Run, run, run

Throughout May I have been running six days a week. This is a considerable step up in frequency from my usual two to four sessions, and along with the increased fitness and bragging rights come good secondary effects: getting up earlier, drinking more water, more time to manufacture vitamin D, better mood. I plan to continue.

I’ve also been showing up for my running group, Let’s Run Paris (LRP), more regularly. Joining scores of like-minded sneakered, Lycra-ed pavement-pounders has been a reminder of the benefits of running with the pack. As attested by countless newspaper and fitness-magazine articles, group running is motivating, supportive, better for safety, community-building and provides accountability and “social facilitation”, the phenomenon where the mere presence of others results in better times and distances. Running in company makes the minutes pass faster if it’s one of those days when your legs weigh a tonne and energy is lacking. Plus it offers occasional French practice and a chance to meet new people.

Initially, though, I was skeptical. I’ve been a regular runner since my early 20s but always alone. I’ve long found enormous joy in the meditative nature of focusing on strides and breathing. It’s unassailable time to think, away from screens, phone and other demands for attention. I retreat to my interior world. I write stories and poetry in my head, dream up travel plans, organise my budget.

But, stuck in a solo-running rut about 18 months ago, I saw a notice on the Meetup website, with the rendez-vous point in my arrondissement. I decided to give the group thing a go, even though it seemed intimidating, rigid, and perhaps too fast or too challenging. I needn’t have worried. LRP – which was started by an expat American and draws an international crowd – is a friendly bunch, run by a dedicated core of volunteers. It doesn’t cost anything to join, and you just show up. (You can signal that you’re coming on the web page but it’s not essential.) Even if you hover silently about the edges, like I did the first time, there’s a good chance someone will notice a new face and introduce themselves.

The group, which by my rough estimate is usually about 40 people, spiking in spring, divides into three pace bands on Mondays (four on Saturdays, when LRP does longer routes from near Jardin du Luxembourg in the Latin Quarter). I stick to six minutes per kilometre (the middle band), which is now about the speed I run on my own. A group photo is mandatory at the beginning of each run, as is a rundown of the rules: stay behind your pacer (a group leader who sets the speed), stop at traffic lights, and tell someone if you stop early so the rest of the group doesn’t go looking for you. There is a pacer at the front and one at the back so no one gets left behind.

The spirit is welcoming and inclusive, and the runners have a range of ages and abilities, from newbies to hardcore marathoners sporting the T-shirt from their latest event. Some live in Paris, some are just passing through. The wonders of social media have created a global network whereby runners in town for a day can find company in a click.

If there are downsides to group running, they are mostly practical. It takes a while to learn to maintain the right distance from the person in front of you so you don’t clip their heels. It’s tricky not being able to see bollards and other footpath hazards until you’re on top of them. Generally, though, the pack looks after each other, signalling potholes or other trip traps. After 10 minutes or so a rhythm is established and on good nights, the group is like a single organism, feet drumming under a hum of good-natured chatter. It’s a good way to get training tips, find out about events, network, commiserate the difficulties of Paris life through the buzz of endorphins.

A few social graces (keep right, single file in narrow passages) are required so the group doesn’t monopolise the pavement. And we are often greeted with cheers (“Bon courage!”), sometimes jeers, as we pound past. It’s all part of the experience, part of blending into the landscape, streaming through the city.

The summer-night circuit is about 11 kilometres from Place de la Nation, to Parc des Buttes-Chaumont (pictured) – with steady inclines along Père Lachaise cemetery’s high wall and north to the park – then down past halal butchers, Chinese restaurants and budget boutiques to Goncourt. The park is the highest point, and the top path, on these steamy lengthening evenings, offers a dusky view across picnickers to grey rooftops and the high rises of the north-eastern suburbs. You barely notice the fatigue in your legs from the climb.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Speak easy

Why is the French word for vagina masculine? Why does “ça va aller” mean “it’s okay” and not “this is going to go”? Why are there so many words? The subjunctive, explain yourself. In short, why is learning a language so damn hard?

As a neophyte francophone, and English teacher, I’ve come to accept that “why” is a fool’s errand. You might as well ask why the sky is blue or why creatures on earth have an even number of limbs. It turns out that “what” and “how” are much more useful questions. What does this mean? How do you say this? How do you remember new vocabulary? In the ocean of words, grammar, culture and habit – where the possibilities in French extend from “Je t’aime” to Molière and beyond – how does the beginner begin? And, more difficult, how do you avoid drowning long enough to navigate the choppy intermediate stage to fluency?

