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.