How social media makes moving countries harder

Sitting in a café in Montparnasse, in the shadow of that hideous tower with the roller rink on the roof, with waiters wearing cheap boaters advertising the new-vintage Beaujolais, I feel part of the scenery. Scarf, coffee, laptop, check.

Pushed up against the doors of a packed métro carriage, I’m just another body in a city crowded with beings, schmooshed shoulder to shoulder in a tunnel, buried in a book that is itself partially buried in the backpack of the bloke next to me. My arm is thrust through a gap to grip the back of a seat, so I’m not flung, when the driver stamps on the breaks, into the lap of the person sitting on the fold-down seat. I’m glaring at the person sitting on the fold-down seat.

Running through the park, I blend in – another body in motion in a stream of black Lycra.

I’ve gone native. On the outside.

On the inside, expat life remains as perplexing as ever, and I often wonder if it is sustainable. I’m not a joiner, I’m happy enough in my own company, but I’m not sure I’m cut out for life as a perpetual outsider, either. As anyone who has stood on the edge of the school playground dressed identically to everyone else knows, looking as if you belong does not always translate to feeling part of the gang.

This week, an article about the trials of expat life has got me thinking. Among my many, many misconceptions about what life in France would be like was the idea that the feelings of being an outsider, lost, adrift from a previous cherished life, friends and family, would diminish with time. In fact, the opposite is true. Five years after arriving in Paris, I float through this limestone fairy tale untethered as ever.

Yes, many aspects are now as familiar as my apartment, or moving in that direction, at least. I have jobs. I have my favourite hangouts (not in Montparnasse, although it’s a perfectly charming quartier). I have good friends. Language is easier. Navigation. Etiquette. Dress codes. Annual rhythms such as the mass summer departure from Paris and its corollary, rentrée. Yet the troubling irony persists: the deeper your knowledge of the unknown, the more profound the alienation.

It’s a bit like learning a language, or swing dancing, anything with a degree of complexity. I was complaining (again) about my lack of French progress to a buddy recently. She gently pointed out that we continue to move our own goalposts, placing them ever just out of reach. The objectives change. I used to dream of executing a simple exchange without saying bonjour when I meant merci. Now I want to feel at ease in a group conversation. The more you know, the more you understand the enormity what you don’t know. And, in the case of language and culture, there is a creeping realization that you might never achieve mastery.

This raises the question: how long can I stand being an outsider? Must I adjust my thinking about belonging? Can I go full Schrodinger on the situation and be simultaneously both in Paris and somewhere else entirely? Is this, in fact, the key?

I spend a lot of time on social media. Not as much as I would if I had a smartphone, but hours daily nevertheless, many of which are taken up following news from Australia, what my friends are up to, what the newspapers are saying, Rachel Maddow. The usual stuff.

Now, social media is a curious variable in the expat-adjustment equation, it seems to me. It’s useful for finding out what’s on, places you might meet people who share your interests, language exchanges. Pretty much any blog or newspaper article that addresses expat life suggests meet-ups, and the like, as a way to settle in.

But social media adds a complication to the bubble. Thanks to a stream of news and messages on Facebook, I can maintain one foot in my old life. Multiple outlets like Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest would surely only magnify the problem. I can’t imagine being without it, but I do wonder if this split attention is prolonging my settling-in period. It has allowed me to ignore real-world loneliness by burying myself in television from home and the UK and indulging in the FB gossip mill. On low days, faced with a choice between sitting alone in a café, even one where I’m recognized and greeted warmly, or watching just one more episode of The Katering Show or Have I Got News for You, it’s easy to trump for the latter.

Now, in my defense and in a protest-too-much attempt to dilute the impression that I ungratefully lead a hermetically sealed life, I must point out that I often undertake my freelance work in a café, surrounded by the buzz of human activity. I do the things the articles advise: running group, swing-dancing classes, repeated appearances in the same place to develop familiarities with other habitués. I’m tackling French. I’m avidly inhaling the culture.

And I’m not complaining. Although I wish I knew how to get through this better, I’d never have forgone the experience. My life goals have long including living in another country, learning a language, becoming a fiction writer. Check.

Advertisements

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.

CIMG2471

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.

CIMG2483

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.

CIMG2484

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.

CIMG2490

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.

CIMG2451

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.

CIMG2453

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.

CIMG2460

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.

340px-P1180192_Paris_XX_eglise_St-Jean-Bosco_rwk

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.

