Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Portrait of Le Carillon

Le Carillon is a humble corner café/bar in a quiet part of the 10th arrondissement, a block from the Canal St Martin. Now we all know its name, but a few days ago it was just a nondescript local drinking spot; a remnant of the days the 10th was far from fashionable; a bar that hasn’t changed a thing about itself as the neighbourhood has changed around it.

It has a run-down dusty red-painted façade with a pollution-faded black canopy over its entrance and a terrace usually strewn with mismatched tables and rickety chairs. The café looks out on a 5-way intersection that faces Le Petit Cambodge, the bustling pizza restaurant Maria Luisa, a little pottery atelier, and the corner of the Hôpital St Louis that juts on to the rue Alibert, home to a regular Sunday market.

The Carillon is the unassuming centre of this little quartier, and, to its owners’ total surprise, recently become popular: a growing number of bourgeois bohemians or ‘bobos’ as they are known (with a hint of derision) packed tightly together smoking and drinking on its terrace in the evenings. The place has been run by the same group of Algerian male family members for way longer than the decade I have been going there. Far from the glitz and glam of the ‘other’ Paris(es), this is the Paris of the locals; the students, the artists, the talkers, the readers, the musers, the sneaker-wearers, the gesticulators. The young, the old… a crude mural painted into its side glass wall of casual people of all colours and styles.

It’s local life: la vie du quartier. In Paris apartments, you need to get out. This is where you come.

I started going to the Carillon around 2004 when I was a student at the Lecoq Theatre School, and living in an artists’ residence across the canal. My friend Jemma suggested we meet there one night, and I agreed, though I would have much rather go to one of the trendier joints around there: Chez Prune, La Patâche, Les Jemmapes… But by then I’d learnt not to doubt Jem – she was always right.

There she is, perched at the far corner of the bar, smoking a rolly, wearing some fabulous random concoction of an outfit, a tatty book splayed on the sticky wood in front of her. Around the room is a spattering of old men drinking alone but together, the floor a thick carpet of butts. There is a cat. An old piano. A ramshackle collection of tables and bench seats and wood chairs and cracked red and tobacco-beige walls with scratchy mirrors hung along them. A wiry, hyper-energetic man behind the bar smiles wide, furiously cleaning a glass with a teatowel. He chats with us and I order the same cheap white as Jem and the sun streams through the window and we drink and we talk and we are happy.

A pact to return, and we do, and quickly Le Carillon becomes our favourite bar. Well that’s too strong – it’s not a place we revere or rave about, it’s just where we always end up. 

Where we always are.


There are places that make you feel at home, even if you’re from the other side of the world. Places you feel welcome. Like you belong. Where everybody knows your name. In Paris they are rare, and when you find one, you stick with it. You never change neighbourhood, for fear of having to start all over again. Even moving a few streets can change your entire life dynamic. You invest in your quartier, and it rewards you. Places become like people. Like family. They matter.  

It takes a long time of regularly going to Le Carillon before we start exchanging names. I try to remember them all, but the men’s roster is such that they appear and disappear for weeks on end. Except Ahcene, the energetic one from that first glass of wine. He always seems to be there.

It is now our regular drinking spot during the week, and always on Sundays for the markets. The Marché Alibert is a strip of convivial market stalls that open in the wee hours of Sunday morning (not that we know anything about that) and start to close up at about 1.30 (we know a lot about that). We arrive ruffled and unwashed, hoping someone has nabbed us a table at Le Carillon, in the sun if we’re lucky. From the tables we have the perfect vantage point to watch the queues across the road, waiting for just the right time to dash across, leaving someone guarding the table full of coffee cups and ashtrays and newspapers to seize upon a chicken from Rico or some fruit from Jacques or perhaps one of Mahfoud’s felafels.

