a spring in your step.

In my neighbourhood, La Bellevilloise holds regular lindy soirées. Built in 1877, just off rue Ménilmontant, it was a co-operative for the Charonne and Belleville communes, a place for culture, education and political gatherings (and once hosted French social-justice icon Jean Jaurès – oh to have been at that party), before becoming one of Paris’s first cinemas. In 1912, the co-op had nine thousand subscribers and was a model of producer-to-consumer trade, what we now call farm-to-table, until about 1949. In 2000, it was taken over by a trio of media types who reopened it in 2006 as a live venue and art space in its original spirit of connectivity.

I first went there a couple of months ago, venturing out solo for a dance. From the street, the wrought-iron archway leads into a courtyard with potted olive, palm and citrus trees. On Sundays, the square is filled with jazz and the enticing smells of brunch. Inside, it’s a revelation of concert rooms, bars, a restaurant, terraces and exhibition spaces. This particular evening, I arrived late to be met with a whirl of bodies, all swinging to the tunes of an American three-piece. As is usual at lindy events, the walls were piled with overcoats and bags, so I found a nook, wedged in my coat and scarf, changed my shoes and hit the bar. A girl needs something to do with her hands to avoid feeling too much of a lemon while waiting for an offer to dance.

Once you start, though, you’re off. All it takes is one brave soul to break the ice. The thing about lindy is that it puts you totally in your body, and in the moment. A follow’s job is to listen, respond, resist the temptation to anticipate, remain willing to improvise if invited, and relax. This is no easy task. Drift off as your mind translates a simple pleasantry and autopilot kicks in. Reset. Smile. The steps and floor craft are largely the lead’s domain. Trust is paramount.

This week, it was a performance by superlative circus collective Compagnie XY up at La Villette that crystallised the power of connection for me. Coincidentally, the show, Il n’est pas encore minuit (It’s Not Yet Midnight), featured lindy hop moves alongside jaw-dropping acrobatics. As the twenty-two performers twined organically around each other, their certitude, faith and bonds were palpable. At one point, a young woman climbed bodily down from a four-person-high tower, hand over hand, torso along torso, supple and strong in equal measure. At the end, one of the troupe read a statement, emphasizing the collaborative nature of their work. “Alone, faster, together, further,” he said, before the audience rose as one for a standing ovation.

Afterwards, my friend E and I took the cobbled walkway towards the Métro, over the Bassin de la Villette, where Canal Saint Martin opens into inky expanse. Parc de la Villette, while beautiful in the day, can be dicey after dark, so the crowd around us was reassuring. And I love how an audience continues to buzz with shared energy as it disperses into the night.

Connection can be hard to come by, even if you’ve been in a place for a while. Loneliness is a hazard of city life. Offering your hand to another, and having it accepted, moving through time amid others similarly engaged, is balm to the soul. When I dance with someone, it’s a shared moment. Obviously. It’s a leap into the unknown taken in parallel, improvised with each new eight-count. It’s exhilarating, real and present. Body, mind and spirit interconnected but also bound to another human being. Lead, follow, separated by a fraction of a second, separated by the space between bodies, separate, yes, but together with each step. Step, step, triple step.

Paris, interrupted

The pause button has been hit. More than the usual winter slowdown, the city seems to be in slow motion. But it is not still. Or rather it is still – still moving, still celebrating, still defying, lining up shoes in Place de la République in lieu of climate-change protest marches. Christmas is still coming. Work is still piling up. COP21 is still in progress. Candidates are still campaigning ahead of the first round of regional elections. The Métro is still packed for the daily commute. The flowers are still piled in the mourning streets of the 11th.

But, still, it feels as if the brakes are on.

On the fancy side of town, the Champs-Elysées is lit up with sparkles, chill evenings ring with carols, the spicy fragrance of vin chaud and roasting chestnuts lure the snack-susceptible to hand over their euros at the Christmas village that stretches from the Grand Palais to Place de la Concorde. Down rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré, oversized angels’ trumpets and chandeliers hang over the street, glittering above thinned-out crowds toting carrier bags from Chanel, Louboutin and Bluemarine. I can never help but linger outside Hermès and Prada, the windows are so beautiful, even if their contents are beyond me. I treat the displays like museum exhibits – ever-changing treasures of a very particular moment in time. Next season, the colours, cuts and textures will be totally different, and I’ll sigh anew.

The New York Times reported last week that tourism is more resilient to terrorism than it is to natural disasters, bouncing back to previous levels after thirteen months as opposed to twenty-four in the wake of an environmental catastrophe. That’s good news for a fragile France. No one doubts that Paris and its tourist industry will weather last month’s horror, but right now both are bruised and battered. A scowl plays about the beautiful lady’s lips even as she puts on her party finery.

