How social media makes moving countries harder

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

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

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

I’ve gone native. On the outside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Espresso on every corner

Coffee can be a reason to cross town. Or just leave your apartment. Luckily, the 20th arrondissement is full of places in which to find a decent roast, often with good music, a friendly welcome and wi-fi thrown in. Here, in no particular order, are 15 local favourites and recent discoveries.

Cream A chic niche on multi-culti rue de Belleville, Cream upped the local coffee bar when it opened in 2015. The excellent Belleville Brûlerie roast comes in a well-edited range of styles – including a mini-crème-like cortado (3€) for those expanding their coffee vocab – but there’s no decaf, soy or wi-fi. Tempting sandwiches, salads, cookies and cakes hit the spot if you feel like eating. Afterwards, head up the steep hill to Parc de Belleville for one of the best views over Paris. 50 rue de Belleville

Les Pères Populaires This place, with its fine tunes, mismatched décor and bargain coffee (1€ espresso), is a chilled-out haven near Place de la Nation. It has 5G wi-fi, plenty of space and a laissez-faire attitude towards laptop jockeys who spend hours over a single beverage. If you come for lunch, the 16€ set menu is seasonal and satisfying (with moreish Ten Belles bread on the side). With a truly mixed crowd – native millennials, families, welded-on regulars – Pères Pop is also a lively (read noisy) option for apéro46 rue de Buzenval

Les Pichettes This homey newcomer does a 10€ Sunday brunch, making the most of the market atmosphere and passing foot traffic. It’s mostly a lunch spot, though, open from 11am to 4pm every day but Saturday, with a daily menu (three courses, 15€), natural wines and beer from Montreuil brewery La Baleine. Continuous service means you can just pop in for noisette (1.90€) served in a vintage teacup with choc-coated coffee beans on the side. 47 rue des Vignoles


Le Café Sans Nom On Thursday and Sunday mornings, this spacious café (on the corner opposite Les Pichettes) hums to the rhythm of the open-air market in Place de la Réunion. As well as a certain zinc-bar, no-frills charm – and serviceable coffee (1.30€ noisette) – there are books to browse, wi-fi and a genuine neighbourhood vibe to enjoy from a table on the terrace. 57 rue de la Réunion


L’Escargot d’Or They roast the coffee on the spot here. It’s only open in the afternoon (or evening on Friday and Saturday) and closed Sunday. They also have a stand at Marché de Charonne on Friday mornings and sell coffee beans from around the world. 53 rue de Bagnolet

La Chouette Well-made espresso and flaky croissant at La Chouette (with its double meaning of owl and super) is a good way to start the day, with free wi-fi removing any excuse not to work, if that’s the mission. Locals take equally to the footpath terrace for a sundowner. The menu at lunch and dinner is fresh and inventive and the Art Deco design touches – mirrors, light fittings – make this handsome space a standout at the southern end of the arrondissement. 89 rue des Pyrénées

Le Barbouquin Worth the detour to street-art-filled rue Denoyez, this cute, casual café does double duty as a second-hand bookshop (hence the name). Sip your noisette (2.40€) in a velour-covered armchair or at the long communal table. It has wi-fi but also a weekend laptop ban – to encourage conviviality, as a sign on the door helpfully explains. Its comme-ci, comme-ça attitude to tables filled with laptops bearing glowing fruit is, it seems, increasingly common. 1 rue Denoyez

Café La Laverie It’s a little bit Paris terrace, a little bit rock’n’roll, with fairy lights outside and retro-inspired décor indoors (including the old laundromat sign, evidence of the building’s former life). In the fine weather, enjoy your espresso (1.90€) or panaché (that’s a shandy in Australian parlance) looking out across the shady square. There’s no wi-fi, just conversation, cigarettes and a book (yes, a paper one). Cnr rue Sorbier and rue de Ménilmontant