Walk this way

The camellias are in bloom. So too the daffodils and tulips. The trees are full of flowers or sprouting shy signs of green. In Square Édouard-Vaillant, a small park near Place Gambetta, the benches are filled and the playground rings with the squeals of children, their shrill cries of delight carrying on the breeze’s chill edge. At the foot of a statue of Léon Gambetta himself, a carpet of fat pigeons are grazing busily in the sun.

I’m about five minutes into a 2.5-kilometre walking circuit (the first in a series of neighbourhood strolls), which is, under blue skies or grey, interesting for its village-within-a-city, browse-inducing boutiques and typically 20th vibe.

But I should begin, like a civilized guide, at the beginning: Place Gambetta with its modern jagged glass fountain and imposing town hall (more on that later). It is, as always, a hive of activity – buses, shoppers, flower sellers clutching bunches of yellow daffs, with Père Lachaise adjacent and groovy Belleville up the hill. We’ll return here at the end.

For now, though, let’s walk down rue Belgrand and look right to appreciate the ornate façade of what is these days the MK2 cinema. Built in 1920, originally as a theatre, and restored in 1997, the Gambetta-Palais has a distinguished pedigree; its architect was Henri Sauvage, one of the pioneers of the art deco movement. The original interior is long gone but it retains its awning and decorative frieze.

CIMG2443

The aforementioned park, on the opposite side of the street, is a verdant oasis in the Haussmann mold, opened in 1879. The Gambetta statue, which once stood in Jardin des Tuileries and then the Napoleon courtyard in the Louvre, was installed in 1982 to commemorate the centenary of the great politician’s death. (Fun fact: Gambetta – lawyer, statesman, publisher – lost an eye in a childhood accident and that eye is apparently preserved at the museum of Cahors, the town where he was born. His heart is in the Panthéon.) The park also has a couple of playgrounds and a small glasshouse.

CIMG2444

On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, the stretch of rue Belgrand beyond Square Édouard-Vaillant (named after one of the founders of French socialism) hosts an open-air market. It’s dominated by fresh produce but also has wine, flowers and other goodies.

Another block along is the frankly a little down-at-heel Place Édith-Piaf, where the Little Sparrow (or the brat of Ménilmontant), immortalised in bronze by French sculptor Lisbeth Delisle, reaches for the sky. The singer was born in the 20th and is buried in Père Lachaise.

CIMG2434

The slope of rue de Capitaine Ferber is gentle. I can never resist popping into Le Village (2 rue Etienne Marley) to see what jewellery, homewares and trinkets they have, especially at sales time in January and June.

On the other side of Place Octave Chanute, up a photogenic stairway, is one of the arrondissment’s – and indeed the city’s – hidden treasures: Campagne à Paris. This early-20th-century housing co-operative of about 90 one- and two-storey townhouses (over principally rues Paul Strauss, Jules Siegfried and Irénée Blanc) is a world away from the high-rise hodge-podge of today’s cité developments. Its cobbled streets, manicured gardens and climbing ivy feel part of another time. When the project was inaugurated in 1926, houses cost about 37,000€ ; today, a quick Google search of estate agent sites shows those picturesque workers’ houses change hands for about 750,000€.

CIMG2445

Leaving the urban bucolic behind, at the top of rue Irénée Blanc, turn left, then veer left again into rue du Lieutenant Chauré past the impressive L’église du Coeur-Eucharistique-de Jésus, constructed in 1938.

From there, we weave our way through streets with the typically 20th mix of architectural styles. The arrondissement only joined Paris proper in 1859, so it can feel part provincial, part city. An upward glance is usually met with a mix of roofs and materials that is at odds with ideas of uniform Parisian stone façades.

At local pitstop Le Quinze, go left into rue du Surmelin. We’ll hold off on coffee for now in order to visit Maison Bohème (at No.15), a pocket of all things craft and hand-made. When I was there on Saturday, the owner Cécile kindly interrupted her radio interview (discussing knitting workshops) to help me and introduce her beautiful store. I bought iron-on patches and a card.

Over the road is Goldy Mama (who are relocating their vintage/retro boutique to rue Orfila around the corner) and Au Chat Qui Pêche (No.12), a true local bistro that I haven’t yet tried but whose classic menu, including a bargain 12.50€ formule, scores excellent online reviews. Personally, I love the little sign with its black cat and cute feline postcards in the window.

