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.

 

 

Flowers and candles

Paris is hurting again.

A sharp breeze is blowing; it has an edge to it. The sky is clear blue, and the trees full of pink magnolia and trailing wisteria, but the Champs-Elysées is blooming too, following in the flower-strewn wake of Bataclan, La Belle Equipe, Le Petit Cambodge and the Charlie Hebdo offices as outraged, pained, numbed people come to light more candles and lay more bouquets. On its online edition, Le Monde has a picture of a pretty girl and a rose, as if there is some strange need to make this moment less ugly. Links with Sunday’s first round of the presidential election are unavoidable.

I couldn’t bring myself to go there today. In the Marais, a favourite café has finally replaced its folding glass doors after the shopfront was destroyed months ago by joyriders. Normalcy returned in some small corner.

Time collapses into itself. Friday night is a twilight zone.

All is quiet as I scroll through results of a cursory Google search. Last November the Guardian ran an online questionnaire to find out how Paris had changed in the year since the 2015 attacks that killed scores. “How do you feel France has changed?” “How has your daily life changed?” The quick answer now seems to be a sour disillusionment with the Parti Socialiste government, effectively forcing François Hollande into hiding in order to boost PS candidate Benoît Hamon through disassociation. It’s not working – the April 21 survey in L’Express has him in fifth place on seven per cent. Centrist independent Emmanuel Macron is leading on 24 per cent. At the same time, Libération’s front page is screaming of second- and fourth-runners Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, “Anyone but them.” Perhaps the disillusionment is total. (Sunday will show how deep this rot has dug in its weedy roots.)

Bag searches are a necessary tedium. The flow of life has developed a weird staccato of suspect packages, screenings, scans, sirens and station closures. Some of these shutdowns are planned works, progress not interruptions. Move it along, move it along.

It’s economics, too. Not just violence.

And yet, what change, really? The daily grind continues. Métro, boulot, dodo. It’s surreal. A loud bang rings out over the wall behind the garden behind my apartment and I search my memory for evidence that I understand what a gunshot sounds like. I don’t. A person sings to themselves on the RER and I tune in to find out hidden meaning. There is no sinister message. I wonder if this insidious paranoia infuses the lives of others.

Tonight, my downstairs neighbours are taking advantage of balmy night to start up a loud conversation on their terrace. The hubbub is comforting.

Last night, travelling home, I listened to the list of stations where my line one Métro would not be stopping – Champs-Elysées-Clemenceau, Franklin Roosevelt, George V, Charles de Gaulle Etoile – and wondered what demonstration or protest could be happening late on a Thursday. I put the other possibility out of my mind. I forced it out. Barred it with the brutality of denial. I had that luxury for the short span of a subway trip.

My skin is rubbed raw. It’s the dry air of this strange climate.

I struggle to call Paris my city, but it is my bubble, my gleaming, illusory, fragile bubble. If I push my nose to it, it’s sticky and distorted. But it floats and shines and reflects rainbows that have nothing to do with reality.

 

Cacophony of calm

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

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

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

Anxiety meets park.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

 

Black Friday

We didn’t realize what was happening. My friend M was helping herself to one of my fries, and we were contemplating another Côtes-de-rhône, when five or six police ran past the window of Centreville, on rue de Charonne, where we were having dinner. The Americans at the table next to us continued their conversation but something in the air shifted. As regular diners on this corner, where armed guards are always stationed to protect, I believe, the home of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, we were initially unconcerned by the police presence. But then, the wait staff began to move diners inside from the terrace, and those at the restaurants opposite did the same. The barman was glued to his phone and, all around us, people were checking their smartphones.

When the gendarmes outside took up protected positions and raised their rifles, M and I gathered our things and moved away from the wall-length windows that overlook the intersection with rue Keller, then retreated further into the stairwell towards the toilets. It seemed impossible to believe that such a measure was necessary, but we were not alone in our nervousness. Outside, the tables were filled with half-eaten burgers and half-filled glasses.

We stood, listening to the sirens outside, waiting and wondering. After an hour or so, a waiter printed out our bill and apologetically told us we had to leave. I asked him which route home would be most expedient, but he said he had no idea.

Outside, the street was quieter, but people were moving with apprehension, paused at traffic lights or bunched in restaurant doors, looking furtively up the road, at each other. I spoke to a friend in Sydney, then to my brother in London to get extra details but they knew little more than I did. M decided to walk towards Bastille, so we parted with a double kiss and a promise to text as soon as each got home.

My plan to head east up rue de Charonne was scotched by a roadblock, the street lit up with the strobing blue lights of emergency vehicles. I turned back, unsure of which way to go. At the main intersection, a police officer yelled at us, stray pedestrians, to get off the street. I crossed the road and waited in a recess. Calm again. Heading left down avenue Ledru Rollin, I reached the Métro, which was alive with announcements that République and Filles du Calvaire stations were closed on line eight. A woman asked me if I knew what was happening. On the opposing platform, a knot of twenty-somethings, the usual crowd in the 11th arrondissement on a Friday night, were huddled together. The train came, and my journey passed without incident and without delay.

It wasn’t until I was back on the couch at home, after speaking to my parents, that I realized how close we had been. (Over the course of today, more details have been reported. About six blocks from Centreville, according to a witness in Le Monde, a gunman bearing a high-calibre rifle got out of a car and opened fire on the capacity-filled terrace of La Belle Equipe, killing a reported 19 people, before leaving the scene in the same car. More orchestrated attacks across the city resulted in the shocking toll of 128 dead and 257 wounded.) Suddenly the furrowed expression on the face of the young gendarme outside the restaurant made sense. Suddenly, the police crouched with fingers on rifle triggers made sense. The running. The instructions. The lockdown. The roadblock. I checked social media, reassured my friends and tried to work out what had happened. Delayed shock and gratitude. We had been close. But close is mercifully distanced.

*

This morning, I talked for the first time to the woman who panhandles daily by the Métro station. She asked what had happened, so I offered, in my basic French, the version I had of events. Later, after my usual Saturday language exchange, I talked to the friendly guys at the halal butcher where I buy roast chicken. If I allow last night’s events to change the way I see my neighbourhood, it will only be to appreciate more acutely how so many nationalities, cultures and religions can peacefully coexist. My sympathy is with all those lost and who have lost loved ones in these appalling events.

Illustration by Jean Jullien

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.