August in Paris

I was browsing The Atlantic website the other day and came across this article by Rachel Donadio celebrating the month of August as a wonderful time to be in Paris. “Of all the cities I’ve lived in,” she writes, “August is best in Paris.” Donadio celebrates the quiet streets, the lost tourists, and the niche radio and television stories about feminism, Blaise Pascal, or the decline of French Socialist Party. Melancholy, Donadio reflects on the month that has just ended: “Traffic thins; shops close, sometimes for the entire month; restaurants shut; there are seats to be found on the metro; and in the evening, stragglers (not everyone can afford to go away) emerge from their stuffy, un-air-conditioned apartments and gather along the banks of the Seine.”

She is, in my opinion, completely wrong to celebrate August in Paris. Having just come through my first summer in the city as a Greek hero might make it through the land of the dead, I can assuredly declare that August is in fact the worst time of year to be in Paris.

Donadio makes light of shops closing, including her bakery, but in fact this should be a serious concern. In the 10e arrondissement, our existence—revolving as it does around food—started to seem grim at the end of July. First to go was our cheese shop. As the weeks went by the tables and shelves in the shop had progressively emptied out. On the last day they were open, as I bought scraps of whatever was left, I asked the cheese monger what we were going to do while they were closed. “Eat less calories,” he said. It was a joke but he wasn’t smiling. He was just eager to go on holiday.

Next to go was the Italian deli, then the covered market where we get fish and vegetables. The famous boulangerie at the end of our street shut down for a month—an entire MONTH—in August. Every day I texted G. as I walked to the metro to tell her how many dejected tourists were standing on the sidewalk, scratching their heads and trying to decipher the scrawled note in the window. Then the boulangerie with the good baguette closed. Then the new bakery with the seedy bread and the donuts, which had literally opened two weeks before, also closed for two weeks. Even the bakery with the lovely seasonal cakes and pastries, which is a little further off near the Marais and which I sometimes walk to on Sundays, went on vacation. They didn’t even bother putting a note up on their door.

I remember a Wednesday morning in mid-August when I walked around the neighbourhood, going from street to street, struggling to find a place where I could buy bread. I ended up at a small, subpar place near République, and we had to make do with their dry croissant and weightless loaf. Yes, even in Paris, there is such a thing as a subpar boulangerie.

August 15 is a holiday in France, and as it fell on a Thursday this year most of those who weren’t already on vacation took a day or two off to make a long weekend of it. In French they call it faire le pont—bridging. The city emptied out. At work, for the few of us who were around, almost all the lunch places were closed. Even the lunch delivery company was off that Friday.

And I haven’t mentioned anything about the heat (Parisian apartments don’t have ai conditioning)—but perhaps that’s a story for another time.

Sure, there are some things to appreciate about August in Paris. It’s true that the streets are quieter, and the metro isn’t as crowded. You grow to have a special fondness for the shops and restaurants that do stay open, like the boucherie near my workplace that took all of July off instead of August. The Tunisian man and his son who have a vegetable stall around the corner from our apartment stayed open through August, as did the Mexican taco place across the street and our favourite takeout restaurant, Petit Cambodge. Although our caviste did go away on holiday for two weeks in August, she found someone to work at the shop in her place. So at least we could drink well, even if we couldn’t always eat as well as usual. It makes you question your priorities.

And now la rentrée is in full swing; this period marks the end of our first year living in Paris. We moved into our apartment exactly a ago and started discovering the neighbourhood, trying out cafés and bakeries, walking along the canal to go to the Bastille market for the first time, testing out habits and routines that would last us through the winter. When we arrived in Paris at the very end of August 2018 to find a lively 10e arrondissement, I hadn’t suspected that the city was just coming back to life after a month-long sleep.

The end of our first year in Paris, yes, but also the beginning of our second. We’ve been eating a lot of cheese.

Rue Saint-Martin: A Promenade

I’m not the first to say it: Paris is a walker’s city, or rather an ambler’s city. The streets urge you to go out for promenades, to make it from place to place on foot, to wander about. There are some risks, though. For one, everything seems closer that it is on the map. Then there’s the city’s famous street configuration, all branching stars and obliquely crossings. If you’re not careful, you can easily think you’re going in the right direction on a given street and end up far from where you were going.

One of my favourite walks in Paris is, thankfully, along a street that runs straight down–from the 10th to the 3rd arrondissement, from Gare de l’Est all the way down to the Seine, or just about. It’s a neat way to easily get from the neighbourhood we live in to the Marais, which has nice shops, bars, and restaurants–and heaps of atmosphere. I love walking down the length of the street because you feel the textures of the different neighbourhoods change as you walk through them.

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Your promenade begins on rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin, which is lively and full of local colour just below the imposing façade of Gare de l’Est: fast-food joints, African restaurants, bric-à-brac stores, and Afro hair salons. Rue du Chateau d’Eau and its fancier shops, wine stores, cafés, and lovely market runs perpendicular. When you reach the imposing Porte Saint-Martin, which is really more of an arch than a gate, at the boulevard, the street because rue Saint-Martin, and already you know that you’re in a slightly posher neighbourhood, especially as you pass the imposing facade of the Musée des Arts et Métiers and the elegant Square Émile-Chautemps. On the same block are the intriguing offices of the French Prestidigitator’s Association, which unfortunately always looks closed.