At the intersection, check out the art deco Pelleport metro station (built in 1921 and dwarfed by the super-modern extension to Tenon Hospital behind it). You can take a detour to Julien Davin (129 avenue Gambetta) – I bought duck breast but they also have horse steak. Horse butchers (chevaline) are less and less common in Paris – usually recognizable from equine features above the awning.

CIMG2446

I grabbed a coffee (une noisette – espresso with a stain of milk) on the terrace at Les Tontons Flambeurs (127 avenue Gambetta). Again, I’ve not eaten there but the plates coming out looked generous and fresh and online reviews are positive.

The wide avenue Gambetta, put through in 1883, is an easy stroll. At the corner of rue de la Chine (95 avenue Gambetta) is an art nouveau landmark apartment building, with ornate bay windows and ironwork. A few steps up rue de la Chine is Iris Absinthe, the leather workshop and store of Picardie native Candice Caulle. She has just reopened after a three-month break and her bags, purses, belts and keychains are rather lovely (as is her enormous snowy dog who greeted me with tail wags when I walked in).

So, back down the hill to Place Gambetta. The town hall has recently been cleaned back to its creamy 19th-century glory, and its patrician officialdom dominates the square. According to the council website, the building took 10 years to build, and was finished in 1897. The salon des fêtes is 400 square metres replete with chandeliers, but on Saturday I found my way (after being scanned at the entrance as is the case with all public buildings in post-attack Paris) to the salon d’honneur and its current exhibition of war photography by Syrian activist and AFP reporter Zakaria Abdelkafi. The images, taken in Aleppo between 2013 and 2015, contain blood and destruction, snow, kids playing in a burnt-out car and, in one extraordinary picture, three upended buses blocking a street.

CIMG2442

It was blunt contrast to my historic, quotidian wanderings, but also, in a way, it being there is emblematic of the quartier. Any itinerary, random or planned, is as likely to deliver an eye-opener as an expected history lesson or simply a way to get from A to B.

Now, to pop around the corner to Maison Landemaine to pick up bread…

 

 

Love, labour, lost

Paris is a great place to lose things: umbrellas, bearings, love, security, your sense of self… So, standing in the great hall of Palais Garnier on a recent Tuesday night, shooting the breeze, marvelling at our surrounds, wondering if we had time to order and drink a glass of wine before the final bell, M suggested I write about loss.

I have lost many things since arriving in this great city. The list above is no jest. But there is one thing I’d love to add to the roll call, and that’s fear. Fears. Plural. The big ones. The terrors and anxieties that keep you from doing what you want, from being your best self. Failure. Rejection. I guess I always imagined I would grow out of them, eventually, but like heads on the hydra, the parts I defeat seem only to multiply.

We opted for that wine. No fear there. We visited my favourite part of Charles Garnier’s incredible confection – an iron salamander that winds itself around the foot of the great staircase. It’s tucked away, overshadowed in every way by statuesque candelabra. We did an abbreviated tour, of the statues, gold, mirrors, nods to Apollo throughout. In the end, I had to abandon my wine to the bell, only to be told we had a little while to wait because our strapontin seats would be folded down after everyone else was seated. We ducked back out, past the disapproving usher, and I retrieved my glass, between sips craning my neck to appreciate the beautiful mosaic overhead. It would be hard to conceive a more elaborate building than this one, from the thirty-eight kinds of coloured marble, to the great hall modelled on Versailles, to the Chagall ceiling in the auditorium.

13148266_10153617692553424_1628870557_o

So, the performance, Les applaudissments ne se mangent pas (One can’t eat applause), was a challenging, political piece from Toulouse choreographer Maguy Marin, a giant in the world of French contemporary dance. The music by Denis Mariotte, Marin’s frequent collaborator, was experimental and far from melodic, rising and falling with crashes and screams. I loved it. It was sad, physical, it reminded me of the footage of bodies being dragged from Bataclan; it made me think of love, surrender, a work filled with desperate clutching yet weirdly impersonal. I had no idea what the narrative was, or even if a narrative was intended, but it felt so current, so raw.

The bare stage, flanked on three sides with curtains of coloured strips falling from the ceiling, was both Spartan and festive. As dancers emerged onto the stage, they sent a ripple from floor to the roof, giving glimpses of the darkness beyond.

Of her work, Marin has said, “Art must question the world and resist.” According to the program information, which I read after the fact, the piece was created in 2002 and was inspired by Latin American politics. In many ways, I’m with the New York magazine reviewer, who found this backstory superfluous.

