This week’s guest writer is Thomas Bartlett. Thomas was born in Belfast and grew up in Galway. In his twenties he lived in Paris for four years, Spain for two and now he lives in Dublin. He has been a teacher, a restaurant manager, a waiter and a cook but he has finally alighted on what he was always going to be, a writer. His first novel is Americans Bombing Paris and he is also a published ghost writer. Check out his blog at thomasbartlettbooks.com.
One Man’s Paris Story
I moved to the 13th arrondissement from Dublin, Ireland just after the infamous summer heatwave of 2003. A summer when as the legend goes, many old Parisians died from the excessive heat because their adult children had disappeared to their bolt-holes in the south. The 13th had the look of quite an industrial part of Paris, blue store coats, naked concrete, intentional hive housing and dirt, at least that was my part, around Tolbiac. If you went up to Place d’Italie you once again knew you were in Paris although if you went that far why not go somewhere better, why not saunter down old Paris, Métro les Gobelins towards Luxembourg? The 13th had the quartier Chinois, which was great, although Chinois seemed to be a vague term encapsulating half of Asia. But it was there that I first tasted Vietnamese soups, a passion that has only grown over the years and the locations.
Once you crossed over Tolbiac going east you again were into sixties and seventies bland housing, much of it high rise. Traipse down to the river and you could find, well not much of anything. Those long languid boats were moored there. Lots of those cruisers which seemed to only work whenever they felt like it. Bercy Village over the Seine was a lot of empty units and not much else. Hook left along the front and MKII was there as overpriced and cool as it is now. The BNF, the Bibliothèque had been built and was disliked by the usual number of miscreants and malcontents. There had been a problem with the design, or so the rumour went. Nobody had thought of the effect of having so much direct sunlight on all the books, hence those swivelling wooden panels were hastily installed, they are still there. Not that they damage the aesthetic, not that I am even sure I believe the story.
I didn’t have a job or a bar to drink in, priorities. I started with the nearest bar to me and worked in concentric circles outwards. I ended up living in Paris for four years, but in those first few weeks I didn’t think I’d last very long. I seemed mired by my own reticence to speak the language. I allowed it to limit where I went. I tried bar after bar to no avail. Why was I not out looking for a job? Well, I was, all day every day. I was looking for a teaching job without a degree, so was every other halfwit in Paris, but they had a degree, so I guess that would have made me a quarter wit.
Six weeks I floundered around until I happened upon a bar and a friend at the same time. I always knew the Frog and British Library was there, I’d seen it many times, but I used to think I was better than it.
Eventually though I had tried so many of the local bars, they were either too PMU, too dull, or I was too young to understand their politics. So I ended up in the Frog one night. It was around the time David Beckham had signed for Real Madrid. I sat inside smoking watching the his first match, the bar was empty besides one or two on the terrace, the English bar manager (who I still know well) came up and asked me whether I would like to have the big screen down. I would I said, “I sure would”.
I returned there the following night and I met another friend there who had previously worked as a teacher in Paris. He laid it out for me, poor money, lots of travel and constant battles to get enough hours. I didn’t really care, I now had two friends and both assured me that I would eventually get something.
The following week I did. My one and only interview in Paris, with a company in La Défense. They provided language classes, mostly one on one. I gave it my best shot. I often think that the reason they gave me the job was because I had a stint in McDonalds on my CV, that they hired people who could work and teach. I stayed with them for 4 years and am in semi-regular contact still. The job brought me all around Paris, so I learnt the Métro and inside the Périphérique as well as I know anywhere. And besides the odd missed turn I still do.
I broke up with the Frog Bar after a couple of years but not before I met many of my French and Expat friends, my foreign family who would be with me for the rest of my time. Everyone needs that foreign family, perhaps in Paris most of all.
The 13th grew up as well. From the ugly duckling;I had heard it called the dégueulasse 13th on more than one occasion, to a hyper modern version of Paris, something many quartiers still struggle with. While I was there galleries started to pop up. A couple of the best boulangeries in Paris opened up beside Place Jean d’Arc. The 14th line, the best in my view, opened up a new terminus. They built over the naked seventies RER lines that marred the view from the posh over-priced cafes that line the avenue de France. The place is part metropolitan now, as opposed to all suburban.
I am not saying it’s turned into the Marais but it has begun to assume its own identity rather than look like anywhereville. The waterfront especially is fantastic now, and for sheer number of young people it is difficult to beat. The Butte-aux-Cailles still arrives up out of nowhere when you struggle to remember where it is. I always think I have missed it, or imagined it, right before I find it exactly where it always is.
When I go back to the 13th now I do not take the first Métro out of there every morning, there is no need. I tend to walk down through the youthful throngs on the river bank. It’s over ten years now since I first arrived and did all the wrong things. But I don’t forget how they were what enabled me eventually to do at least some of the right things. And like everyone else who has ever lived there, I’ll always have Paris.