Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Gypsies

Mama, are gypsies real?

Yes, they’re real.

Where do they live?

They live in Europe, all over... in Paris... remember? 

They don’t have a home?

Well, not a fixed one. They don't stay in a place for long, they move around a lot. 

She considers this. 


Are we gypsies mama?

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.  
















Monday, October 12, 2015

We don't live Anywhere

We're on the north coast of Italy, at a wedding. People at the wedding have come from everywhere - mainly Berlin, lots from Australia, some from France, the UK other parts of Germany, the bride from Lichtenstein. At our table, a Russian-Danish director and his Danish performer wife, an English actor/director from New York, his London actress wife and a German makeup artist who wore shoes with no toe. 'How do you know the bride and groom?' is always a first question along with 'Where do you live?'

I love this table and the Russian-Danish director who is also obsessed with Karl Ove Knaussgard and has read all six books in Norwegian, plus he also cried his eyes out at Inside Out. Everyone is curious, and interested - about each other, and everything, a trait that seems rarer and rarer.

So, where do you come from? Where are you based?

Everyone has a one-word answer, it seems, except us, and the world's current flux of refugees. I'm so ashamed to even write about our current state of homelessness, given our privilege of choice, of safety, of Australian passportedness.

So forgive me for speaking about it.

But we do find ourselves in an unusual situation for people our age.

We don't live anywhere.

And we don't know where we're headed.

The London actress waits for a response. Now the whole table is looking.

'Well, technically Australia - we have a temporary house there - but we're currently in Paris - but about to leave, to go back to the temporary house in Australia, which we have to leave on December 10. Then we don't know where we're going. Perhaps LA. Perhaps another house in Australia. To be honest, I don't even see us flying out of Paris on Wednesday. Our whole life is there. So... um - we don't really have a base right now...'

Most people have already drifted off, but this table is only more intrigued. So - why LA? Why not Paris? Why not Australia? What sort of work do you do?

We came back to Paris in June this year, after six months back in Australia, because some friends invited us to spend summer in Spain. Why not? Touching down at Charles de Gaulle was like coming home. And it was. Being in our old neighbourhood was so weird - nothing had changed and we slipped straight back in to our old life. My advertising work picked up, as though my clients could smell i was 'sur place' and life kicked back into its old routine. The sun was out, there was rosé. I got offered 6 weeks work september - october. So we decided to come back after summer and spend some more time in Paris, for 'work'. We took another temporary place with only one bedroom, making a bedroom for Kiki in the walk-in-robe. She put on baskets and rode the pink scooter back to her old school, we resumed our spots in our old shared office, our friends and community all welcomed us back as though we'd never really left. Kiki was in a lovely class at school, this time with her two English friends and a gentle older maitre. The directrice made us know we would always be welcome. Paris life kicked back into gear - we had somehow returned without realising.
The six-week job offer never eventuated, but it didn't matter - we had made new inroads with work, solidified contacts, resumed our relationships with dear friends...

WHAT THE FUCK WERE WE DOING?

As if leaving last December, packing up the whole life we'd built in Paris and moving back to Australia wasn't hard enough. Our stuff had arrived in Australia a week before we left to come back for Paris! The bonds that had been so emotional to break, had now been rebuilt and more, and now we were going to break them again? 

The temporary home back in Australia, as comforting as it was to know it was there, was no longer a comfort. We would have to move out before Christmas - still no sign of a Christmas tree for Kiki in sight. To LA, then? Where?
There is nobody I know at this age who does not have some sort of true home. Kiki is a trooper - she rolls with it, but recently, when I say that I have to work 'to buy us a house of our own', she adds 'that we never ever have to leave?' Kiki, before she came to live with us, lived in a place called Tinyland, with her tiny mum and dad, and her sisters Aren't I, Strongy and Teeny. There, they spoke Tinyland language, which I am learning, and consists of high-pitched squeaks.
In Tinyland, she tells me, they lived in one house forever, and never ever moved. And she had her own bedroom (which she sometimes shared with Aren't I).

Oh, how I long to give her that in this life - a room that truly is hers.

But now I don't know where to stop.

A few years back we discussed starting a magazine called We Don't Live Anywhere. I can't remember why we came up with it, it just felt right. 

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?

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?

Maybe.

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.