Ahcene scoots out with a café crème for me and a bise for each cheek. I tell him I wanted to be more Parisian and order an allongé this time. ‘Eh beh…’ he says, and makes a joke I can’t understand, but I laugh anyway, and drink the crème. Chairs are added, subtracted, and added again as people arrive and depart, the coffees turn to beers, a rice-paper roll from Le Cambodge, a pizza…


New Year’s Day 2008 is Day 1 of the smoking ban, and Matt and I are huddled up at one of the Carillon’s back tables, drinking beer, eyes glued to the floor. Down there is a beautiful orange, red and beige mosaic floor. We have never seen it before, for the butts.

We would like to make a joke about it with the guys behind the bar, but they are all outside, smoking, kicking snow. 
Ahcene storms back in with a gust of cold air. ‘It will never last, PUTAIN!’

But it does.

Another thing is gone that day. The old men. Replaced by an attractive couple and their toddler, sitting triumphantly on the bar, sucking on a dummy.


The quartier continues to change. Now it’s 2012, and we’ve finished school, got new boyfriends and girlfriends, got married, changed jobs, our friends have come and gone, we’ve gone and come. The Carillon’s tables are sought after now, and we have to arrive earlier to get one, but we are older, and there are kids, so we’re up earlier anyway. There have even been times we’ve watched the marchands set up their stalls, waiting for Le Carillon to open.  

Ahcene is still hyper and makes his jokes and I understand them now and make my own smartass réplique, and then there is Frankie, and well, she softens everything. Ahcene’s lively face shows a sweet new calm as he lifts her behind the bar, tucking her little body under one arm as gets her orange juice. There is a dirty old dolly on a shelf that looks like it’s been there for decades. She points with her chubby hand to it. Ahcene pulls it down and hands it to her, telling her sternly she must look after it.

The bigger kids laugh and play, Ahcene tells them off, intercepting their ball and kicking it under a table down the back. ‘GOAL!!’ The same coffees on the table in the ever-same cups. The cat beneath. The remnants of a pain au chocolat grabbed and devoured by a tiny pair of hands.

One day we arrive at the Carillon and the roller doors are shut, an official letter sticky-taped to the door. Closed until further notice.  

We stand outside for a long moment staring at the notice.
We don’t quite know what to do with ourselves.

Those weeks Le Carillon is shut the quartier seems to lose its soul. Then suddenly it reopens as though nothing has happened. And the rhythm of life resumes as normal, to our relief.

Time passes, new cafés and bars appear in the area: a gluten-free bakery, cool coffee joints… Le Cambodge down the street opens up a sister restaurant across from Le Carillon – Le Petit Cambodge. Yes! Now we won’t have to walk the whole block to get our bobun spéciale. Now we can just migrate there when those Carillon days turn to nights.  


Just a few weeks ago we were sitting outside Le Carillon, as usual, having drinks. The same cheap white wine. Same watery beer. Same gentle, quiet bartender - Ahcene on a rare night off. Same rickety chair, same old crooked table.

‘I wonder how old we’ll be before this place changes,’ said one of us, leaning back on our chair.


Friday’s attackers didn’t make their statement via the Paris institutions the world holds so dear, those twinkling iconic places we all love and recognise. They hit at something far deeper, more human, universal, basic: a human sentiment - the pleasure of simple social moments in humble local settings. An indie-rock band. A ‘friendly’ match. A cheap glass of wine in a run-down local bar. A bobun. The simple, sacred joy we take for granted of just meeting with friends to be together. In places that are neither ostentatious, or brazen, or provocative, or denominational. Unpretentious local bars in the 10th and 11th, the Bataclan… It seems the target was a very humble kind of pleasure. The simple joys. Sharing. Talking. Listening. The pleasures the French, and in particular Parisians, have mastered for centuries, and epitomize.


The day after the attack, a friend from our regular Carillon Sunday table went there. The bar was locked: the world gathered outside taking photos, placing flowers, filming news reports, constructing memorials. The men from Le Carillon were there behind the doors, and saw our friend. They opened up and let him in, hugging him one by one, in silence.

The Carillon is pronounced Le Carry-On. I can only hope that Ahcene, and his family and friends, and our friends, and their friends, and all the quartier, and all of Paris, and all the world, will.  

