International bright young thing (part 1)

During the interweb blackout I had three lovely trips abroad which, in the true spirit of coming back after the school holidays and writing a dreary story about all the dull things you did, I will tell you all about. When I get round to it.

At the end of May my boss at Megacorp Inc took the whole department to Paris for the day as a reward for a back-breaking project we’d been doing for, like, ever. We had lunch at a rather splendid restaurant by the Seine (where a number of us invoked the right to be British hippies and not eat the foie gras) followed by a bewitching boat trip on the Seine. Most people came home again the same day but for me – well, it seemed rude not to stay overnight when someone else was paying for the travel. One dirt cheap two star hotel later and I had all of Saturday to do with what I chose.

First off – why does Paris smell of wee? I know bits of London smell quite funky first thing on weekend mornings but the odour of piss seems to pervade the streets of Paris like nowhere else. Maybe that’s why Parisian shopkeepers hose down the pavements every morning.

I never used to get Paris. I thought it was dirty and stinky and crowded and generally a bit tacky. I think I’d been three or four times before the light finally dawned and now I enjoy nothing more than throwing on some ballet pumps and an exquisite pair of slacks, accessorised with a dinky bracelet, and swanning through the streets or sipping chocolat chaud at a pavement cafe. I don’t think I’ve been to many of the main tourist attractions, I just like ambling around and seeing what I stumble across. Last time I found some great food markets on rue Monge, and this time I finally headed to the Marais.

Why have I never been to this area before? It’s got a reputation as a great place to hang out now, but it still feels resolutely Parisian rather than touristy (though I imagine the boutiques that line the streets are a newer addition to this former working class area) and it was a joy to find bakeries and restaurants that only had signage and menus in French. Not that I speak much French, but at least you know you’re somewhere vaguely more authentic than the Champs Elysees.

Speaking of restaurants… I have this book, right? It’s called A Corner of the Marais and was written by an American called Alex Karmel about ten years ago. It’s a history of the area done from the point of view of a resident American-in-Paris (ie, himself) with a focus on the particular building where he lives. It’s really quite engaging and amusing – now out of print but you can get in secondhand bookshops and Amazon marketplace. I used it as a kind of guidebook to the area, the eye of the local, and naturally I was still reading it over lunch at a place called Cafe Equinox on rue des Rosiers. I knew the author of my book lived at the corner of rue des Rosiers, but it wasn’t until I went to the loo in the basement that the place started to ring bells…

“…The cellars that housed the nightclub are reached by a staircase down from rue des Rosiers. The first time I went down those stairs was after the nightclub had gone out of business… There were two levels, both covered with vaults of roughly hewn stone, plus some nooks and crannies off to the sides… The air was cool and rather damp. The two spaces would have made a great bomb shelter but were rather awkwardly arranged for a nightclub… It was all clearly very, very old.”

And it was all clearly the building I was reading about, confirmed when I finished lunch and went out to check the position on the street. It’s an odd thing, to accidentally find yourself in the exact place you’re reading about. Like finding yourself in the middle of the page.


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