In the meantime, the city offers her multitude of reasons to be grateful, reasons to still residual worry and press on. This morning, taking advantage of an early cancelled class in St-Germain-des-Près to promenade in sleepy Paris, I took myself over the Île de la Cité and past Nôtre Dame. The breeze was soft, carrying the mineral scent of traffic forging towards rush hour.

Just after eight, the light was glorious, turning the taupe river burnished pale and brushing the undersides of the clouds with fuchsia and orange. In the almost-empty square in front of the cathedral, Japanese tourists were taking photos with their phones, while a couple meticulously set up a large-format camera on a tall tripod. They smiled at me as I perched, notebook and pen in hand, to scribble down the loveliness. The topiary is immaculate in its wooden boxes, and the solders with automatic rifles have become a constant feature.

Back in less ritzy climes, it remains more or less business as usual, today as always, with the added presence of regular army patrols. Life goes on in the cafés and supermarkets, squares and markets. At Liberté, in the heights of Ménilmontant, all was quiet and delicious. The barista asked how much milk I wanted in my noisette and free Wi-Fi reconnected me to the wider world. (After more than a week, I still have no internet at home. The problem is with the external connection, according to the nice blokes from SFR.)

Thus far, no Christmas decorations have gone up in my local streets. The town hall overlooking the glass shards of the fountain at the centre of Gambetta has a couple of garlanded trees out front, and I’m beginning to suspect that might be it this year. Budget cuts or eco-awareness? Does it matter? Perhaps the wreaths and lights on the shops are exuberance enough for now. Perhaps new paste-ups from Fred Le Chevalier are enough. They’re certainly lovely. I’m not holding my breath for anything more. There’s no need. Why wait for something that may never come when all around are reasons to be thankful?

 

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One coffee at a time

I never imagined I would feel at home in Paris.

And yet, three years almost to the day after stepping off that plane at Charles de Gaulle, I find myself in my favourite café, just another local tapping away on a laptop. Tonight, it’s Bob Marley and Nine Inch Nails on the stereo at Les Pères Populaires, but the soundtrack changes – punk, jazz, old-skool house, French electro. It’s not always possible to hear the music over the burble of conversation. On this early evening, the light fading, people are reading, writing, drinking beer at outside tables beneath the scaffolding that currently enfolds the building.

It would be romantic to say that I stumbled by accident onto Les Pères Pop. But that would be a lie. I did not happen upon this cosy corner, lost, one afternoon while exploring the southern end of the 20th. No, I read about it on the foodie website Fooding and purposefully sought it out. I’m glad I did. It feels like my lounge room (if my lounge room had a coffee machine and full bar), but I suspect most of the patrons would say the same thing about it, filled as it is with mismatched sofas, Formica-topped tables and school-type chairs.

Often I come just to take advantage of their excellent 1€ espressos. If you arrive late in the morning, and the croissant basket on the bar is empty, they let you bring your own from a nearby boulangerie. From the luxury of choice, I usually pick Grégory Desfoux (57 rue d’Avron) or Le Triomphe.

But I also come to write. Working on a travel article last week, I was thinking about the magic of editing, and now what occurs to me is the similarity between that process and shoehorning yourself into a new city. Both involve chucking out the obsolete, awkward or illogical and keeping the good stuff. You begin the journey full of enthusiasm, but the way forward soon becomes less clear. Ideas that seemed to flow effortlessly no longer link neatly. It is hard to see how it will ever work out. Of course, initially, it doesn’t, no matter how simple the brief.

Inevitably, tangents beckon. The word count balloons. Passages that seemed lovely in isolation don’t fit with the rest of the story. Letting them go is difficult. Then, slowly, from the sludge, the piece emerges, although often what ends up on the page is not what was expected. The allure of fiction is that it can be useful to submit to the tangents. Commissioned journalism is not so forgiving, but its beauty is the discipline. One feeds the other.

(Blogging is too new for me to comment on that process at this stage.)

Anyway, my travel article eventually appeared, raw and ragged, on the screen, then on paper (because I still need to read a printout), then in the hands of a friend as we sat in another café, in an altogether different part of town, the sleek Coutume Babylone, near Hôtel Les Invalides. Over more excellent coffee and carrot cake, my reader offered useful and sensitive suggestions, giving me the confidence to cleave, strengthen, clarify.

When I arrived in Paris in October 2012, I didn’t have a plan, just a brief. I was seeking a change from the life I had led in Sydney, but within recognisable parameters. I imagined I would use my existing skills to continue working in journalism or, perhaps, redirect my experience and newly acquired CELTA qualification into English teaching. I was in love, which carries its own delusions. The rest – language, social network, culture – would work itself out. It’s France, right? We’re in Western Europe. How different can it be? Why should I worry?

These were, I realise in hindsight, the wrong questions. I should have asked myself: how ready am I to accept change? Not very, as it turned out. But the flailing is like getting words on the page. You try things out. You fail. You explore tangents. You find treasure. You edit. You are edited. Friends keep you going. You change. And eventually you begin to feel at home.