Immersion is widely held as a good method. But that is surprisingly difficult to achieve when you teach your native language and many locals switch out of French the instant they hear an Anglophone accent. Ergo, immersion must be actively sought, and is not a passive result of simply being in Paris (a surprise when I arrived). Herewith a recent dip in the pool…

Firstly, it was the weekend, so I was not professionally required to speak English. In the morning, I listened to the news (dominated by the election primaries) on France Inter. Then, as I was leaving my apartment, I ran into my neighbour. She asked me if I was going for a run. I asked her to repeat the question, then said, “Non, je suis en train d’aller joindre un ami pour faire un échange français/anglais”, then we talked about the weather. Considering that my initial French goal was to have simple day-to-day exchanges, this conversation was an important milestone.

(One of the best tips in an excellent Guardian article from their 2014 language-learning challenge is to keep a record of progress. Others include choosing material that interests you – books, movies, cooking shows – and focus on communication rather than getting bogged down in practicalities.)

I caught the bus, saying the essential “bonjour” to the driver as I boarded. I spent the trip buried in my book. Admittedly, the novel I was reading at the time was in English (The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst, since you ask) but I’ve recently finished the 600-plus page La Verité sur l’Affaire de Harry Quebert by Swiss writer Joel Dicker and am now on Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames). Regardless of my reading matter, public transport offers eavesdropping opportunities aplenty.

At Place d’Italie, I met C for two hours of conversation, first in English, then in French. His technique is to write down complete sentences with phonetic pronunciation; I tend to note individual words, useful expressions. We often use our text messages as a practice tool – correcting mistakes, suggesting more natural phrasing. Sometimes it’s frustrating – such as when he tried to explain du moment que (so long as) and I just couldn’t get what the hell he was on about – but generally it’s a fruitful way to spend Saturday morning.

However, that day, we agreed that after more than a year of regular meetings, we had both stagnated. His oral comprehension was not improving, and I still struggle to speak. This reflects the fact that he does the lion’s share of the talking in both languages. So his spoken vocabulary has expanded, and I understand most of what I hear (see, progress!). Our new strategy is to reverse that balance with more questions.

I asked him what he thought was the biggest barrier to mastering a new language (he also dabbles in Spanish and Mandarin). He said the small differences such as why some verbs go particularly with some nouns (“take the opportunity”, for example) and nuances between words that are superficially similar, such as speak, talk or discuss.

(A colleague, R, who has studied French for eight years up to second-year university level, singled out pronunciation, which you can’t get through reading alone or without correction. She also talked about the challenge of picking up colloquial expressions.)

On the way home, I stopped at the outdoor market near Nation, in an absent-minded stab at Christmas shopping. I talked to stallholders and enjoyed the crowded ambiance, smells of roast chicken, crêpes, the colourful flowers and precisely stacked produce. My brain was much more interested in choosing something to eat than deciphering subject-verb-object constructions.

In the afternoon I did a two-hour swing-dancing workshop, all in French. Dance classes add a practical necessity to understanding, plus all-important repetition. It was a big class, so I had mini-conversations with about 15 people. I have developed a burning desire for that singsong accent so many Parisiennes have.

After all the listening, speaking, embarrassing errors, misunderstandings, breakthroughs and unexpected connections, I’d say the most important qualities are confidence and curiosity. Plus a certain acceptance that understanding grammar will only get you so far. My students who do best are the ones who forge ahead and are comfortable enough to keep their eyes and minds open rather than close down for fear of making mistakes. Not such bad advice generally, as it turns out.

I’d love to have instant, dazzling results to show for my labours, but language is complex and improvement comes in waves. And, at the same time, I have been mastering other things: how to teach people stuff; to navigate the Métro; to walk on the right hand side of the pavement; to not smile at people in the street; to drape a scarf so it doesn’t fall off or strangle you.

Ça va aller.

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.

Screen time

Paris is a cinephile’s paradise, and this week I got the keys to the city. With my Illimité card, I can see as many films as I like for 22€ a month. Just swipe the magic blue morsel of plastic in the machine at the entrance and, voilà, the world is at my feet.

It’s taken me a while – about four years – to sign up for this scheme but careful tracking of my movie-going this year has proved its worth beyond a shadow of a doubt. Casual cinema visits are expensive – up to 11€ a pop, although a multi-movie card brings the per-film cost down considerably – and I average four films a month, a habit that creeps up in times of stress, boredom or loneliness or during post-Cannes/pre-Oscar release peaks.