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Past rue Réaumur, pay attention to the blackened façade of the Paroisse Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs, a gothic church dating back to the 15th century, with its crumbling statues. A couple of blocks later is a nice third wave coffee shop called Partisan, and now you can be certain you’re in the 3rd: the buildings are nicer and well-kept, people are dressed in fancy clothes, and the shops are getting more expensive and niche–notice the Corsican épicerie and the Auvergne deli. Another couple of blocks down you’ll run into a shop specializing in rum, and just around the corner is its sister store, which sells hundreds of different kinds of gin.

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But keep going, you haven’t seen everything yet. If you’re hungry, the next block has lots of restaurants, including a delicious Chinese noodle place called 3 fois plus de piments, although you may have to get in line at peak hours. Once you do get in, you choose your heat level: 0 to 5 (1 is enough to make my eyebrows sweat). As you keep walking down, the street becomes mostly pedestrian and when the buildings open up, lo and behold, the Centre Pompidou is on your left. Take a moment to gaze at its stunning, divisive architecture. The rooftop restaurant, all metal and curvy structures, is a nice place for a drink and a rare vista over the city.

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From there, you have to pick what you want to do next. Turn right at the river and continue along the Seine all the way to the Louvre and the Tuileries, or else cross over to Île de la Cité and, from there, across again into the 5th arrondissements. Or turn right to delve into the Marais proper. Crooked, charming rue des Rosiers, with its jewish bakeries and extraordinary falafel shops, is only five minutes away…

Canal Life

Our neighbourhood in Paris runs along the Canal Saint-Martin, a stretch of water that runs off the Seine at Place de la Bastille and runs along a north-easterly path, joining the Canal Saint-Denis north of the Basin de la Villette to become the Canal de l’Ourcq. The canal’s greenish waters, flagstone quays, families of ducks, iron pedestrian bridges, and bubbling locks, provide an atmospheric backdrop to the life of neighbourhood, and is a sight many tourists never set eyes on.

The canal was originally built in the 19th century to supply water to parts of the city and for transport of grain and other goods to Paris. There are amazing old pictures of women washing clothes at purpose-built laundry stations along the canal at the turn of the century.  One of the canal’s most interesting features is that a large section of it runs underground along vaulted tunnels pierced by large skylights. Up above, on the ground level, there is a long stretch of park where people play pétanque or walk their dogs, one section of which, along Avenue Richard-Lenoir, is home to our favourite Sunday market.

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Women washing clothes along the canal.

Some tour companies offer boat rides up and down the canal, so you can glide along under the atmospheric vaults yourself, see the charming 10e arrondissement from a different point of view, and get splashed by the locks as they fill up rather dramatically (if you make your way up the canal from Port de l’Arsenal to the Bassin de la Villette–some of the tours go down the canal instead up). You’ll have to be patient, however, as the locks and swinging bridges make for a long and very slow cruise along the canal.

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Under the vault.

For most inhabitants, however, the canal is mostly a perfect place to relax with a picnic and some wine or beer. During the week, people who work nearby love to sit along the quay and enjoy some sunshine during their break for déjeuner, while far into the night the area is alive with groups of young people enjoying themselves in the open air.

Every few years, authorities drain the canal in order to clean out the rubbish that inevitably falls (or is thrown) into it and remains at the bottom: bicycles, cameras, bottles… Even cars, and–yes–guns. There’s a great article about it over at The Guardian.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt of Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, in which Amélie takes part in one of her favourite activities: standing on one of the lock gates and skipping stones on the canal.

 

 

Village Saint-Martin

A new (school) year, a new adventure!

Back at the start of the summer, G. and I left Egypt behind, and after a couple of months spent gallivanting around Quebec (and a short trip to England for a friend’s wedding), here we are in Paris, a city we’ve each been to a few times as tourists but never had the chance to live in… until now.

I’m sure that our time here will abound in many culinary, cultural, and literary adventures as we get settled in and start exploring. In the meantime, here’s a short introduction to our new neighbourhood near the Canal Saint-Martin, in the 10e arrondissement.

In fact we came upon this neighbourhood entirely by chance–we had never visited it before. Within a few minutes of arriving, however, we knew that it was a perfect place for us. It’s a very young, vibrant neighbourhood with lots of shops, boutiques, grocery stores, cafés, and restaurants. Our street features a school, a lively terrace, and an amazing bakery. The entire street often smells of freshly baked brioche.

We’ve already fallen in love with the Parisian lifestyle–enjoying a drink on a sunny terrace, stopping at multiple shops and markets to buy our groceries–and we’re working hard to adapt our North American eating schedule to that of France, where diner isn’t served before 8pm, and often much later, and shops close for the afternoon.

Many people have told us that the 10e hasn’t always been as charming as it is now; twenty or thirty years ago, it was a lot less attractive. As with gentrification in so many other Western cities, the advent of “bobos” has brought with it third wave coffee shops, coworking spaces, and ridiculously niche boutiques, but it’s also pushed out diversity. However the neighbourhood still feels scruffy around the edges, and it’s a joy to see so many young people crowding along the canal to share some charcuterie, bread, and a bottle of wine at any time of day or night.

One thing that immediately made us fall in love with the tenth’s communal spirit is a local newspaper called Le Journal du Village Saint-Martin, which is published every season and has charming articles about local residents and businesses. For example, the most recent issue for the summer had an article about Chez Prune, one of the neighbourhood’s emblematic bistro’s, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer.

The team behind the journal also publishes a yearly Village Saint-Marting guidebook, which is beautifully illustrated by local artists and available for purchase in local shops. This handy little guide has already supplied us with many great addresses, and is a perfect starting point to begin exploring the neighbourhood and, eventually, make it really feel like home.