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

We're all gon-na die

There was a spider in the bath. In Paris. That's rare. I marvelled at it a moment. It had a bulbous body and long wiry legs. Then I killed it, with a piece of toilet paper.

The total brutality and lack of guilt surprised me. Normally I would fuss around prior to the murder, find a piece of A4 paper or an envelope, nudge a corner towards its body and let it crawl on, take it towards the door, decide it was too annoying to go outside and what if it crawls on my hand and then up my arm, then fold the paper over and press down. Sometimes I might make it outside to a kerb or a patch of grass and watch it drop to the ground, then, grasped by impulse, step on it. Sometimes I might let it run away, and feel good about myself before the images rolled in of it crawling back in through an air vent and under my pillow.

This time I didn't give it a second's thought. The act was swift and sure and I felt a clear and absolute nothing as I stuffed the crumpled piece of tissue into the makeshift bin beneath the sink.


Why not the usual agony, the normal sinking self-loathing? I'm a horrible person. What harm was he doing anyway, simply by existing? The thoughts would last for hours, sometimes days, even over an ant, even over a fly.

The night before, we saw Sufjen Stevens at the Grand Rex. It was sublime, and I cried a lot as he sang the songs about his parents, Carrie and Lowell. Somewhere around the middle of the set he sang that pretty song 'We're all gonna die.' The lyrics are repeated over and over. Towards the end of the song there was a huge sonic build that turned into a hypnotic interlude that lasted more than 10 minutes, repetitive and insistent, and a mirror ball inside a mirror at the back of the stage cast cold silver spots of light across it beneath the ornate proscenium arch and up the walls of the Rex, which have castles and turrets sculpted into them all the way up to the very high rooftop. Our seats were up in the gods so we had a perspective of the entire room beneath us, the lights playing over the vast space. The music went on and on and I found my gaze attached to a particular part of the wall with a sculpture of the front of a house in it, and a woman's face carved into its roof. With the cold light upon it the house looked like a crypt - one of those brick houses they have in the Père Lachaise with entire families inside. I couldn't take my eyes away. It was night in the Père Lachaise. The moonlight shone on the cold stone wall. Death so cold so still and silent as the music played on and I kept watching. We're all gonna die. No movement in those walls. 

In front of me were thousands of heads, watching. Above them, me, the crypt. We're all gon-na die. I saw all us dead, wiped out. In 90 years, all of us extinct, cold, like the crypt, and not even for any horrible or unusual reason. I pictured all the bodies frozen in the way that they would die. Asleep and so still. And though the idea wasn't new to me, something shifted.

A thought occurred to me.
Maybe life is not that sacred.
The lights stopped and everyone roared. A new song began.

I squashed the spider. I felt his little round body explode between my fingers.
And I thought:
Perhaps it doesn't matter at all.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Double Scorpion

From the gap in this blog you'd think after leaving Paris I'd died, which I suppose I did in a tiny way, but you always do when you leave somewhere you love, even if it's not forever. I don't quite feel alive yet, but it's coming back, the blood is starting to pump and I'm thinking - maybe it was a really good decision. But I'm not sure. Once you step outside of the life you've been groomed for, or grooming yourself for, moving away from your own country for example, you get into this thing where you're always trying to find the perfect way to live. The quest for true happiness is of course an excellent and noble one, but it can be tiring and you become a perfectionist and lose all sense of what happiness really is. The mere fact of being able to move, because you've done it so many times before, gives you a constant never-rooted feeling - you could up and go at any time, and will. Being in temporary accommodation doesn't help this. Since before Kiki was born, every house we have lived in has had a use-by date. She has had 7 homes - 3 more than her current age. Her bedrooms have always had the names of other children on them and I know it's not long before she starts spelling her name C-H-L-O-E. The longest we were anywhere was the two years in the rue des Petites Ecuries and we really did settle in there - and it almost felt like our home, especially in the half of the period that was heavier in our favour than it was the returning owners'. Once past that first year I was already preparing to move. But to where? We tried everything on. Staying in Paris, but moving to the other side of the river, to the suburbs... staying in the 10th but buying a little country shack, moving to LA, moving to Sydney, to Melbourne, to the coast. Now we're at the coast, safe, quiet. We can stay here until December. But the decision-making is always around us. What next? We just booked a flight back to Paris in June, short term. It's great to be going with your gut, but it's definitely a different story when you have a child and you're knocking 40. You can't float forever... can you?