Now, my days of rationing and guilt at over-indulgence are over. The card is branded UGC, which is the second largest cinema operator in Europe, but it’s also accepted by the slightly less mainstream MK2 and many of the independents, including the art deco Rex and the mignon La Clef in the Latin Quarter. (Gaumont Pathé and other institutions offer similar subscription plans.) Therein, releases from around the world – from micro-budget festival favourites to franchised blockbusters, documentaries, experimental, opera direct, queer, silent, classics and animation – give an intense feeling of connection to a wider cultural world. I signed up online and celebrated my card’s arrival in the post three days later with a late session of La Fille Inconnue, the latest piece of social realism from the Belgian Dardenne brothers. (Maybe not the most uplifting choice.)

I’ve always loved movies. On the big screen I’ve found inspiration, comfort, information and joy since my parents first took me and my brother to see Lady and the Tramp at the drive-in in Perth in the late 1970s. Fairly soon after that, I had my first intimation of the transporting, transgressive power of cinema when a friend’s older sister, who was supposed to be babysitting, took us to see Eliza Fraser, a risqué Australian farce involving extramarital sex, bare bottoms and hiding people in wardrobes. I was hooked.

Living here, however, has taken my movie obsession to another level. Simple opportunity accounts for some of it – there are 376 cinema screens in Paris – but language learning has given me added motivation to lock myself in a darkened room once or twice a week. I worked out quickly that a subtitled film from, say, Kurdistan, such as the gorgeous My Sweet Pepper Land, was easier to understand than a French police drama with its lightning-fast dialogue and argot. But even at the outset, when my French comprehension level was A2 basic, I went anyway, settling in regularly for 90 minutes of dappled bewilderment, trying to understand this new society I had joined.

Thanks to the cinema, I’ve learnt that the Anglo and French senses humour are vastly different (I will never get Dany Boon), that Pierre Niney is inescapable and coincidence is everything when it comes to finding love. France also seems to provide more opportunities for female writers and directors, and thus more chances to see women-led stories. I love, too, that you don’t have to wait for festivals to see films from countries without a well-recognized cinema culture, such as Ethiopia (Lamb) or Anatolia (Winter Sleep), although such events exist. Regular cycles celebrate the work of individual filmmakers (for instance, the recent Gus Van Sant or “American elections” retrospectives at the Cinématèque Française) and preview screenings offer the chance to see directors and actors in the flesh.

About a thousand films are shot here each year, so life can often feel a bit meta, even without factoring in Amélie Poulain’s influence on the tourists flocking to Montmartre and Canal Saint Martin. On Saturday, for example, it was super cool to emerge from the François Ozon feature Frantz, which is partly set in 1919 Paris, into the streets of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It felt like walking onto a soundstage, and drew out the usual back-to-real-life adjustment. I get a kick out of recognizing specific neighbourhoods, landmarks and streets, and matching up real-life shoots with their celluloid result – like when I walked down rue de Rivoli while Luc Besson was filming the car chase for Lucy or stroll past Hotel du Nord – although I haven’t yet signed up for the guided tour of famous movie sites.

It might seem counterintuitive, when there is so much beauty outside, to spend hours inside, but cinema-going is a very French activity. According to the Centre National du Cinéma, in the first five months of 2016, French cinemas recorded almost 95 million admissions, up six per cent from last year. Even during office hours midweek, it’s rare to find a deserted theatre. And unlike, say, surfing YouTube on the couch, seeing a film is a community experience. Being a regular makes me a local, handing over my card to the familiar ticket seller helps me feel I belong. Even in Paris, a big city like so many others, the cinema, along with the market, the métro, the café terrace, feels like a shared space. I’m beginning to understand that, one movie at a time.

Mythical city

Photo: Romantique & Rebel

Just as no one wants to meet their hero and discover a real human being, no one wants to move to a fantasy for fear of finding just another city.

Paris is not perfect, obviously. It’s not a postcard. It’s not even, really, a fair representation of its own mythology, for all the beauty of the Ile de la Cité and those Haussmann boulevards. (Catch the RER to the north-eastern suburbs, for example, and see how much égalité you find.)

So, in the spirit of killing idols, and conceding to a format that is drowning magazine journalism, here are four Paris clichés that are about as accurate as, well, those images of accordions, berets and daily croissant intake.

