Paris: heaven on earth

But its coffee is terrible
February 18, 2016

It’s hard to explain what makes Paris the most pleasant city in the world to live in. I have lived in many cities: Moscow is too cold, Cairo is too hot, London is too big, New York is too rich. Perhaps I could be tempted by Rome or Barcelona, but I suspect it is possible to tire of pasta and jamón ibérico after a month or two. I came to live in Paris by accident, almost 10 years later and I have lived in Paris longer than anywhere else.

Back in 2007, I was sceptical of the insular superiority, the busy blind waiters and the snooty impeccable Parisiennes “Non! C’est insupportable!” who cluttered the cafés. I was quickly fed up with the bland offerings of mid-range bistros, the tyranny of the verre de vin rouge and the terrible coffee.

Interesting digression: it turns out that French coffee is bad because they developed a taste for the acrid “Robusta” beans over the more chocolatey “Arabica” variety because Robusta was grown in French colonies.

“Paris must be lovely!” said friends who only ever visited for two or three days.

“Yeah, except for the food.”

In 2010, I went away for four years. When I returned, Paris had developed a whole new hipster coffee scene, everyone was eating hamburgers, the Japanese had revamped the patisserie with matcha and small plate bistros were popping up. Paris had finally got out of the Belle Époque and embraced the age of Instagram “food porn.”

To my surprise, I found I had missed Paris, and in particular the great pastime of sitting outside at cafés, a flâneur, watching the world walk by.

Yes, in Paris the parks are raked gravel instead of lawn, the pavements are blocked with motorbikes and bollards, everything is inexplicably closed on Monday or Tuesday or whatever day you have decided to visit. But. The café is all you need for what the English call “quality of life” and the French, “joie de vivre.” Café-bar-resto—they are happily ubiquitous and whatever their mien, ready to salve your tribulations, sudden rainstorm or heartbreak, with a small round table and a little sustenance to get you through the next half hour of life. I have learned to forgive the battery acid espresso; it turns out, the cafe experience is not about the coffee.

The cool Paris of the 11th arrondissement with its cocktail bars, Asian fusion places and packed restaurant-bars has been grafted on to this traditional root stock. Paris is lived outside. Tables are set out on the street, everyone is still smoking up a storm and hanging out. This is what the terrorists attacked on 13th November.

A friend of mine was working that night at the crossroads of Le Carillon and the Petit Cambodge, where the gunmen killed a total of 29 people. He heard the shots, and got everyone inside and later went out on to the street. “There were 20 bodies on the ground,” he told me afterwards as we had lunch. “The people who died had mostly been sitting outside. They were covering them up. I saw them as silhouettes. A torso. Feet. One guy was lying in the street next to a car, maybe 20 metres away, as if he had tried to run.”

The crossroads became a place of pilgrimage after the attacks. Photos of a rose stuck into a bullet hole in the window of Le Carillon became iconic. On 13th January, exactly two months after the attacks, it re-opened. Amid the lights of the television cameras, the regulars gathered as Coco, the white-haired patriarch of the Algerian family that have run Le Carillon for over 40 years, set out glasses of champagne and plates of crisps. His sons and their cousins were behind the bar. One of them opened the doors and announced, “Le Carillon is open for business, we don’t have much to say, come in.”

The workmen who had repainted the bar were admiring their handiwork. They had tried to paint it exactly as it was, which was difficult because Le Carillon was the original dive bar, piebald with different paint jobs over the years. The walls were a little more spruce, grey and ochre over ancient plaster work, the chipped floor tiles were unchanged, the wooden chairs and tables were just as they must have been for a century.

Two regulars, Louis and Mohammed, sat by the window. Mohammed had been on the street the night of the attacks and heard the gunshots.

“You know, I am a Muslim, the guys behind the bar are all Muslims, they are Kabyle.”

“The whole of 2015 was weird,” said Louis, “it started with Charlie Hebdo, I was in here after the march in January, everyone was comforting each other. And then this. Again. What is important is that we are here.”

“Yes,” agreed Mohammed, “what’s important is to keep drinking!”

“The four most important things in life: eating, drinking, loving and talking!”

It has been noticeable in the weeks since the attacks, that people are still crowding into the bars and cafés. We drink to life and remind ourselves (no matter how bitter the espresso), with a note of wry defiance: “Nous sommes en terrasse.”