I've been thinking I'll make a home inside the unknown. Rather than trying to guess or control our future, live between countries, embrace that. Even if it's just in my mind. It's modern. I mean, I still work in Paris, but I live about as far as you can get from it, by the beach, with scorpions on my bath mat. Scorpions! There were two last week - one night after the other, which was deeply unsettling. One was an anomaly, two... a nest. And I had been freakin' over spiders. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Goodbye Paris

dear bunny
so you've decided to leave paris. the place where you sort of became yourself, where you nearly died one night, where you fell in love, gave birth, where you watched so much snow falling. where you slipped on your arse once on the faubourg st martin so hard it made tears come out. where you screamed on bikes and got down on a wobbly knee one night on a bridge with a ring. where you sweated in black clothes for two years in front of a row of artists you admired so much you couldn't speak to them in social situations and who shook their heads over and over as you wriggled and writhed and tried and tried and tried and failed and failed and occasionally you flew. where your read your first experiments with writing out loud and a lady described them as 'demeaning'. where you always felt inspired to make and do stuff even if it wasn't finished and made you look like a dick. where you were never afraid of someone saying 'pipe down bunny.' where you lived in your first apartment alone but for the cockroaches. where you learned to pee standing up. where you were near raped by a hotel desk clerk and learnt quickly how not to be so Nice. where you got your heart broken over and over, and enjoyed experimenting with how far you could push it. where you once screamed C'EST FINIIIII on a metro step thinking you could rip out a pole and javelin it down the stairwell at back of the disappearing head. where you rejoiced alone at having your first story published. where you watched kids in the park from your window and then became their parent looking back up at your own wistful ghost. where you tried to remember what it was to have time to be wistful and look out windows. where you smoked a thousand cigarettes and drank wine that made you go silent with joy. where you learned to boil an egg and never learned how to make a tarte fine though you did once try very hard. where you made deep friendships and felt a new sort of pain at every departure. where you wheeled a squeaky trolley piled with instruments down a crazy street to a stinking studio on thursdays and made music with a group of boys. where you created a business by accident and got serious and figured out how to act in meetings and also got your paperwork in order (almost). where you learned to say Go Fuck Yourself and said it one day to an awful man on a phone who said he would sue you; where you finally learned how to pronounce phrases containing no consonants. where you swore at traffic, amazed at fashion and cried well enough to secure a bank account. where you learnt the importance of presentation. where the beauty of the ever-changing light never ceased to stab you in the soul and where there was a time that nothing made you happier than wandering the streets all day long with nothing but your camera. where you always felt excruciatingly alive - never one single banal or average day to pass you by. where no matter what, you always somehow felt yourself - too yourself - every characteristic and emotion exaggerated to breaking point: grief, idiocy, elation, hope, fury, wonder, melancholy. where you revelled in solitude. where you learnt how to look out over a bridge alone and truly see it, just for yourself.

i want to mark this day, bunny. it's ten years since you arrived, and things have changed. but don't be sad: remember it like leaving the theatre school. you weren't nostalgic because you'd put everything you had into it - and once you left you were surprised to notice that you never wanted to go back. you still live right around the corner and to this day you pass that painted blue door regularly and feel nothing but a sense of joy and completion. 

you feel that same sense of completion now - almost - you're ready, but nostalgia-dreading. when you've tried to move away from paris before you've often looked back and wondered - were those the best days? and you've run back and felt safe because in paris you're either so enraptured or exhausted by the everyday you have no choice but to live in the moment. plus, even after ten years it is still so unfamiliar you can always feel the edges of yourself. but don't worry bunny, you don't need to fear any more that you're not living. you'll live this now, and you will be in it, and when you pass that doorway, which i'm sure you will, you'll think - well that was awesome. and you'll walk on and buy your bag of oranges. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Black Photo

