The true essence of Paris is piss. It’s the smell of freedom. It’s the smell of every Frenchman’s right to use any pavement, any doorway, any alleyway to relieve himself. Heaven knows all those spaces are cleaner and more inviting than most public toilets in France.
Sometimes my view of Paris as somewhere romantic is tested; tested to within a micron of destruction. Today is one of those days. I’ve just got back to the apartment, rain-drenched pretty much from the waist down, my umbrella so sodden that the water had started to leak through it.
And Mondays are the days when Paris closes, to the extent that the blog Paris By Mouth lists restaurants open on a Monday because most aren’t. Of course it also mistakenly includes restaurants on that list that don’t open on a Monday, so one can walk across town in the rain to find the place is closed.
Then there are restaurant staff who take a certain delight in refusing you a table. Of course it’s understandable because they’re full. But how hard is it to show sympathy for people who have staggered in from the rain rather than indulging in a mixture of ennui and pleasure at being able to push them out the door again?
But at least Paris in the rain escapes briefly from the fug of urine that otherwise envelopes it. And, even in a Monday downpour, there are things that encourage forgiveness. Like yesterday’s discovery of a tiny but amazing Vietnamese restaurant run by a retired professor that does sublime food at student prices.
Cramped and book-lined, le Drapeau de la Fidélité served a porc au caramel on sticky rice drenched in gravy that was one of the best things I’ve eaten in an age, and a pho bo that is the most authentic and flavoursome I’ve had in Vietnam or elsewhere.
It was so much better than the place we ate on Saturday night, Les Papilles somewhere I’d enjoyed on an earlier visit but that this time just seemed tired and over-priced. Much more rewarding was a return to Le Verre Vole au Mer on Rue Lancry, which did a ‘bento’ (not like any Bento that ever made it east of Strasbourg mind you) that was wholesome and tasty and down to earth. And I did drag S to Du Pain et Des Idees for indulgent escargots (of the pastry kind).
We also wandered into Le Comptoir General, down an alley on the east bank of the Canal St Martin in the 10th, the kind of creative and social space that one used to be able to find in the UK but which money and property developers have put paid to. These days one has to travel to Paris or Berlin to be reminded of what it was like growing up in a country where pretty much anything went and things were worth doing for reasons other than persuading city types to part with their cash in exchange for expensive food and drink.
But away from the better heeled parts of town, Paris seems on edge, far more than when I was here back in October before the attacks on the Bataclan and elsewhere. Around Les Halles we saw security guards moving on groups of young black Parisians and on the Metro I saw a group of black girls heading out shopping and was reminded of the excellent French film ‘Girlhood’ about a group of young black women trying without much success, to find a future in the banlieues.
I was also reminded of a conversation I’d had in Singapore in January with a black British academic at a conference on multiculturalism. My sense was that, in the UK, we’ve come a long, long way in the last thirty years when it comes to race, but I wanted to know how a person of colour felt because I suspect they would be far more aware of the dynamics.
‘All my daughter’s friends are mixed race,’ she told me, adding that she agreed that we have come a long way. And that’s why, when I see groups of young black Parisians hanging out, it’s really strikes me how poor integration seems to be here. If this was London there would be far fewer groups of all-white or all-black or all-Asian people. We are far more likely to hang out with people from other backgrounds; be friends, lovers, parents together, or be children of multicultural relationships.
My Londoner friends from minority backgrounds are adamant that they feel London is as much their city as anyone’s. And I feel much the same. London is a global city these days. It belongs to the world. Paris, and I suspect France, has opted for parallel existences rather than integration and I suspect the country will pay a price for it, perhaps sooner rather than later.
Anyhow it’s cheerfully back to England tomorrow, but having trawled through Leipzig, Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris I have to say that it’s Berlin I’m keenest to revisit.