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.

 

 

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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.

Amber days

August – hot, quiet, and weirdly chilled – is a good time to check out a new bar or two, particularly hipster-type establishments that are less busy because all the locals are on holiday.

Le Perchoir is not in the 20th but bills itself as being in Ménilmontant, so for my purposes it counts as local. Arriving before my friend gave me a chance to linger outside the door – nondescript and unmarked but nevertheless unmistakeable due to the velvet rope and doorman glued to his mobile phone – and watch fashionably clad young people and rusted-on residents meander up and down the street. The air was so still it barely moved the lonely lavender in a window box high above the pavement, and even the pigeons couldn’t be bothered to fly. Fragments of sport on the radio, Middle Eastern music and cigarette smoke wafted by. I gather there’s usually a long line for this place, due to its frequent presence on “best rooftop bars in Paris” lists, but at five on a public holiday Sunday night, I was alone. My friend texted to tell me that she was already seated and halfway through her first beer, so with a cool “bonsoir” to the bouncer, I headed in and up to the seventh floor.

Paris was a relative latecomer to the whole rooftop terrace idea, which is odd given how picturesque the roofs are here, and such places are still a novelty. The rooftop at Le Perchoir is kind of beach shack meets warehouse, with raw wood furniture, palm trees and people wearing hats, and could probably be anywhere from Melbourne to Brooklyn. But then it has Paris, including views to the Sacré Coeur, spread out all around.

Now, I’m not usually a beer drinker, but the sun was shining, and it seemed like a good time to start exploring French brewing. At the kabana-style bar, I ordered a couple of Jenlain pale ales (a steep but unsurprising 6€ for a half-pint). My learned companion, J, described our choice as full-bodied. “Like a mid-career Catherine Deneuve?” I asked. I found it tasty and rather moreish and began to look forward to discovering a whole new alcohol category.

To a soundtrack of 1940s swing and beard scratching, we discussed French cinema and the virus of mid-century modern that has afflicted interior designers and home magazines since the late nineties. J pointed out that beyond the window on the other side of our blonde-wood bench was the loo and that a person sitting on it could see us through the one-way glass. I pretended to take a photo. Then we decided that, lovely as it was basking in the sun comparing tans, we needed to find somewhere with cheaper drinks.

We descended via the galvanized-iron spiral staircase to check out the very fetching bare light bulbs suspended from the top floor. I hate heights.

The street was still quiet. We turned right, up the hill, over Boulevard de Ménilmontant into the 20th proper and up to a groovy corner that contains gems such as rock bar La Féline, the studio-apartment-sized restaurant Chatomat and our next destination, Les Trois 8, specialists in artisan beer and organic wine.

Behind the bar, the blackboard listed all the beers on tap, and lacking any other customers to serve, the barman happily explained each one. We chose a bière de garde made by Thiriez brasserie in northern France using only French ingredients, and learnt that this type of brew is designed to age, like wine, developing different characters with time. A bit like people when they drink beer. Compared to our last demi, this one was hoppier, heavier, darker and more bitter. “I’m thinking Isabelle Huppert,” said J.

We settled onto our barstools, flicked through the jar of badges for sale, read all the business cards and postcards on the rack and tried to identify the bar’s trademark symbol – a flame, an artichoke? “Ah, it’s hops,” I said finally. The bar itself has the dimensions of a cupboard, and the lived-in vibe of a student house. We felt very at home.

Next on our ad-hoc dégustation, the barman suggested a double IPA called Nice to Meet You from French-American duo Les Brasseurs de Grand Paris, which clocked in at an impressive 8.5% alcohol. “That’s the thing with craft beer,” said J, diving in enthusiastically. Despite its pronounced floral flavours, this one was as bitter as Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012 with all the attendant complexity.

The last light of the day, and our good sense, was slipping from our grasp, so we scanned the list to select one for the road. Nos Illustres Rituels came served in a stemmed glass shaped like an opium poppy. Its chocolate notes went very well with the squares of rich cake the barman had laid down in front of us. I tapped my foot to the ska on the sound system. Our barman by now had other patrons to take care of, but still found time to tell us that the imperial stout came from the Ouroboros brasserie in the Auvergne region and was, at 9.9% alcohol, dangerously easy to drink. “Smooth and sweet and perfect late at night,” said J. “Almost like a cocktail.”

It was one of those evenings that seem to portend the beginning of something: a new hangout, a new beer buddy, new ease with shooting the breeze in French, new horizons in this fabulous city. And still with two weeks of August to go.