Myth 1. Parisians are fashion-forward.

In Paris, the uniform reigns supreme. This is true for the city’s immaculate firemen and gendarmes but also for the general population. Quirky is the stuff of movies or for les anglais. The out-there dressers you see photographed “on the street” during fashion week are usually bloggers from Tokyo or Brooklyn or London snapping selfies outside the Grand Palais or in the Haute-Marais. Parisians themselves are more about calibrated understatement. One trend per season is quite enough, merci beaucoup. Last winter, it was oversized, horse-blanket scarves that swamped the wearer from shoulders to nose. Often with just eyes and a tuft of perfectly tousled hair sticking out the top. This autumn, the cropped jacket persists, be it a leather perfecto (so 2015) or collarless brocade number. (Actually, collars seem to have been done away with altogether by the unspoken consensus that governs French wardrobe choices.) That said, a lack of slavery to trends should never be confused with a deficiency of style. Recently, I saw a fifty-something woman in full ladies-who-lunch finery, including strappy stilettos, cycling through the eighth arrondissement. Despite the narrow intersection, she conceded neither speed nor poise to the traffic and pedestrian chaos around her. Classe, as they say around here.

Myth 2. Parisians don’t snack.

Even the most perfunctory nose about a Carrefour or Monoprix supermarket shows this statement up as fallacy. Aisles and aisles of baked goods – from mini waffles to cheese straws – scream, “Eat me outside of mealtimes”, to say nothing of chocolate, chips and charcuterie offerings, in irresistible bite-size portions. Barely a baguette makes it home without the end being nibbled to oblivion. The biscuit brand Lu is this year celebrating 170 years of offering sweet sustenance for transport riding and street strolling. Every Metro station has its vending machines. The much-loved apèro is surely just a culturally sanctioned pre-dinner taster of pretzels, peanuts or popcorn. How is it, then, that France is ranked not first but 65th on the WHO’s list of national obesity rates? Well, a few possibilities spring to mind: portion control, walking and stair-climbing as facts of life, and smoking (the national rate is 28 per cent, compared to 16 in Australia). In this way, they have their venoisserie and eat it, too.

Myth 3. Parisians are rude.

Paris suffers from big-city indifference, crowding and time poverty. No one smiles in the street. I used to find this off-putting; now I consider it efficient use of facial muscles. But are Parisians rude? I have taught English to hundreds of people here, of all ages, from school students to retirees, from all walks of life, from the city and deepest provinces, and found the overwhelming majority to be polite and charming. However, the dismissive stereotype does have some foundation (see previous blog entry Politics of Polite) in that ignorance of French etiquette will often be greeted with cool disdain. The thaw begins with the introduction, be that a formal presentation in the workplace or a breezy bonjour as you enter a boutique. Personal connection is the social lubricant, and this means face-to-face exchange, not just an email. To add further nuance, as a friend explained, les Parigots are difficult to get to know – yes, they’re polite but not always especially warm, and unlikely to extend the hand of friendship easily.

Myth 4. All the bread is delicious.

The scent of Paris is neither Chanel No. 5 nor smoke from discarded Gauloises butts, it’s bread fresh from the oven. Sadly, though, not all baguettes are lovingly crafted with organic floor and natural cultures. Many are baked from frozen dough shipped from the back of beyond. Vigilance pays off, and it’s worth scoping out any neighbourhood in which you find yourself for more than a day for its best boulangerie. My newest discovery is Le Bricheton, an artisan addition to the 20th with Instagram-worthy miche, spelt and multigrain numbers, and enormous loaves weighing several kilos that you buy by weight. Crisp of crust and dense of crumb, their bread is everything you want it to be. It’s probably just as well (in the interest of maintaining Parisian portion control) that they’re only open in the late afternoon and they don’t bake baguettes. For those, there’s Philippe Bognor, near Gambetta. (The winner of this year’s best baguette competition was La Parisienne in Saint-Germain, by the way.) Food blogger David Lebovitz offers some tips for bread hunting: look for an “artisan boulanger” sign and the name of the baker on the awning, hand-made loaves will be irregular, and choose une baguette tradition because that’s where the love usually goes in making the bread.

Some things are true, of course. The city is beautiful in spring, many a local rocks a striped marinière T-shirt, and in mid-summer, vacated by its citizens (they’re all on holiday), Paris has a breezy nonchalance of vacation that is hard to resist.