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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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…

 

 

Slice of life

Making a reservation was a necessity. Reserving early was a stroke of genius. When J and I pushed open the door at Le Popine (aka pizza nirvana), the place was deserted and we had our choice of position – window-side table, shared bench or high table with a clear view of the bar and pervy perspective through the pass into the kitchen. We took a place up the back, pushing aside throw cushions to pile up coats and scarves on the banquette.

The menu (delivered swiftly with a branded carafe of Paris’s finest tap) proved a challenge. As J said, why have a gourmet section when the classique pizzas are all artisan prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella? We ordered a 500ml pichet of Chevry and a carciofina (ham, mozzarella and artichoke) for me and something similar (the name escapes me) with added olives and marinated capsicum for J. The tapas, burger and charcuterie were tempting, too, but somewhat tangential to our mission.

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I had seen it claimed that Paris’s best pizza came out of wood-fired ovens in the 20th, and so my friends and I have been roadtesting the contenders. Happily, it’s an ongoing quest…

Popine, recommended vigorously by both Le Fooding and Time Out, was second on the must-visit list. First glance, and eager first bite, confirmed the advance notices. The crust was damn near perfect – salty, light, just the right amount of blister and crunch without being dry or brittle, wheaty from artisanal flour in the best possible way – with sparing toppings of quality and flavour. When we finally lifted our heads from flat, round Neapolitan heaven, we realized the room was now packed and buzzing, with a typical Ménilmontant crowd, which is to say young and fashionable.

The crowd at the pizzeria at Mama Shelter is rolled from similar dough. I’ve been a few times, because it’s reliably good and there is usually a spot at one of the two long, skinny tables in the underlit but welcoming space. You enter through the lobby of the hotel, peruse the gift suggestions in the glass cabinets and turn left. (My goal this summer is to be organized enough to make the reservation that will allow me to turn right and step into the elevator up to the popular roof terrace.) There’s a restaurant, too, but usually it’s pizza and a carafe of house red calling my name. No need to be fancy. Mama Shelter is an international chain of affordable, photogenic boutique hotels, styled by French interior designer Philippe Starck. I’m happy they decided to put the Paris one in my neighbourhood.

The service, on this visit as on previous ones, was quick and friendly. C and I clambered onto chunky high stools – I may have crawled under the table to avoid going all the way to the end and squeezing past half-a-dozen fellow diners (Pardon! Excusez-moi! Désolée!) – and ordered a vegetarian for her, Bellota for me. It’s still weird to get a pizza not neatly cleaved into eight, but, hey, if I have to navigate chorizo, tomato, mozzarella and oregano with a knife and fork, so be it. The menu has 10 options and you can add extra toppings. But why mess with something “created with the complicity of three-starred chef Guy Savoy”? The ambient buzz was as noisy as the décor is groovy, and we decided not to stick around for dessert. The helpful waiter packed the leftover pizza into a takeaway box and we headed out, the beginnings of a long night cranking up behind us.

And so, to number three. On a recent Friday, noting with pleasure the lengthening evening (roll on, spring), I installed myself on the closed-in terrace at Tripletta on boulevard de Belleville, ordered a glass of Côtes de Roussillon red and settled in with my university copy of Le Grand Meaulnes to wait for J and M. This restaurant strip, which runs all the way from Père Lachaise cemetary to vintage brasserie La Vielleuse, hosts such a parade of diners, hangers-out, soldiers on patrol, hustlers, pavement smokers, locals with shopping caddies, it feels like the whole eastern city walks past your table, if only you sit long enough.

Tripletta is the compact sister address of bar-bistro Les Triplettes up the road, similarly casual, a bit grittier around the edges, perhaps; there is a constant stream of delivery guys collecting flat boxes for home delivery from the little window on the corner. It’s the kind of place you need for an end-of-week debrief. So it took us a while to get to consulting the menu – and decide on a Napoli (creamy mozza fior di latte, anchovies and black Caiazzan olives) for me and a prosciutto e funghi for J. M was avoiding grains and inducing order envy with a ricotta salad, beefed up with roast vegetables and served in a strangely heavy bowl (“so you think it is more substantial than lettuce leaves,” she said).

All present, correct and satisfying – snaps for the doorstop chunks of good bread (duly lifted and wrapped carefully in napkins for my breakfast) – from beginning until week’s-end fatigue got the better of us.