'Guess what?' I said. 'On Thursday at school they're going to take your photo!'
'No!!' said Kiki. 'I don't want them to!'
I stopped brushing her hair. Kiki loved being photographed more than anything. 'Why not?'
'It's mine!' she said.
I kept brushing. 'So, you'll all be in a group and they'll take your photo. We'll be able to send it to Grandmama and Eckie...'
'I don't want to!' she said with a desperate look. 'It's my black photo!'
The sun wasn't up yet. She was talking nonsense, with that other-worldly edge. At least that was what I told myself, because it was too early to allow the truth to occur to me which was that there was never a single shred of nonsense to a single word she had ever said. But, a 'black' photo? Her recent string of odd, esoteric comments was also blurring the edge of my judgement. For example, the night before:
'Which restaurant are you going to mama?'
'To 'Aux deux amis''.
'Oh. When I was a man I used to go there.'
Maybe the black photo was something ancestral. I wondered at it for five seconds then hustled her off to school.
Wednesday came. She was eating pasta in a tutu. 'They're going to take your photo tomorrow.' I said without thinking. 'We'd better wash your hair.' 
Her face crumbled and she started to really cry. 'But it's mine the black one! I don't want them to have it!'
'I don't know what you're talking about honey,' I said. 'What's the black photo?'
'It's my black photo! Nanny Chris gave it to me!' 
I suddenly remembered the beautiful Eisenstaedt postcard Nanny had given her when visiting the month before, of ballerinas in an old Paris studio. She had bought it for Kiki as it reminded her of the room where she had recently had her first ballet class. There, she, Grandad and I had brought Kiki to the creaky attic room of the magical old dance school deep in the Marais with all the ballerinas and tap-dancers and tango couples twirling behind tall white windows. The three of us had huddled together under the low wood beams to watch her and the other pink ducklings flutter from corner to corner, teacher scrabbling to get them to point their toes. Nanny Chris had bought the postcard for her the next day, and Kiki had been carrying it around ever since in the bottom of a shabby book bag, showing it to everyone she met before clutching it hard against her chest. 
'The black and white one? Of the ballerinas?' I asked. 
She nodded, tears dripping in her bowl. 'It's mine!' 
'But what's that got to do with school...?'
And then it dawned on me. She thought they were going to take it away.

Sunday, September 7, 2014


Have you ever had clafoutis? It's a cake, not a venereal disease. Have you ever had a venereal disease? I haven't but I remember one nervous hour in a waiting room. And being convinced for one solid month that I had AIDS. Is it human nature to constantly think you have some kind of terminal disease? Do your teeth sometimes ache? I have a toothache in my lower right molar that sometimes goes away so I think I don't need to go and see the dentist on the Avenue Parmentier who hurt me so much when she cleaned my teeth I cried. Can Clafoutis cause gum disease? Should I be brushing three times a day now I'm over 35?

Another piece won't hurt. Ukie bought it yesterday from Julhès. It tastes like heaven. Imagine a baked custard tart with little red berries in it, but slightly fermented and with a custard so rich it's practically caramel. Couple this with the sweetest saltiest butteriest crumble crust you've ever stuck in your hole and you have me, in bliss, on Sunday night, alone with a 3/4 full wine glass. And you.

Do you like Riesling? I remember it being terribly unfashionable when I was in my early 20s. Do you remember a wine named Moselle? Did you parents drink wine from a cask? Have you ever spent 7-10 years composing a novel and then reread your first draft and found it better than your current one? Probably. Anyway, I stopped writing to you here in order to focus on such redrafts. I thought it was right but the feeling was a bit constipatey. Better out than in! So... me-revoilà. Do you still want to be friends? Want some clafoutis? 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