However, further reading has since enriched my understanding. It led to the link with Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, who wrote that social changes made in Latin America might have met with international approval but did little to alleviate poverty for various countries’ people. In an interview last month, Marin drew parallels with current-day fiscal meddling in Greece and Spain. She also explained that the coloured strips made reference to the plastic curtains that hang in doorways in ordinary homes throughout South America and southern France.

But what does this have to do with fear? For me, the work embodied its polar opposite: courage. This is what I crave. Out with terror, in with bravery. Watching, I could barely imagine the surety it must take to put such work out there, to dare to hatch it in the first place, to bring your company into your vision, to release it into the world. Marin strikes me as a gutsy, driven individual, in other words a highly useful inspiration, in the way I view Björk, PJ Harvey and Peaches, women who are unafraid to listen to themselves and share what they hear with their audience. This is intensely cool. I want that headspace.

13128982_10153617690548424_331562865_o

The performance was short, and when we emerged into Place de l’Opèra, it was still light.

Now, in Paris, I have my bearings, which only makes continuing to discover the city all the more enjoyable. I’m putting the other pieces of a balanced life into place. I may have lost things, but I’ve found elements, too. Beneath the worries lurk a strengthening core of values and a certainty about the things that are important. And it’s instructive to note that even upsetting losses are not always catastrophic. You can buy a new umbrella. And sometimes you don’t miss what is gone. You find something powerful to put in its place.

 

 

Politics of polite

The footpaths of Paris can be narrow, in places barely wide enough to accommodate one person, let alone two abreast. Two-way traffic requires constant negotiation – do I give way, wait, squeeze past? In walking in tandem, you and your co-traveller must engage in similar trade-offs – who goes first, how fast, who decides when to pass the slow-walker in front of you? And forget loved-up strolls. It’s exhausting and pretty much the polar opposite of what newbies and tourists expect of a ramble around “the most romantic city in the world”. God knows how Kirsten Stewart and Soko managed to pull it off, especially with a bank of paps no doubt running backwards in front of them.

Luckily, most of my wandering is done toute seule, head down, bent on maximizing speed and efficiency.

At first, the codes of conduct on the streets drove me crazy. It seemed as if I was always the one to cede right of way, and no one ever thanked me for my trouble. I became quite good at the pointed, Merci, Madame! Non, allez-y, Monsieur!

Later, I came to suspect that the Anglo habit of deference – “After you”, “No, please, you go first” – was seen as a sign a weakness. I would need to toughen up. Forget my manners. I often wondered what would happen if I didn’t get out of the way of an oncoming fellow pedestrian on rue de Rivoli or boulevard Haussmann. One Saturday, I found out. I collided shoulder-to-shoulder with another shopper moving faster than I was – and I was sent flying. My assailant didn’t even break stride. I was picked up and dusted off by a trio of lovely young men who were concerned that one of them had accidentally knocked me to the pavement. I assured them they had not and, my faith in humanity somewhat restored, continued on my way.

My theory now is that Paris requires a level of assertiveness and sense of purpose I never needed in Sydney. It’s crowded, people are busy. Ducking and weaving wastes time and hesitation is not polite but confusing. If you pick a line and commit to it, other pedestrians will move around you, like a river flows around a stone, and the whole system functions more or less efficiently. (One trick to holding your ground is to avoid eye contact, although, in truth, this is more survival tactic that politesse.)

That said, Parisians take courtesy very seriously. Yes, they have a reputation for being aloof, arrogant and rude, but that’s because they expect you to follow the rules. In the street, stick to the right. In the Métro system and at busy thoroughfares (the entrance at Galeries Lafayette, for example), hold the door for the person behind you. Always say “Bonjour” when entering a shop, addressing a ticket seller or approaching a person for directions. The English-speaker’s habit of beginning with “Excuse me, but…” is simply too direct. Don’t use the fold-down seats in the Métro vestibule if it is crowded (so, pretty much never on line 13 or line 4 nor line 9 during the oh-so-pleasant peak-hour crush).

Don’t cancel appointments without an ironclad excuse, and apologise profusely if such treason is unavoidable. A few bridges were burnt in the course of my learning this one. Being a touch late is socially acceptable but business self-sabotage.