At Popine, they beat us to it, gently enquiring how long we planned to linger after the last crumbs and swish of wine had been downed. They needed the table. We obliged, of course, rugging up and stepping into that wonderful hum and movement of cars, bodies and possibilities of the boulevard.

Death in Paris

The biggest green space in Paris is not that green at all. It’s grey. Mostly, anyway, in hues of slate and granite. Right now, perched on the crest between summer’s Indian brilliance and looming winter, it’s also carpeted with the gold of fallen leaves and studded, as it always is, with flowers. The green in Père Lachaise cemetery comes from its manicured remembrance lawns, moss on weathered tombstones and the patina on its statues.

Entering the 44-hectare site is like stepping into another world. It’s not exactly hushed due to the tourists, who visit in endless waves, and the activity that goes with being an operating cemetery, but it is its own alternative universe.

I’ve often thought there was something odd, clearly morbid, about visiting a cemetery as a tourist. But I’ve changed my mind. The other day, I got off an overcrowded bus at Gambetta to walk the scenic route home through the site. For the first time, I went down the eastern side, past the memorials to air disasters and the impressive equestrian statue immortalising General Antranik, an Armenian national hero, only to be stopped in my tracks by the sculptures and monuments to the thousands who died in the death and work camps, and fighting for the Resistance, during World War II. The inscriptions were tough going, as they should be, with numbing figures and graphic details of firing squads, hangings and beheadings. The statues were painful in their beauty.

The man next to me observed to his friend, “It’s really quite overwhelming,” snapping another photo. I followed his gaze over the tombs, crosses and angels in perfect rows down the hillside, sunlight flashing on polished stone and marble, and had to agree.

I continued on my way, past the grave of surrealist poet Paul Éluard and the memorial wall where the last holders-out during the Paris Commune of 1871 were shot. The air smelt of damp earth. It was all pretty sobering.

And yet Père Lachaise is impossibly romantic and beautiful. I suppose that is why the most-worn path is not down the eastern wall, but to Jim Morrison, to Oscar Wilde, to Edith Piaf. It marks pilgrimages to French literature’s heroes Molière and Proust. These are the landmarks I have ringed on the map I give to visiting friends, encouraging them to go, perhaps to stroll further to pay respects to Bizet, Ingres, Chopin, Colette, Delacroix or Brillat-Savarin.

As a place to wander, it’s hard to beat, with all that history and sadness, and love and grief, stories, heritage, pathos and ghosts. The faith and follies, suffering and cruelty of humanity are grouped together like exhibits in a Big Questions museum. I also think, more and more, that rather than avoiding such places, it makes sense to walk among them, that life and death should be side by side. For all the sadness and tragedy, the memorials also celebrate struggles for dignity and freedom, great art, compassion, intelligence, enduring love.

My favourite tomb, if it’s reasonable to have such a thing, is that of Héloïse and Abélard, the ill-fated lovers of the 12th century. Their stone likenesses lie side by side, hands clasped in prayer, under an ornate canopy, their resting place having been relocated to Père Lachaise from the Oratory of the Paraclete monastery in northern France (via the Élysée in Paris) in 1817. The move was a ploy to give this monumental cemetery, which was established in 1804 according to the romantic ideals of the time, more favour with Parisians suspicious of a burial ground within the city limits. (Now there are about a million people buried here.) It has become a tradition to leave letters at the tomb to celebrate true love or the hope of finding it.

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However, for me, the romance is less fascinating than the notion of their intellectual connection. In the early 1100s, she was a renowned scholar of letters, and he of philosophy and theology. He became her teacher, they had an affair, and a child. Their subsequent marriage was kept secret to protect his career in the church, and he later moved her to a nunnery, an act for which her guardian had him castrated. The letters they exchanged after both had retreated to monastic life, and which are the foundation of their myth, suggest that Héloïse didn’t believe in marriage, however, seeing it as bondage or even a form of legal prostitution. Interpretations of their story differ, of course, but it continues to be told, disputed, made and remade to fit the teller’s ideas or politics. Stories are shifting sands, and they tell us what we need now as much as what happened in the past.

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I didn’t stop the other day to see Héloïse and her lover, although I have many times before, to take photos or to listen to another tour guide’s version of their story. It was getting late. Beyond the main gates, the traffic thronged. I joined the pedestrian flow under the green arch and back into the land of the living.