Benoît Castel – La Pâtisserie-Boulangerie The open-kitchen concept comes to the bakery. At Benoît Castel’s eponymous boulangerie-pâtisserie, you can have excellent coffee (2.20€ noisette), lunch or weekend brunch (29€) with a backdrop of artisan flour, dough hooks and antique wood-fired ovens (logs stacked neatly the side). Long tables, floor-to-ceiling front windows and wi-fi make this a very pleasant working spot. Take home some jam, biscuits or granola as well as irresistible bread and pastries. 150 rue de Ménilmontant

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Cerwood Terrasse Just off the main strip at Jourdain, the second Cerwood address (after the original in the 19th) is more log cabin than typical Parisian café. It’s all antlers, animal hide and hunks of tree suspended from the ceiling, not to mention a leather chesterfield couch by a faux open fire (in an echo of the owners’ pretty-rustic florist shop, Nouvelle Ere, nearby). The coffee is from Brûlerie de Jourdain, there’s free wi-fi and, as per the name, an inviting terrace. 8 rue Jean-Baptiste Dumay

Kahwehgi Coffee House Pull up a stool at the bar in this tiny, friendly café for a macchiato or signature Kahwehgi (an espresso topped with cream), both 2.50€, made with coffee from award-winning French roaster Pfaff. A range of teas, sweet nibbles and ground coffee are available to take away. The location is welcoming, too, on a leafy side street between Place Gambetta and Père Lachaise cemetery. 9 avenue du Père Lachaise

Ô Divin Traiteur Mid-morning, just after opening, the glass-and-marble bar at Ô Divin Traiteur is already topped with Middle Eastern-inspired pastries and salads. The whole place smells incredible, and the espresso (2€) is smooth. Linger for lunch or go up the road to sister épicerie and primeur (greengrocers) – both part of the group along with Restaurant Ô Divin in the 19th – for wine, cheese, charcuterie and fresh produce, if you fancy a gourmet picnic at Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. 118 rue de Belleville

Le Monte-en-l’AirHidden away opposite Ménilmontant’s beautiful Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix church, this design-focused bookshop – art, photography, graphic novels and illustration – is not really a café, but it does offer coffee and cold drinks on the terrace. 2 rue de la Mare

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Aux Ours Maybe it’s the banks of sidewalk tables, maybe the neighbourhood atmosphere, but this place is always buzzy, often to the point of heaving. It leans more towards bar/restaurant (with a classic French menu and new home-delivery service) than café, but in the morning, it’s a quiet place to work or simply have a coffee (1.10€ espresso). The spacious interior and free wi-fi make it popular with freelancers. 236 rue des Pyrénées

ABC Belleville – Arts of Bakery & Coffee Opposite the forecourt that overlooks Parc de Belleville, ABC puts the city at your feet. Although you might not notice the view (look, the Eiffel Tower!) if you’re here, bleary-eyed, when it opens at 7am. If a croissant and espresso (1.20€) are not sustenance enough, the breakfast offerings extend along a distinctly anglo bent, from granola to omelette, and for those who don’t get going until midday, there’s a lunch menu, too. 10 rue des Envierges

 

 

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.

 

 

Urban ramblings

On the other side of the southern wall of Père Lachaise cemetery, Le Jardin Naturel – the natural garden – has been left to self-seed and native species encouraged to proliferate thanks to chemical-free, eco-friendly maintenance. It’s tucked in behind rue de Bagnolet and feels, over its 6300 square metres, more like a walk in the country, with birdsong and sunlight breaking through spring leaves in patches. It’s unusually unkempt for a city park, charming and rambling, with signs offering information about the indigenous plants. Here, an oak, there a field maple, copper birch, bellflowers, ferns and so on in a tapestry of green, and pink, and gold.