She who Smiles Last

I'm usually the one reminding Mr Rabbit that 'She who smiles last wins'. No matter what goes down in Paris you should always just smile and move on otherwise you will sink into a pile of muck and die, because nobody gives a shit about how grumpy or annoyed you are, and you end up getting nowhere. Sometimes Mr Rabbit can't help it, but I must say I'm usually pretty cool about the standard Paris frustrations - drivers ignoring the green men (especially that one at the intersection of Magenta and the Faubourg St Martin), the being-cut-in-front-of in queues (oops! Pardon! Je ne vous ai pas vu!), the long waits in front of disinterested people at desks, the ubiquitous disdain of waiters. But this night I was definitely spiky. It had been one of those hairy exits from the house in desperation to get OUT and have some FUN - a badly put together outfit - terrible eyeliner I should never have started - too late to stop for an apéro - which has become the necessary brush-down between the world of the tiny clutches to the lights and dazzle of the Adult Realm - I NEEDED SOME FUN, I needed some time with Rabbit and the Dodge and his rocking love who had fantastically and unexpectedly-as-always rolled in town for 48 hours - an opening for another one of her artists. This was our chance for talk, and drink and food. 

I was definitely flustered, and way too eager.

I rabbited on to Mr Rabbit about some random junk all the way over the canal to Parmentier, where I was sure the Dodge must have booked a restaurant of the same name in a distant French suburb because you could never get a table at this joint at such last minute notice. 

They were running late. 

We stood in the trendy entranceway and a trendy waiter approached. I felt desperately untrendy but I tried to pout it up a bit. 

And then it happened.

A couple had entered closely behind us - a stunning French woman and her older-looking man friend. Just as I went to talk to the waitress, the woman stepped in front of me! As if I was invisible. Now if you live in Paris you'll know this happens all the time - usually I just allow it to happen or grumble a bit, or shrug and look at Instagram. But this time I venomously hissed 'Excusez-moi', and stepped rudely back in front of the lady, turning my back to her in such a way as to cut her off from the waitress's view before stating audibly and with demon bile 'FUCKING FRENCH' to Mr Rabbit. I said it deliberately so the French woman would hear. There was spittle around my top gums. How DARE she. Every time I had been ignored, stepped on, near-run over, cut off, cut-in-front of, denied, hung up on and overlooked accumulated in that one raging moment and spurted out.

It didn't feel very good, I must say, especially when I saw the look on Mr Rabbit's face, and I remembered the main tenet behind 'She who smiles last' - it's always you who feels bad if you let it out - the offender usually just feels like they've won. 

The waitress couldn't find our name on the list - and we eventually realised once I pointed to Dodger's name on the sheet that our table was for 6. Damn - the Dodge must have invited the artist. Of course it could never be as perfect as I dreamed. 

Mr Rabbit and I sat down at the table - at the end. He was still a bit gobsmacked by my racist outburst. I smiled and tried to pour some honey on the mood. And then, to my slow, sinking horror, I noticed the Frenchwoman and her man moving towards our table. I looked down at my napkin. Yes, it was true. They were the artist and his girlfriend.

The buffed cement floor beneath my chair turned to quicksand and drew me gratefully down to into its sweet, suffocating embrace. Oh death. Oh peace. Please.

She sat next to me, and the artist sat on the far seat on the other side of the table. 

Should I say something? There was no doubt she heard me. And, as she sat down and introduced herself in perfect English, I realized my fucking french was unlikely to have been mistaken.

I hate myself, I thought as I slugged back a glass of bubbled water and looked around the table for ways to suicide. The man seemed put out, but he was older, Greek and a serious artist, so that may have been his demeanor. The lady also seemed uncomfortable, but maybe that could have been that we were sitting here without our common link - I told myself. Perhaps none of us could be bothered meeting new people tonight and hadn't been aware of the others' impeding presence...

Or had we, I wondered in my clammy sheets later that night. Was it possible that in fact the woman had not been trying to overstep me in the queue - rather, just to point out on the waitress's chart that the booking was made for 6 instead of 4, and that they were the other two?

I rolled over and moaned, wanting to die all over again.

She who smiles last - I thought to myself. I shall never, ever be rude again.