Other rules, according to a few websites I consulted, talk about such complications as the number of flowers to offer as a gift, whether or not to take wine to a dinner party, and if so, what type (chilled Champagne or grand cru, apparently, says Connexion France). Shaking hands v air kissing. How to cut cheese. Where to put your hands when you’re not eating.

I’m sure I commit daily faux pas (above and beyond mangling the tu/vous thing, often in the same breath). Thankfully, many of the conversational taboos are universal – sex, politics, religion and money.

Like the Code du Travail, currently undergoing fraught debate before the reform bill is presented to the National Assembly next month, the French codes of social behaviour are long-evolved and deeply ingrained. And, perhaps, as with the traffic code, the strictures of etiquette invoke the spirit of revolution that seems, to this rank outsider, to underpin the national psyche. The more rigid the rules, the more fun they are to break.

Over the past week or so, as I’ve tinkered with this post, I have been looking for signs that the recent attacks had melted any of the Parisian reserve. I can’t say I’ve seen much change, but I’m oddly reassured by the physical closeness of the whole exercise of moving around the city. Perhaps for a brief moment last November the tiny distance that exists between bodies here shrank a little further. Certainly at the huge march in January 2015 after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the sense of community and unified defiance were palpable. Now, in the wake of yet more violence, daily life seems subdued yet largely the same. Wandering these lovely streets on the weekend with a friend, navigating the throngs at the market near Nation or shuffling through the Marais, it was the same mutual game of duck-and-weave. In times of hideous division, and divisive public discourse, perhaps there is some comfort in the rules that allow us to live cheek-by-jowl in terse harmony.

 

 

 

Notes on the Métro

She stepped quietly onto the Métro somewhere around Pigalle, I think. I didn’t notice her at first so deeply was I immersed in Le Figaro, reading about Air France workers attacking company directors, Angela Merkel being attacked for her immigration policies, student activists in Hong Kong struggling against Beijing. Just another Tuesday afternoon on line two. The rest of the carriage was similarly uninterested, their black coats pulled up around deaf ears. The burble of conversation and tinny twangs from smartphone earbuds continued.
She cleared her throat and began to speak. I braced for the familiar spiel about unemployment, housing and hunger, the usual appeal for change or a restaurant ticket. But none of that was forthcoming. Instead, she talked about sadness, her French rising with poetic cadence. It was more spoken word than exposition. She was not detailing her own hardships but the universal need for tristesse as a motivator, and a fact of life. The mood of the carriage shifted. People were listening. Through the crush in the vestibule I could make out the red scarf she had wrapped around her head, its folds secured with an elaborate pin. She wore dark sunglasses, a nose ring and a brown leather choker. I guessed she was around 20 years old.
Then, with a sharp strum on the ukulele slung around her neck, she started to sing, and a stream of bittersweet caramel filled the air. Her voice twined rich and true around the soulful melody. I didn’t recognize the song, but I stopped wrestling with my newspaper and sat back to enjoy the music. She played two or three numbers in their entirety, maybe out of certainty of touching her accidental audience or perhaps simply for her own pleasure. “You remember when I used to love you all night?” “Gotta make a move, boy.”  Station announcements drowned her out at regular intervals, but she held her own. People made an effort to cross the carriage to toss a coin or two into the small wooden bowl at her feet. She remained in our carriage for eight or nine stops, probably continuing to Nation, where the line ends.
When I finally alighted, I thanked her and added a couple of euros to her bowl, but neglected to ask her name.
Later, I read in an op-ed that the Paris transport authority, the RATP, had just held the autumn round of its biannual auditions for performers seeking to ply their trade in the corridors and carriages of the Métro and RER systems. About two thousand turned up to vie for one of the three hundred and fifty-odd permits offered each year.
I have to confess to not being a big fan of buskers. Good acts are few and far between, and bad ones can be an assault on the senses. However, when you encounter a performer who stands out, it can elevate your commute. I’ve found line two, which runs between Porte Dauphine – near the Bois de Boulogne and the rarified Avenue Foch – and the decidedly gritty Place de la Nation, particularly fruitful in this regard. Even without buskers, it’s the chattiest of the Métro lines, always humming with talk. (Sometimes that becomes indignant or panicked shouting if a pickpocket strikes, often near Anvers, which serves Montmartre and the Sacré Coeur.) It was on line two that I once saw the whole carriage erupt into a dance- and singalong to Tequila.
Another reason to love line two is that, like line six, it goes partially overground, so you can watch Paris roll by out the window. If you get the scenery with a pleasing soundtrack, so much the better.