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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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.

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.