I had forgotten the little park was there until yesterday when we came upon it during a “randonnée urbaine” organised by local bookstore Le Merle Moqueur. Our expert guide was Nicolas Le Goff, whose excellent new book, L’Autre Paris,  I’d brought weeks ago during a fact-finding sortie to FNAC. Happily, J and M agreed to come and we joined about 15 others (mostly women, as another walker noted while we were milling about waiting to begin) for the 90-minute walk. We started at Square Edith Piaf and ended with a signing at the bookstore. (When J observed that it was the first time she’d seen the statue of the Little Sparrow, M responded dryly that she was often skirted by locals and their bottles, which we all agreed was somehow appropriate.)

My hope was that Le Goff, whose book details 10 promenades around the greater city with a focus on architecture, urban design, parks, street art, culture and food, would offer some insight into my ’hood. I was not disappointed. It turned out that many of the participants were also locals, and he clearly felt the pressure to give us something special. At one point, as we walked through an innovative social-housing development, Le Goff asked J and me if we had seen it before. Our shaking heads elicited a very pleased, “Yes!”

We began at Campagne à Paris, which is utterly village-like in its spring finery, then tacked south through manicured Square Séverine, along the narrow elevated street that overlooks rue de Bagnolet from which we could see two elegantly curved staircases at the front of houses that once sat amid vineyards. Our path took us through the cemetery at the back of Eglise Saint-Germain de Charonne, and Le Goff allowed a few minutes for us to go inside the medieval church (the first time I’d seen it open) whose interior dimness showed off the brilliant hues of the stained-glass windows.

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Crossing rue des Pyrénées, Le Goff, who has previously worked at cultural centre Centquatre and clearly loves his subject, took us through the public housing development around Place Mélina-Mercouri, pointing out energy-saving features (heat-retaining construction materials) and how car-free thoroughfares linked adjacent schools. In this “eco-quartier”, there’s child-friendly, ethical Super Café, gardens and a sense of light and space. The design was created in consultation with the residents, he said.

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Cutting through Place de la Réunion, being prepped for the Sunday market, Place Marc Bloch and Jardin Casque d’Or, we emerged at rue des Vignoles, and another corner of the arrondissement that was completely new to me. And this is where having a guide really paid off because we were able to peep behind a private gate into another development, this one all external staircases and green walls. It was so lovely. And utterly hidden from the street.

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Next door was the brick-red cobbled courtyard of Flamenco en France, opposite a retro barber shop, and down from tempting bar Café de l’Amitié and organic restaurant La Petite Fabrique (where J and I went last night for delicious homemade quiche, brandade de morue and natural wines).

Our route back to rue de Bagnolet also offered a glimpse at the art deco Eglise Saint-Jean-Bosco de Paris, built in 1937, with its 53-metre clock tower.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Paris rewards curiosity at almost every turn, but it does help to be pointed in the right direction. All around Père Lachaise are little cul-de-sacs. We wound our way up and down several, one through Le Jardin Naturel and another that seemed to be lined with warehouses, where work was going on to re-lay the cobbled surface. I immediately wanted to live there.

Yet another took us past the Cité Aubry community garden, one of 14 in the arrondissement, where weekend gardeners were happy to pause in their work to explain the project to us. (I discovered later from the website that the garden was created nearly three years ago, and there is a long waiting list for plots.) The walls surrounding the garden are covered in beautiful murals, and the garden makes excellent use of wooden palettes for planters, dividers and racks. The most magnificent yellow and red tulips filled one box; strawberry plants donned white flowers in pots by the red-arch entry.

We finished back at the bookstore, which has recently had an update, filling its industrial-style interior with more light and opening up the space. We took the opportunity for a browse, particularly the graphic novel section; J bought a copy of L’Autre Paris and we made plans to do the itineraries (watch this space).

The 20th can feel like the ultimate urban mash-up, dominated in so many places by nondescript high-ish-rises from decades past. The walk with Le Goff revealed some of the neighbourhood’s hidden greenery and, even better, offered a chance to learn about projects putting heart and soul into the built environment. Yes, another Paris, indeed.

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.

 

Walk this way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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